The Biochar Factor

Telling the Biochar Story at TED

As many of you may already know, I’ve been offered the distinct honor of speaking on biochar at TEDxBerkeley in February.  It’s a dream come true to me–I’ve wanted to speak at TED ever since I was first introduced to its amazing collection of inspiring humans several years ago.  TED is one of the things that makes me feel like it might be OK to bring a child into this world someday.  I’m serious.

TED is about storytelling.  When you hear a presentation at TED, it’s not “the technical potential of X” or “proving the business case of Y”.  It’s, “this is the story of how I came to be involved in researching the stickiness of gecko feet, and why that’s relevant to the world today, and you.”  The speakers lead you in with authentic and personal stories, and sneakily slip in technical data, specialized information, and inspiring perspectives along the way.  TED is great about providing ample information and support to speakers so that they can deliver “The Talk of Their Life” (no pressure…), including a “10 TED Commandments”, which include such guidelines as “do not sell,” “don’t flaunt your ego,” and “show us the real you.”

TED wants to hear about biochar.  And I want to tell them. This is an opportunity for the biochar story to be shared with a broader audience than it’s ever reached before.  I am incredibly excited to tell the biochar story, in a way that is also authentic to my experience with it.  Which brings me to ask:  what IS the biochar story?  Biochar is incredibly complex–there are so many angles to cover, so many potential applications and potential benefits, so many caveats and considerations to ensure that it is accurately represented (without the “Magic Bullet Flair” that so many tend to give it).

I have 18 minutes.  About 10 of those are going to lead into the story of how I was introduced to biochar and realized its incredible value to our world today (this story includes Burning Man, meditation, and a small barely-inhabited island off the coast of Lombok called Gili Meno.  Of course.); as well as the ancient history of biochar–how it has been dubbed the Secret of El Dorado; and how it helped to increase the Amazon Basin’s capacity to support larger populations than people thought possible.

Which brings me to my question for all of YOU:

What do you think the biochar story MUST include?

Please leave comments, including statistics, benefits, concerns, inspiring quotes, or stories about what inspires YOU about biochar.  The theme for this TEDx conference is “Engaging the World”, and I am particularly keen for insight on how you think we can best engage the TED community (and the 100,000+ watching live online Feb 19th) in biochar–without selling a product or asking for investment.  How do you think the civilian world can dig its teeth into biochar?  What story should we be telling to the world together, that will inspire both hope and pragmatism, and get people jumping off their chair to join the biochar movement?

If I nail this talk, there’s a good chance it will get placed on, for an even wider audience.  So help me out!  I see myself as a representative of a much larger community–I’m just the megaphone.  Lend me your voice, and I’ll shout it out to the world!

NECESSARY DISCLAIMER: While I am very grateful for your time in making suggestions and comments, I make no promise that I will be able to use all, or any, of your comments or suggestions.  Thank you for understanding this, as I work with the nuances of developing a compelling talk that is fluid and appropriate for the audience.



NEW POST:  Thank you to everyone for your insightful comments!  After receiving an extremely helpful coaching session from TEDxBerkeley’s speaking coach, I simplified and personalized my biochar story for this talk.  As she said, “TED wants 90% story. People connect with people more than they connect with ideas and facts. Tell them a story that they can connect with.”

Here is my story of biochar — how it found me, and why I decided to dedicate myself to helping bring the benefits of biochar to the world at large:




Biochar Side Events in Copenhagen
December 8, 2009, 5:16 pm
Filed under: Biochar Policy | Tags: , , , , ,


Presentation on Case Studies in Carbon Negative Ecovillages: Biochar Energy, Carbon Farming, and Climate-Adaptive Built Environments

Wednesday, Dec. 9th, 12:30 pm – 2:00pm
Location: Vartov World Cafe, large yurt near the NGO Klimaforum in Christiania
Description: Case Studies in Carbon Negative Ecovillages, including information on biochar. He will also have an example of a biochar stove supplied by World Stove.
Speaker: Albert Bates

Biochar – Delivering Fast Climate Benefits?

Wednesday, Dec. 9th, 4:45-5:45 pm
Location: Bellona’s Conference Room, Bella Center
Organizer: The Bellona Foundation
Description: Brief presentation of biochar and ongoing research by Bioforsk Norwegian Research Centre. This session will discuss the potential of biochar, the need for policy, regulations, monitoring, economic hurdles, carbon credit barriers/enablers, scalability and the importance of sustainability criteria. Further themes include the developing countries perspective, recognition of soils as a carbon sink and the inclusion of biochar methods in a post-2012 climate protocol.

Dr. Johannes Lehmann, University of Cornell
Debbie Reed, International Biochar Initiative
Thomas Harrtung, Green Carbon Denmark
Nathaniel Mulcahy, WorldStove

Biochar: Climate Mitigation & Adaptation with Food & Energy Security Benefits

Saturday, Dec. 12th, 11:00 am – 12:30 pm
Location: Victor Borg Room at Meetings
Organizer: The International Biochar Initiative
Description: IBI and UNCCD will discuss emerging issues and current science related to biochar and links to food and energy security in developing countries and drylands. Data on water retention, increased crop yields from field studies, joint work and projects underway, R&D roadmap in dryland areas.
Debbie Reed, International Biochar Initiative: Session Chair
Sergio Zelaya, UNCCD Secretariat
Dr. Johannes Lehmann, Cornell University

Too Much of a Good Thing: What Hugs & Biochar Have in Common
April 28, 2009, 5:51 am
Filed under: Biochar Policy | Tags: , , , , ,

Too Much of a Good Thing:

What Hugs and Biochar Have in Common

Hugs are great.  Who doesn’t like a good hug?  Think of the last time a friend offered a hug because they noticed you looking blue.  Or the last tight warm hug you had with a dear friend before departing.  Or how about the hug after an exciting first date, where you’re wondering, “Will we kiss?  Will we kiss?”

But….all the time?  Have you ever had a girlfriend or boyfriend who wanted to hug you every time they saw you?  After you go to the bathroom, there they are, arms wide open, ready for the 50 millionth hug today.  Or how about the shmarmy new friend you just met who wants to hug you for 10 minutes until their heart chakra oozes all over you?

Yeah.  Everything in moderation.  Even hugs.

So when some advocacy groups started saying NO to biochar, I wasn’t exactly surprised.  I got into this industry a few years ago because I, like many others, realized it was The Best Thing Ever for climate change, soil fertility, and energy.  But as with all Best Things Ever, it must be tempered with Moderation.

Biofuels Watch and other concerned individuals do have a point.  And thank you, after 2,136 protest emails (, I GET THE POINT.  But one of the things you must realize is that WE ARE ON YOUR TEAM.  We are all striving for solutions to climate change, soil fertility, and energy, and see biochar as an invaluable player in the portfolio of solutions to these problems (NOT the Silver Bullet).

But, in the event that the biochar market completely takes off (which it is poised to do), and biochar is very Economically Attractive, the same minds that created Big Oil and could care less about biochar’s carbon sequestration potential could bastardize its benefit.

The root fear of these anti-biochar organizations is that creating a market for biochar will incentivize any profiteering schmoe to use up all the arable land to grow monocrops for biochar production, and/or cut down forests.

Raise your hand if you think biochar is cool AND you’d like to see this happen.

Yeah, no one’s hands are raised.  Mine aren’t, and it’s not just because I’m typing.  And I’m part of the “evil” biochar industry.  (I’ve seen anti-biochar blogs suggest that I , and all biocharians, are evil.  You can even ask my ex-boyfriends.  I am not evil.)

But who’s to stop this from happening?  What we need–and what we will get–is policy and regulations that define market conditions.

The International Biochar Initiative is working with the UNCCD (UN Convention to Combat Desertification) to develop the standards necessary to ensure this won’t happen.  The UNCCD has taken to biochar as a solution to help the folks affected by desertification (think climate change isn’t real?  Google desertification.)

See the UNCCD’s submission on Why Biochar Rocks (paraphrased) to the UNFCCC here:

The IBI and the UNCCD will be meeting with policy leaders, technology developers, academics, NGOs, and scientists during the June climate talks in Bonn, Germany, to develop standards to ensure that biochar is sustainable from “seed-to-socket” (as in “electrical socket”).  They will be bringing the draft policy standards to the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in December for public comment and refinement.

Thanks to the thorough critique from anti-biochar advocacy groups, we have a stronger understanding of the Worst Possible Outcome, and will use that to hone our approach on how to ensure that it is not a Nightmare Come True.

The end result will be a biochar certification standard required for any biochar product sold.  If you don’t have this seal of certification that illustrates Sustainability from Seed to Socket (SSS), you can’t sell your biochar.  Period.

Does this prevent black market biochar? (no pun intended)  It doesn’t.  But does it ensure that we don’t run into the coal or biofuels debacle, where an entire industry is based on being handsomely paid to thoroughly rape our resources for profit?  Good god, I hope so.

This is officially an invitation to make your voice heard.  Have an idea of how we can prevent such shenanigans?  Leave a comment.  I will make sure it gets into the right hands.

So when you read the negative biochar press out there, please take into consideration that the people involved in biochar are not idiots.  It is a diverse group of scientists, policy-makers, and businesspeople with a shared mission and consideration for a whole-systems ecology and economy.  Please.  Can’t we all just get along?

How ’bout a hug?