Action Spotlight: Biochar as a Climate Solution

Paul Belanger and friends look on as biochar is being made.

Since the UU Drawdown Initiative got underway this spring, many UUs are exploring a wider range of possible climate solutions. One of the solutions that have captivated many UUs is the creation and application of biochar, a kind of charcoal that sequesters carbon and also helps mitigate soil nutrient depletion. 

Gary Piazzon, a member of UU Congregation of Whidbey Island in Washington, has been promoting biochar in Island County for the past two years — and he’s definitely seen it take off. He first heard about biochar from the Drawdown book, and didn’t start advocating until he met fellow UU Paul Belanger. 

Local advocacy for biochar emerged from the need for a practical solution to waste management: Island County is a small island about 40 minutes north of Seattle, Washington, and originally the local government had been dumping sewage sludge next to an organic farm. After the farmer complained, the government decided to ship the waste 70 miles away, racking up financial as well as environmental costs.

Now, he’s involved in a local campaign to get an industrial plant to process the sludge into biochar. The mayor is in support, and might expand the infrastructure for the wider region. Working with NGOs, farmers, conservation districts and land trusts in the area, he and Paul have also spread awareness through demonstrations at a local environmental institute.

But you don’t need industrially scaled technology to get in on biochar action: like many climate solutions, biochar can be traced to Indigenous practices. Also known as “terra preta,” the Amazon basin, for instance, holds thousands of hectares of biochar, formed naturally from vegetation fires, and used in agricultural practices. 

Biochar is formed from a process called pyrolysis, when organic materials, such as wood chips, leaf litter or dead plants, are burned in a container with very little oxygen. The process itself creates a clean form of energy as well. One of the reasons Gary is so drawn to biochar is it’s very scalable: you can apply it to gardens, forests and farms; he’s figured out how to create the material on his own, but it is also widely available online. The best approach, Gary says, is to mix it with compost: biochar supports soil organisms and plant growth. A pound of biochar in the soil can, potentially, remove 37 lbs of CO2 from the air, and the carbon stored in biochar is very stable, so it will stay in the ground for a very long time. For Gary, biochar is all about the Seventh Principle — a holistic way to practice sustainability for generations to come.

Amelia Diehl
Amelia Diehl
Amelia Diehl is the Network Coordinator for the UU Young Adults for Climate Justice Network, and a Communications Specialist for UU Ministry for Earth. She's been with UUMFE since 2015 and is based in Chicago and the Great Lakes region. Her other movement homes include Rising Tide Chicago, SustainUS and freelance writing.