A Challenge – Four Critical Questions About Burning Biomass

“When short-term biomass is burned, such as annual crops, the amount of carbon generated can be taken up quickly by the growing of new plants. But when the biomass comes from wood and trees, not only can the regrowing and thus the recapture of carbon take years or decades, but also, the carbon equation must take into consideration carbon the trees would have naturally stored if left untouched.” Earth Institute, Columbia University

The hypothesis that “carbon generated (by burnt biomass) can be quickly taken up by the growing of new plants” has been accepted without question. It was proposed once upon a time by a naked physicist. It is now the consensus. Although it is usual for a hypothesis to receive both scrutiny and testing, I can find no evidence, anywhere at all, that this hypothesis has been either questioned, or tested. Yet it is central to the IPCC and the Paris Accord.

I propose that it is a fallacy, which (applied) will contribute to the destruction of human cultures.

The Earth Institute and others calculate other critical influences, such as land use change, arable techniques, regrowth time and so on, but the consensus holds firmly to the Naked Physicist’s central fallacy.

Any farmer or gardener has the means to refute the hypothesis.

If we grow a crop in season one, returning no biomass to the soil, then the harvest in season two will be smaller. Harvest in season three will be considerably smaller – in season four, five six – it will tend towards the negligible. As soil fauna (soil carbon) shrinks, so the crop shrinks, along with both its leaf area and photosynthetic power.

We can maintain cropping and photosynthesis by importing biomass from a neighbouring cycle. (such as local sewage for a local willow coppice) In doing so, we transfer our problem elsewhere. (We diminish a food cycle to feed an energy cycle) The problem remains.

Of course, some assume the import of manufactured fertilisers (from finite holes in the ground). Artificial fertilisers will continue to shrink soil biomass. Their problems, (run-off and gasification) are also noted by IPCC.

Four questions –

1 – Can anyone defend the Naked Physicist’s hypothesis?

2 – Has the hypothesis been tested?

3 – Why have we accepted the solution of a physicist, when the problem was never in the physicist’s realm?

4 – Who is/was the Naked Physicist?

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5 Responses to A Challenge – Four Critical Questions About Burning Biomass

  1. joshuamsikahutton says:

    Just made another connection: manufactured fertilisers – nitrogen, phosphorus or other minerals – are produced through the industrial burning of hydrocarbons. We might do better by the soil if we applied the fossil carbon directly (in reasonable quantities) and let the soil life use the embodied energy to fix nitrogen from the air and mine minerals from the subsoil.
    Regarding your questions, I can think of no answers. I am particularly curious about question 4.

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    • bryncocyn says:

      Perhaps the Naked Physicist will emerge to defend his hypothesis – but I think he/she is an imaginary being – I reckon the hypothesis must have begun with some O level teacher and then propagated as fact by pupils, who later matured to become pillars of carbon cycle academia.

      Yes, calcium, phosphate, potash & magnesium fossil rock – broken down slowly by acid rain and soil fauna will be useful for further food crops and photosynthesis. On the other hand, quick-release phosphate (for instance) produced by adding sulphuric acid to phosphate rock dust, increases growth too far beyond other essential symbioses – stimulated plant growth can drain soil of other minerals faster than mineralisation of soil fauna can regenerate them.

      If we are thinking of passing commons of fertile soil to the next generation, then nitrogen fertiliser (for another instance) will diminish that common, even though it temporarily increases plant growth and so also an equally temporal, photosynthetic carbon capture.

      Norsk Hydro have been fixing Nitrogen from the air by hydro electricity – an excellent energy storage system – as is Hydrogen, but the quick release nitrogen creates the same problem of diminished soil commons.

      I suspect that maximum/optimum soil biomass and so crop biomass and so also photosynthetic carbon capture can only be maintained by a husbandry, which seeks to find an optimum symbiosis (economy with ecology) with both the biodiversity and the mineral diversity of its terrain.

      Yours is a good suggestion and my reply is a too abstract and general. Let’s keep the subject open!

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  2. alexheffron says:

    Oh! The first couple of times I read this, I thought you were saying that, for example, a coppiced willow woodland, on let’s say a 7 year-cycle, wouldn’t sequester carbon – but that’s not what you’re (or the quote) is saying? You’re looking at an entirely different aspect of the above quotation? Namely the burning of annual crops to provide SOM (and thus not add carbon to the atmosphere as it’s supposedly taken up by the new crops planted? And thus I’m assuming when IPCC take into account carbon emissions they ignore the burning of crops as contributing to atmospheric CO2? Or am I way off – I should probably read the preceding posts 🙂

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    • bryncocyn says:

      Ah – Here’s the consensus as proposed by IPCC, Zero Carbon Britain 2030, the Earth Institute and everyone else – With no land use change and with prefect growing techniques, we can grow a crop, burn it – and then, while returning no biomass (terrestrial carbon) to the soil, the subsequent season will produce the same crop yield. The leaf area and photosynthetic power of the crop will be maintained. The consensus proposes that soil carbon and atmospheric CO2 will remain in balance. Thus, arable cropping and timber for biomass burning are not entered in the IPCC, or Paris accord figures, since they are reckoned as Carbon neutral.

      This has been a bee in my bonnet for over thirty years. My truth is – Grow a crop, burn it – returning nothing to the soil and soil biomass (soil carbon) will shrink. The biomass of subsequent crops will progressively shrink as soil biomass also progressively shrinks. Area of leaf for gathering atmospheric carbon dioxide will similarly shrink. Even discounting emissions from burning, atmospheric carbon dioxide will increase as terrestrial carbon decreases.

      It follows that burning biomass is worse than burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels emit CO.2, but biomass continues to live and breathe. Bio-fuels emit CO.2, while also diminishing the mass of CO.2 absorbing life.
      It is true that the linear (non cyclic) contribution of solar energy through photosynthesis has slowly increased terrestrial biomass (life). Life has expanded from a very small beginning! That is (I think) how the Naked Physicist came upon his fallacy. He was in awe of the power of photosynthesis. However, any farmer or gardener can prove him wrong, because regularly-cropped soils without return tend towards dust bowls – deserts with a few feeble leaves.

      Our problem is burning.

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      • alexheffron says:

        Ah spot on. Thanks for the explanation. Yes I’d entirely agree. It would seem elemental wouldn’t it? How can the IPCC not realise that?

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