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Biochar Systems for Smallholders in Developing Countries

Biochar is the carbon rich residue of heating biomass without oxygen, a process called pyrolysis, that also releases bio-oil and syngas with high energy content. There is growing interest from public and private investors in biochar as a method for removing vast amounts of atmospheric carbon (mitigation) and rebuilding soil fertility and resilience to drought (adaptation). Considering that the fate of tropical forests lies on the ability to produce more food and energy with less land, the soil fertility effect of biochar is also very relevant to the lasting reduction of deforestation and forest degradation.

Biochar can potentially be also used as a development tool through rehabilitation of degraded soils and greater agricultural yields for smallholders, as well as better predictability in crop production through a lower susceptibility to extreme climatic events. Furthermore, biochar stoves have attracted considerable interest lately for reducing indoor air pollution (causing severe and often fatal respiratory problems).

However, the current enthusiasm for biochar could potentially overlook risks and uncertainties associated with this technology, such as increased demand for plant biomass with further forest conversion to cropland, disruptions to the soil nutrient cycle, degradation of existing soil organic carbon pools when biologically dead carbon (biochar) is introduced in large quantities, variability in the soil fertility effect, increased soot emissions if biochar is not properly handled, and questions about the long-term permanence of biochar.
PROFOR is supporting a global study to generate independent knowledge on the use of biochar systems in low and middle income country settings with a particular focus on biochar systems accessible to smallholders, and specific consideration of the potential risks associated to those systems. One intended audience is World Bank staff and management interested in forest landscape restoration, sustainable intensification of agriculture (a key element in any REDD strategy), and land-based climate change mitigation and adaptation. 
The study will also inform benefit development partners and client countries on the potential and challenges of biochar use under different climatic and development constraints.
This activity is ongoing. Results will be shared on this page when they become available. You can also follow us on twitter ( or subscribe to our mailing list for regular updates.

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Author : World Bank
Last Updated : 02-24-2017