Carbonscape and the new Victorians

By Bryan Walker 02/01/2010

Buried among the emails which accumulated while I was in hospital was one from Carbonscape, the NZ company working on biochar, drawing my attention to an article in the UK Sunday Times. It missed proper attention until I tidied up my inbox yesterday, but even a few weeks late I think it’s worth reporting, especially as Hot Topic has posted on Carbonscape previously (here, here and here).

The Sunday Times article contained interviews with a number of people it described as the new Victorians, meaning modern-day heroes of science and technology. Among them, as the new David Livingstone, was Carbonscape director Chris Turney, paleoclimatologist and author of Ice, Mud and Blood (reviewed  here). In the interview he speaks of how 125,000 years ago the temperature was 1.7 degrees warmer than before industrialisation got going and the sea levels were 4-6 metres higher than today, suggesting a large number of the ice sheets had melted. Now our stated goal is to keep temperatures less than 2 degrees higher than at the start of industrialisation. The possible implications for ice sheets and sea levels are obvious.

We talk about reducing emissions in the future, but we’ve already got 200 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere that shouldn’t be there, and that’s what’s driving the changes we see today. We need to get this carbon out of the atmosphere, and fast. This is where Carbonscape’s technology  has a part to play. Turney describes it as effectively an enormous microwave with a few tweaks. It turns plants, including waste, into charcoal, which is stable and locks the carbon away permanently. The charcoal can be put in the soil or —- and this was a new thought for me —- go back down and refill coal mines. 

Opinions vary, sometimes fiercely, on the feasibility of charcoal as a means of CO2 sequestration, but there are some well-known names among its supporters, including James Lovelock and Tim Flannery, the latter having joined the Carbonscape Board. It’s still largely unexplored territory, which I presume is why the Sunday Times suggested David Livingstone as Turney’s progenitor. Surely territory worth investigating.