Chapter 11. “The Black Phantom”

Page 208

James Lovelock, who thinks we’re heading for climate Armageddon, has even suggested, ‘There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal.’

Gaia Vince, “One Last Chance to Save Mankind: Interview with James Lovelock,” New Scientist, 23 Jan. 2009.

Page 209

‘The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes,’ says Lovelock.


Nearly sixty per cent of a plant’s mass is carbon taken from the atmosphere.

“Soil Carbon Sequestration Fundamentals,” Ohio State University fact sheet, n.d.

‘Wood gas’ sounds like something out of a Tolkien novel but it has a long history as an energy source. Vehicles powered by it were common during World War II when fossil fuels were rationed. Volkswagen and Mercedes had production models.

Kris De Decker, “Wood Gas Vehicles: Firewood in the Fuel Tank,” Low-tech Magazine, 18 Jan.2010.

Page 210

…‘enough to halt the increase and actually decrease the level of atmospheric carbon by 0.7 gigatons a year,’ he writes.

J. Amonette, J. Lehmann and S. Joseph, “Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration with Biochar: A Preliminary Assessment of Its Global Potential,” presented at American Geophysical Union, Fall 2007.

James Lovelock says this approach could ‘start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.’

Gaia Vince, “One Last Chance to Save Mankind: Interview with James Lovelock,” New Scientist, 23 Jan. 2009.

Page 211

Aquaflow has manufactured synthetic components of aircraft fuel, for instance

“Aquaflow Wild Algae Converted to Key Jet Fuel Component—World-first Breakthrough,” Aquaflow press release, 4 Dec. 2009.

…the company announces a partnership with the United States Gas Technology Institute to ‘demonstrate the conversion of algae biomass directly to gasoline and diesel fuel.’

“Aquaflow Secures Role in Second U.S. Department of Energy-funded Algal Project,” Aquaflow press release, 10 March 2010.

Page 213

‘Years later I was thinking about a way of turning carbon into charcoal,’ he told The Times. ‘So we came up with Carbonscape.’

Bill Dunn, “The New Victorians, The Sunday Times, 5 Dec. 2009

But they were careful to point out that ‘variability is high and it is not yet clear under what soil and climatic conditions and plant species high or low yields can be expected.’

Paul Blackwell, Glen Riethmuller and Mike Collins, Biochar for Environmental Management: Science and Technology(London: Earthscan Publications, 2009), “Ch. 12: Biochar Application to Soil.”

A study by Imperial College London found that using soil charcoal improved UK barley yields substantially but only when large amounts of artificial fertiliser were also applied. For soils without added fertiliser, increasing the amount of charcoal slightly reduced the crop yield.

A. Gathorne-Hardy, J. Knight and J. Woods, “Biochar as a Soil Amendment Positively Interacts with Nitrogen Fertiliser to Improve Barley Yields in the UK,” IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 6, Session 37, 2009.

The general idea is that it is more effective at retaining nutrients in the soil (and keeping them available to plants) than other organic matter.

“Biochar Soil Management: Basic Concepts,” Cornell University, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences website:

Page 215

In a largely out-of-character rant in the Guardian newspaper in 2009, the environmentalist George Monbiot characterised the idea as ‘woodchips with everything’ and said it amounted to turning the planet’s surface into charcoal. ‘[The] proposal boils down to this: we must destroy the biosphere in order to save it,’ he wrote.

George Monbiot, “Woodchips with Everything,” Guardian, 24 March 2009.

Page 216

Rachel Smolker, a biologist and anti-biochar activist gathered signatures from nearly a hundred and fifty concerned organizations to protest against the adoption of what she called a ‘charred earth policy.’ ‘It would require huge areas of land to be turned into plantations,’ warned Smolker.

Kurt Kleiner, “The Bright Prospect of Biochar,” Nature Reports: Climate Change, 21 May 2009.

You can even buy ‘flatulence filtering underwear’ that passes your farts through an activated carbon filter to neutralise the whiff. Yes. Really.

“Shreddies Flatulence Filtering Underwear,” Shreddies website.

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