What are the Implications for Public Policy in New Zealand regarding Biochar as a Climate Change Mitigation Tool?
The past years have seen biochar appearing on the political radar as a potential greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation tool. Biochar is a charcoal-like substance that is produced from smouldering biomass in oxygen-starved conditions in a kiln. The resulting light and highly porous material can be applied to soil where it has been suggested that it sequesters carbon and increases soil fertility. This research surveys the current scientific understanding of biochar and the institutional framework pertinent to climate change mitigation and potential future biochar deployment in NZ. This is complemented by empirical data, gathered via semi-structured interviews and online surveys. The stakeholder groups determined for the purpose of this study are agriculture (with an emphasis on organic agriculture), forestry and wood processing, bioenergy/biochar businesses, research institutions and government agencies. There is no recognition of biochar in international compliance carbon markets at present and the debate about biochar's future inclusion is ongoing. Biochar performance in soils is highly variable depending on feedstock, manufacturing conditions, soil type and climate to name a few. Scientific uncertainties are related to the permanence of carbon storage in biochar, its agronomic benefits when applied to soil and its life cycle performance in terms of greenhouse gases and energy. While research into a more detailed understanding of biochar is underway, there is still a lack of large-scale and long-term field trials both internationally and domestically. In this context, public policy is faced with decision-making under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Theory suggests some guidance in the form of environmental policy principles such as the sustainability and Precautionary Principles. General policy criteria, including effectiveness, efficiency, equity, compliance with international obligations and political and social acceptability, as well as innovation theory are also proposed as a theoretical framework against which to assess the viability of biochar in a NZ setting. Results suggest that biochar deployment in NZ may be a boutique solution for niche applications rather than a large-scale commercial opportunity. Biochar research in NZ is nascent, yet future policy decision-making depends on its outcomes to assess the merits of biochar for NZ. If biochar technology is to be diffused in NZ, policy will need to carefully craft legislation and incentive structures so as to ensure a sustainable pathway. Various stakeholder groups need to be consulted throughout the decision-making process. Transparency is key to building trust and understanding about the potentials and pitfalls of biochar deployment in NZ. A public debate and continuous dialogue between the research, policy, practitioners and other communities is required to achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome.