According to the International Biochar Initiative’s (IBI) recent study, “Biomass residue to carbon dioxide removal: quantifying the global impact of biochar,” biochar can be a key factor on the path to decarbonizing the planet by 2050, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Biochar is a type of charcoal found in some parts of the world for more than 2,000 years, produced from biomass subjected to high temperatures (usually natural forest fires) and subsequently used by various civilizations as a soil amendment in agriculture.

These ancient practices were discovered in the Amazon by scientist Wim Sombrock just 70 years ago. Thus begins the evolution of biochar as a research target and its dizzying ascent to a place on the honor roll of modern sustainability tools.

Today, this new black gold can be produced using a technology called pyrolysis, in which biomass (maize, sorghum, forest or almost any organic waste) is exposed to high temperatures (300 to 1000 °C) in the absence of oxygen. There is no combustion and therefore no CO2 emissions. The end product is a charcoal with very special properties that, when returned to the soil, gives it the ability to: trap toxins and nitrogen (making it a great filter for pure water), absorb water and nutrients (helping soils require less irrigation), and facilitate efficiency in plantations. In general, it provides great value and savings in agriculture.

This process can be considered a tool of the circular economy: waste that becomes carbon that returns to the earth to improve it and without generating CO2, but also adding a factor: once this process is completed, an international carbon dioxide removal verifying body (VERRA, PURO, etc.) can certify the necessary carbon sequestration and issue carbon credits, international instruments valued in the voluntary financial carbon markets, making these projects truly scalable.

The biochar industry is currently in a growth phase, but with a scalability projection that is attracting the attention of large investors. Some of the major players in the industry, such as Finland’s Carbo Culture, have raised nearly $6 million for their biochar projects in 2021, with the ultimate goal of removing one billion tons of CO2.

In Mexico and Latin America, although a few steps behind Europe, Australia and the United States, biochar projects with scale-up potential are beginning to emerge. At the end of 2022, an impact fund, The Next 150, was born, its main project being GBS (biochar production plants). In less than a year, it raised US$5 million, opened its first biochar plant in the state of Guanajuato, and has a projection of opening 3 more plants in 2024, with a second round of capital raising projected at US$15 million, making it not only the most important biochar project of its kind in Latin America, but also a serious international competitor.

For biochar to become a key factor in sustainability it needs to be scalable, and to achieve this there must be projects that attract the attention of the large transnationals that are investing in sustainability projects to fulfill their responsibilities in terms of emissions removal. This fragile ecosystem requires many aligned elements: governments, NGOs, and private initiative, among others.

At the Mexico Carbon Forum 2023, Amy Kessler from Climate Action Reserve, a carbon credit verification agency, said that in the United States they already have the methodology for the CDR certification process and that they are finally developing the appropriate methodology for Mexico. In the same panel, Patrick Atanasije, co-founder of The Next 150, said that the most important thing to materialize their first biochar plant was to achieve collaboration between the government (state of Guanajuato) and private initiative.

Why is biochar important?

According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), biochar can be a factor in meeting the Paris Agreement, with the potential to sequester 2.6 billion tons of CO2e equivalent per year.

In terms of financial markets, carbon credits derived from biochar are among the best in terms of capture quality and market value. It is so new that we do not know its scalability potential, but at $100 per ton of CO2e in credits, compared to the $15 that forest carbon credits can cost, the potential is very high.