Biochar landscape. Field with stubble and scattered with biochar against a blue sky.

June 7, 2024, by Brigitte Nerlich

Biochar in the news

In this blog post Carol Morris, Catherine Price and I want to present two articles on a rather niche topic relating to climate change mitigation – niche but nevertheless interesting and important: biochar.

What is biochar?

Biochar is amongst a growing suite of approaches developed to address the climate crisis by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is created by a process called pyrolysis, where biomass is heated to very high temperatures under low oxygen conditions. It can be produced from a wide range of materials, so-called feedstocks, including some waste materials such as domestic green and food waste, and agricultural and forestry residues. Agricultural and forestry residues can and do have other uses, though, which are in tension with turning them into biochar – one of many complexities around feedstocks.

Biochar can potentially be applied to soils to sequester (lock up) carbon for thousands of years. It can also make some soil types less acidic and help soil to retain water and nutrients. This can make plants healthier and more productive and it can also contribute to reducing the loss of fertilisers.

Public awareness of biochar is low. In this situation, mass-media reporting plays an important role in making an issue public and in creating expectations about its risks and benefits.

As part of a UKRI funded Biochar Demonstrator project, Carol Morris and Catherine Price, in collaboration with Brigitte Nerlich and Holly Harris, have written two articles exploring representations, framing and discourses about biochar in UK newspapers. One article has extracted the most important ‘issue frames’ used by journalists and those they interview and cite. Another one has homed in, in more detail, on the linguistic features of a discourse that focuses on biochar’s benefits.

Issue frames

The overview article is entitled “Biochar in the UK print news media: Issue frames and their implications for opening up debate about land-based greenhouse gas removal” published in Environmental Communication.

In this article we examine societal debate and discussion around biochar as represented in the UK print news media and reflect on its implications for the democratic governance of novel technologies.

Using an “issue frame” analysis approach, we identified the following frames: Innovation, Economics, Security, Governance and Accountability, Risk, Justice, Substitution, Salvation and Tradition – with some more prominent than others (a comprehensive table can be found in the open access article).

We found that Economics and Innovation frames are particularly pronounced, together with the argument for market-based forms of governance, while Risk and Justice frames are weakly developed.

Some frames and their associated actors dominate debate, while others are absent or side-lined. This might hinder opening up the debate to a wider group of stakeholders and publics and alternative framings, thus constraining effective governance of biochar.

Benefit discourse

The other article, entitled “Biochar in the British print news media: An analysis of promissory discourse and the creation of expectations about carbon removal” and published in Science as Culture, uses insights from the sociology of expectations and rhetorical analysis to study a promissory, future oriented discourse that emerged especially in the early days of biochar news coverage.

We examined how this coverage was rhetorically configured through, for example, evaluative adjectives, verbs, hyperbole, and allusions to literary and cultural symbols, such as ‘this dark material’ and ‘black alchemy’, that confer a sense of mystique.

We found that biochar is promoted as an almost magical fix, based on its ability to store carbon, improve soil health, increase crops yields, and reduce pollutants. Conversely, some of the possible negative aspects of biochar are couched in the form of sarcasm and parody, while others are made invisible. This sets biochar up as a moral good that the public ought to accept, rather than opening up a public debate about its risks and benefits.

We argue that, engaging in a fine-grained rhetorical analysis of the way promises about biochar are constructed expands the methodological and empirical repertoire of the sociology of expectations and, in future, can be applied to the analysis of other emerging climate change technologies, especially those relating to carbon removal.

What have we learned?

Representations of biochar in the UK press are rather limited in a variety of ways.

(1) News reports focus on some issue frames and not others. They also give prominence to some voices over others. This closes down debate rather than opening it up.

(2) Biochar is not one but many. In the news, biochar is portrayed in a rather one-dimensional way. Our wider research with scientists and stakeholders shows by contrast that is not one thing but many. Different feedstocks, that is, raw materials such as wood, straw, food waste, will produce a different biochar. There can even be variation between the same feedstock as to what type of biochar is produced, depending on the production method. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and if being used in an agricultural setting, farmers will need to choose a biochar that suits the requirements of their farm. This is to ensure that nutrients are not ‘locked up’ by biochar. This matters when it comes to using biochar for greenhouse gas removal and storage and for improving soil health.

(3) Biochar lacks pizzazz. It is difficult to write news articles about biochar, as it is, in fact, rather mundane, even perhaps boring. It is already out there, being made and used by gardeners and some farmers. This is not big, novel or controversial science that has yet to be applied. It does not strike people with awe or wonder, like giant sunshades in the sky or huge turbines extracting carbon dioxide from the air. It also doesn’t conjure up ‘big’ metaphors like ‘a dimmer switch for the earth’ used in some reports on geoengineering.

(4) Biochar is rarely discussed as a ‘moral hazard’. In media portrayals of geoengineering there was talk of what was then called ‘moral hazard’ or the danger of diverting attention away from established climate change mitigation approaches. In the context of biochar there is, by contrast, no real discussion of attention being diverted away from emissions reduction, i.e. of the risk of what some now call ‘mitigation deterrence’ (see Price et al. 2024).

What are we doing?

In our current research we are engaging directly with actors / stakeholders in the biochar space to help address some of the problems (e.g. around lack of some voices and perspectives) identified through the media analysis.

Watch this space!




Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics