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Production and use of charcoal as a soil amendment and carbon sink

Duane Pendergast, June 23, 2004

I just returned from a conference held at the University of Georgia on June 10 and 11 devoted to the potential for using charcoal in agriculture as a carbon based fertilizer and carbon sink.

Several archeologists, featured in a BBC television documentary; "The Secret of Eldorado”, participated.  It has been thought, till recently, that the generally poor soils of the Amazon basin could not support sufficient agriculture to support a large human population. These archeologists  are now coming to the conclusion that the Amazon basin supported quite  large cities and communities before the European invasion initiated by Columbus circa 1492. They believe the indigenous population developed, inadvertently or deliberately, a system of agriculture based  on charcoal enriched soil. Their  discoveries support the idea charcoal could be an enduring carbon sink. 

Other speakers focused on soil science related to the role of charcoal and the engineering of charcoal based fertilizer production. Although only about 55 people participated in the conference, there was more excitement than I’ve sensed since my first involvement with Canada’s National Climate Change Process in early 1998. The conference agenda and some abstracts are posted at http://www.georgiaitp.org/carbon/.  

The quest for knowledge on climate change will continue regardless of the fate of Kyoto. I think we will hear a lot more about this developing synthesis of science concepts engaging human ingenuity to augment nature’s methods of making soil.  It is conceivable that the technique could emerge solely on its merits as a means to rebuild and enhance earth’s soil. The kinds of financial incentives for carbon sinks discussed by those seeking to manage greenhouse gas emissions could help make the process economically attractive.

I’m still awaiting a copy of the conference proceedings and will prepare a more thorough review of the scientific and engineering basis for this emerging initiative.


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