Friday, 28 August 2009

TckTckTck: It's not too late to build a safer world

An unprecedented alliance of organisations have come together under the TckTckTck campaign for a good deal in Copenhagen
Kumi Naidoo, Friday 28 August 2009 13.26 BST
This December – just 100 days from now – the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen will begin. There's a lot of expectation around this meeting because world leaders have committed to agreeing a historic treaty to tackle the biggest crisis facing humanity.
The meeting is expected to draft and ratify a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012. Simply put, the outcome of these talks will determine the future of our planet.
We are already experiencing climate change. Floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability – hallmarks of climate change – are affecting people's rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter and culture in all corners of the world today. Already – with an average temperature rise of less than 1C – climate change kills more than 300,000 people each year.
With this in mind, the clear reason for the expectation around Copenhagen is that if the right deal is struck, we can halt the worst of climate change before everybody is affected. Plus, we can fight the downturn by creating green jobs and building access to renewable energy for all. We can improve the world we live in, instead of consigning millions to homelessness and poverty – or worse.
Because of the potential of this deal, an unprecedented alliance of organisations – including faith and youth groups, unions, environmental and development NGOs, such as WWF, Oxfam International, Consumers International and Kofi Annan's Global Humanitarian Forum, plus a number of high-profile supporters– have come together under the TckTckTck campaign. We believe that only by working together in a broad alliance will we have the size, power and influence to ensure a good deal in Copenhagen.
Now is the time for world leaders to give this crisis their attention. They must commit now to attending the talks in Copenhagen where they must sign a deal that is fair, ambitious and binding and that reflects the latest science. Governments must get behind a treaty that reduces developed country emissions by at least 40% by 2020.
Tackling climate change is an issue of justice. Rich countries have been responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore must take responsibility for dealing with crisis in a fair and equitable way. The deal must therefore enable and support poor countries to adapt to the worst consequences of the climate crisis, as well as reducing their emissions. The deal must protect marginalised communities in rich and poor countries.
The Copenhagen deal should be ambitious and ensure that global greenhouse emissions peak no later than 2017. It must create a pathway to clean jobs and clean energy for all and establish necessary conditions for a sustainable and prosperous future for people, flora and fauna. It must be binding and must be able to be verified and enforced.
With just 100 days to go until the meeting begins, and with climate scientists painting a bleaker future at even 2C of warming, time is running out.
But it is not yet too late. There is still time to build a greener safer world, but the clock is ticking.
• Kumi Naidoo chairs TckTckTck and is honorary president of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

Climate change will cost the world more than £300 billion, say scientists

The world will have to spend three times as much adapting to the effects of climate change such as flood, disease and deforestation than previously though, scientists have said.

By Louise Gray, Environment CorrespondentPublished: 6:00PM BST 27 Aug 2009

Oxfam staged an underwater family to highlight the risk of sea rises due to climate change
The UN originally said it would cost just £25 to £105 billion ($40-170 billion), or the cost of about three Olympic Games per year, from 2030 to pay for the sea defences, increase in deaths and damage to infrastructure caused by global warming.
However a new study by leading scientific body the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London estimated it will cost more than triple that amount per annum.
The report found that the previous estimates by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change failed to take into account various factors including the increase in storms in previous years due to global warming, a number of diseases caused by warmer weather and "ecological services" such as rainfall and cloud cover provided by the rainforest.
Professor Martin Parry, a former co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said the earlier estimate missed out key sectors such as energy, manufacturing, retailing, mining and tourism. He said the cost will be even more when the full range of impacts of a warming climate are considered such as human migrations and refugees.
“Just looking in depth at the sectors the UNFCCC did study, we estimate adaptation costs to be two to three higher, and when you include the sectors the UNFCCC left out the true cost is probably much greater,” he said.
Prof Parry said the UK alone would have to spend "several billion" on flood defence, rebuilding roads and upgrading houses against the heat.
"The UK alone is going to be several billion so the global numbers have to be more than the UN is currently talking about," he said.
Prof Parry was talking 100 days before more than 90 countries meet in Copenhagen for a UNFCCC conference on climate change. The meeting over two weeks is expected to come up with a new deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Rich countries are expected to make drastic cuts to carbon emissions in order to slow global warming but poorer countries are unlikely to agree to anything until they are confident the world will provide enough money for adaptation. At the moment the Governments of developed countries have only committed to around £60 billion per annum.
Prof Parry said a lot more money needs to be made available.
“The amount of money on the table at Copenhagen is one of the key factors that will determine whether we achieve a climate change agreement,” he said. “But previous estimates of adaptation costs have substantially misjudged the scale of funds needed.”
International aid agency Oxfam staged a stunt at London Aquarium to raise awareness of the meeting at Copenhagen.
Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam, said the photograph of an ordinary family under the water was intended to illustrate the risk of sea level rise if nothing is done to stop global warming.
“This light-hearted photo sends a very serious message – it is time for politicians to act in Copenhagen if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Today the poorest people are being hit hard by extreme weather events and other climate shocks, it is for their sake that we must push for a fair deal in Copenhagen," she said.
Oxfam wants leaders in rich countries to commit to a 40 per cebt cut in carbon emissions by 2020 and earmark at least £93 billion a year to help poor countries adapt to the impact of climate change and reduce their emissions.

'Fake trees' could fight climate change

Forests of "fake trees" should be planted across the country to reduce the impact of climate change, according to a study.

By Ben LeachPublished: 8:05AM BST 27 Aug 2009

The scientists argue that a single synthetic tree could capture ten tons of carbon dioxide from the air every day
Experts claim the devices would be able to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 100,000 of them would remove the carbon emissions of every car, lorry and bus in Britain.
The scientists argue that a single synthetic tree, which would be two-thirds as tall as a wind turbine, could capture ten tons of carbon dioxide from the air every day, making it thousands of times more efficient at absorbing CO2 than a real tree.

The study, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, into how technology could prevent climate change argues that using technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere could buy the world vital time.
The trees, which would cost around £15,000, would be coated with synthetic materials that absorb CO2, which would then be removed and stored underground in depleted oil and natural gas reservoirs.
The study also calls for pots of algae that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere to be used to line buildings. The algae could then be used as green biofuels for cars.
Painting buildings white can also help reduce the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the Earth, keeping it cool. The institution wants millions of pounds to be invested in research on technology to beat the threat of global warming to Britain.
Dr Tim Fox, one of the report's authors, said: "Geo-engineering may give us those extra few years of transition to a low- carbon world and prevent any one of the future climate change scenarios we all fear."
The report also claims that unless we act soon global warming will continue unabated and predicts that global temperatures could increase as much as 6c by 2100, creating food and water shortages, sea level rises and massive refugee crises.

Climate change supercomputer makes Met building one of Britain's most polluted

Jenny Booth
The Met Office's new supercomputer has scored it's second own goal since it was unveiled with much fanfare in May.
After tempting the nation into holidaying in Britain by wrongly forecasting a "barbecue Summer", it has now earned the Met Office's Exeter headquarters the shame of being named as one of the most polluting buildings in Britain.
By the time it reaches peak performance in 2011 the £30 million machine's massive processing power - it can perform 125 trillion calculations per second - will require 1.2 megawatts of power to run, enough energy to power a small town.
As a result it will contribute 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the problem of global warming every year.
That places the Met Office HQ close to the top of the list of carbon emitters - 103rd out of 28,259 UK public buildings assessed for their carbon footprint by the Department of Communities and Local Government.
Barry Gromett, a Met Office spokesman, came to the defence of the machine, claiming that its severe weather warnings could help to save lives and its predictions for the airline industry helped to save 20 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year. He also defended the Met Office building.
“Our supercomputer is vital for predictions of weather and climate change," said Mr Gromett.
“By failing to discriminate between office and supercomputing facilities the process reflects badly on the entire Met Office site. In fact, the general office space is rated excellent and has consistently done so since the Met Office building in Exeter was completed in 2003.”
The supercomputer analyses data from satellite images and sea temperature gauges. Its supporters say it will be able to predict previously unforeseeable weather events, such as the 1987 hurricane that unexpectedly devastated Britain.
By 2011 it will offer processing power approaching 1 PetaFlop - equivalent to more than 100,000 PCs and over 30 times more powerful than what is currently in place.
Maurice Spurway, a Friends of the Earth spokesman, said it was wryly amusing that the Met Office had been fingered for damaging the climate.
“Life is full of ironies and I think this is one of those situations,” he said.
Manchester University's Oxford Road campus was named the most polluting building in Britain in the government survey, followed by the Royal London Hospital and Scarborough Sports Centre.

A crucial climate vote lost with Ted Kennedy's death

The push for a climate-change bill in the Senate lost a reliable supporter with the death of Edward Kennedy., Thursday 27 August 2009 13.10 BST
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's environmental legacy was remarkable, wide-ranging, and not all roses. Joe Romm's got an early look at his record.
But there's one clear and simple impact of Kennedy's death late Tuesday night: The push for a climate-change bill in the Senate lost a reliable supporter.
That push needs absolutely every vote it can get. Check out Grist's running count of Senate votes to see just how close a vote could be.
It will take months to get a replacement for Kennedy in the Senate. He called on Massachusetts state lawmakers to change the rules so the governor could appoint an immediate successor, but they haven't acted. The state is expected to hold a special election to fill Kennedy's seat in January. Massachusetts voters are likely to elect another Democrat who supports climate legislation, but by next year that could be too late. The big Copenhagen climate-treaty talks will take place in December, and the Obama administration, leaders from other countries, and climate activists around the world want Congress to have passed a climate bill before then, so the U.S. can come to the negotiating table with something in hand.
The early chatter about Kennedy's death is all about the impact on health-care legislation. New York magazine has a roundup of commentary on whether his passing will help or hurt a health-care bill. I'm not sure what to make of the idea that senators might be more willing to pass a bill in tribute to Kennedy. Or the idea that this mortality check might convince them to take a break from delaying, posturing, fear-mongering, and pandering to their industry funders on the health-care issue. It seems even less likely anything like that would happen with a climate bill. Kennedy took climate change plenty seriously, but it wasn't his signature issue—health care was.
Personally, I'm taken by this brief thought from Matt Yglesias, who starts with Kennedy's closing line from his 1980 Democratic Convention speech,
"For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
... what I take Kennedy to be doing here is trying to offer an alternative to the boom-bust mentality that I think often overtakes American progressives. There's a tendency to get extremely wound up with optimism about the imminent dawn of sudden and radical change for the better, and then intensely bitter, cynical, and depressed when that fails to materialize. The reality, however, is that change is hard. That's not an excuse for the people who stand in its way, it's the reality. But if you respond to the difficulty of making things better by giving up or getting frustrated, then it only gets harder.
Building a better country and a world is work—hard work—and it's work that goes on. And on. And on.
• This article was shared by our content partner Grist, part of the Guardian Environment Network

Chinese legislature passes its first climate change resolution

New laws to combat global warming are highly likely, according to the state media
Jonathan Watts, Thursday 27 August 2009 16.45 BST

China's top legislative body approved its first climate change resolution today and announced plans to draw up new laws to combat global warming, according to the state media.
The moves by the rubber-stamp National People's Congress are timed to strengthen China's negotiating position as it prepares a new announcement on emissions policy before the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen in December.
Environmentalists welcomed the unusually high degree of attention that the NPC's standing committee paid to the environment during a week-long session in which lawmakers also debated a more ambitious target for renewable energy.
Details of the final resolution were not immediately available, but a draft submitted this week called on the government to take further measures to control greenhouse gas emissions and invest more in low carbon technology.
But there was tough language on international negotiations, noting that China would defend its right to further economic development.
Senior lawmakers said further action would follow. "China will draw up new laws and regulations to provide a legal basis for combating climate change," Wang Guangtao, director of the NPC's environment and resource protection committee was quoted as saying by the China Daily.
While apparently lacking specific targets to reduce emissions, the resolution was welcomed by environmental groups.
"It's very significant. For the first time, they have put climate change at the core of economic and social planning at all levels of government," said Yang Ailun, climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace China. "This lays the ground for China to make a big announcement ahead of Copenhagen."
Ahead of those crucial climate talks in December, Yang said the government appeared to be leaning towards a mid-term target for carbon intensity, as first reported in the Guardian.
This would represent progress from China's current policy of reducing energy use relative to gross domestic product in the latest five-year economic plan.
But even the setting of a carbon intensity goal for 2020 would disappoint hopes that China will set a target for overall emissions to peak. Last week, an influential research panel said this might be possible by 2030, but the government has given no suggestion it will make this into policy.
The draft resolution called for the government to strengthen its early warning systems and make better preparation for extreme events, such as typhoons. It recommends greater investment in water-saving technologies and low carbon energy.
"We should make carbon reduction a new source of economic growth, and change the economic development model to maximise efficiency, lower energy consumption and minimise carbon discharges," the draft says.
All of the measures included in the draft resolution were previously outlined in government white papers, but environmentalists said the issue has moved to a more prominent position in the nation's political system and a climate change law is highly likely.
"This is a good step forward," said Yang Fuqiang, the director of global climate solutions at the China office of the World Wildlife Fund. "Before we only had government policy, which local governments could challenge, but a law would be harder to violate."
Lawmakers are also discussing a revision of the renewable energy law that could set the stage for the government to raise its target for wind, hydro, nuclear, solar and biomass, currently set at 15% of the total energy mix by 2020.
China is already ahead of its interim goals for wind, hydro and nuclear power. Each extra percentage point that can be added to the renewables target by 2020 is estimated to save 150 million tonnes of coal equivalent.

No joke: Scientists call for stricter controls on emissions of laughing gas

Nitrous oxide could soon pose a bigger threat to ozone than CFC chemicals, says atmospheric chemist
David Adam, environment correspondent, Thursday 27 August 2009 19.00 BST
Scientists have called for stricter controls on emissions of laughing gas, after discovering the common chemical poses a new threat to the recovering ozone layer. The gas, properly known as nitrous oxide, could soon pose a bigger threat to ozone than CFC chemicals, the use of which has been restricted since the 1980s.
Akkihebbal Ravishankara, an atmospheric chemist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who led the research, said: "The dramatic reduction in CFCs over the last 20 years is an environmental success story. But man-made nitrous oxide is now the elephant in the room among ozone-depleting substances."
The gas, which is not covered by existing regulations to protect ozone, is now the largest ozone-depleting substance produced by human activity, the research shows. It is expected to remain the largest over the next few decades.
About a third of global nitrous oxide emissions are from human activity. The gas is produced as a byproduct of fertiliser use in agriculture and other industrial processes. It is also a common anaesthetic, used by dentists and in maternity wards.
Nitrous oxide is stable at ground level but breaks down in the upper atmosphere to form compounds that trigger chemical reactions that destroy ozone. Its ability to destroy ozone has been known for decades, but the new research is the first to quantify the danger and compare it to other gases.
Although the gas is 60-times less damaging to ozone than CFCs, around 10m tonnes of nitrous oxide are produced by human activity each year, compared with slightly more than a million tonnes from all CFCs at the peak of their emissions.
Nitrous oxide is also a potent greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming, so efforts to restrict emissions could tackle climate change as well as ozone loss, the scientists say. The study is published in the journal Science.

Sir Richard Branson's green claims are running on hot air

Branson's stunts have earned him a green repuatation. Yet Virgin Atlantic's emissions are higher than most nations in Africa

Fred Pearce, Thursday 27 August 2009 11.00 BST
Sir Richard Branson has somehow over the years persuaded us that he and his Virgin empire are green, or at any rate greener than their rivals. One green website calls him an eco-entrepreneur. The Huffington Post advises us to "follow Richard Branson's green example" Even the Sunday Times was at it recently.
This is weird. Branson doesn't do greenwash advertising so much as headline-earning stunts and initiatives that build the aura of a cool, progressive, green guy.
A cynic would say that his $25m Virgin Earth Challenge prize for a new low-carbon technology is worth the price in free editorial. Equally, Branson's initiative on biofuels for aircraft, while slightly tarnished by the declining green credentials of biofuels, also grabbed headlines for what does not, as yet, amount to very much.
Others, including the investigative journalist Tom Bower, have tried to grapple with the business ethics of the Branson brand. So I will stick with the "how green is Branson?" question.
For a start, there is the little matter of his plans to develop space tourism with Virgin Galactic.
According to Virgin Galactic's president Will Whitehorn, every passenger's promised two minutes on the edge of space will produce roughly the same carbon dioxide emissions as ten hours of transatlantic flight. So it is hardly an advert for greener living – even if the New Mexico terminal has the promised solar panels.
More to the point is Branson's airline, Virgin Atlantic. It's not the biggest in the world. Its website says its carbon dioxide emissions are currently approaching 4.8m tonnes. This is up from 4.2m tonnes five years ago, but still way behind British Airways' 17m tonnes.
Virgin Atlantic has a "flight plan in place to reduce our impact on the environment". But this does not include cutting emissions. It means a "30% improvement in the fuel efficiency of our fleet between 2007 and 2020". Which of course would be neutralised by a 30% increase in flights, something that, on recent trends, is likely to be an underestimate.
Perhaps the most surprising comparison is with Ryanair, Europe's largest low-cost airline. Ryanair has a bad environmental reputation, largely because its boss, Michael O'Leary, is fond of taking crude pot-shots at environmentalists, who he dubs "eco-nutters". No Branson, he. But in a head-to-head you may be surprised who comes out top.
The airline industry's indicator of choice is how much carbon dioxide its flights emit for every passenger-kilometre flown. A couple of weeks ago I criticised another low-cost airline Easyjet here for misusing this data in a false comparison with driving a car. The claim is still on its website, incidentally.
The stat may be misused, but it remains a reasonable measure for comparing airlines. So I checked out how some of Britain's leading airlines fared on this analysis.
British Airways is bad. Hobbled by an ageing fleet of polluting aircraft, it until recently produced 143g of carbon dioxide for every passenger-kilometre, though the company now claims to have got that figure down to 111g. Down there with BA is Virgin Atlantic with a reported 130g.
But it turns out that the budget airlines, with their newer fleets and policy of filling up their aircraft at all costs, boast significantly lower emissions. Easyjet weighs in at 97.5g. And Ryanair tops the green list with 96g.
Who'd have thought it? On this measure, Michael O'Leary is the green flier and Branson is the polluter.
Nothing is quite so simple, of course. Ryanair keeps that figure down by selling any spare seats on its flights at rock bottom prices. It is encouraging cheap-and cheerful weekend-break flights that would not otherwise have happened.
But with Virgin Atlantic's CO2 emissions now above those of most nations in Africa, we can do with a bit less of the greenwash from its flamboyant boss.
Maybe he should go back to the balloons. That way we at least know he is running on hot air.

Energy group planning £1bn biomass plants at Scots ports

Published Date: 28 August 2009
By Hamish Rutherford
FORTH Energy has unveiled plans to invest £1 billion building biomass power stations at four Scottish ports.
The group, a joint venture between Forth Ports and Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE), is conducting engineering studies and consulting locals about the plan, which would see 100 megawatt stations built at Dundee, Rosyth, Grangemouth and Leith. Planning applications are expected to be submitted early next year.Biomass stations generate electricity by burning organic materials and are classed as renewable energy. Much of the fuel used comes from byproducts of the forestry industry, and having the stations near shipping facilities is more efficient than transporting it by road.While Forth Energy said all of the materials used in the stations would be from sustainable sources, some of the fuel will come from overseas.Forth Port's chief executive Charles Hammond said four stations would cost more than £1bn to construct, and the port and property group expected to own only a small share of any completed facilities.As well as a small equity stake Forth Ports would earn returns on the use of its land and the handling of fuel. If all the stations are built they will need two to three million tonnes of fuel annually."The benefits we will get are from the land values and the port throughput as well as enjoying some form of equity return, but very much in a minority," Hammond said, adding that it would be "no issue" for the Scottish ports to be able to handle the fuel for the stations.Forth Energy, which was formed in 2008, is also considering applying for permission to build wind turbines at some of its ports, although Hammond said focus had been on the biomass project, which was "much larger in scale and impact".Perth-based SSE already owns and operates an 80MW biomass plant at Slough in Berkshire.Chief executive Ian Marchant said biomass would play an increasing role in energy production in the future "and it is an area in which SSE expects to be a significant player".The biomass plans were unveiled as Forth Ports reported a 10 per cent fall in underlying pre-tax profits to £14.8 million in the six months to June 30.While the group's core UK port business was stable, the group's Nordic business, which sells recyclable goods, suffered from a sharp fall in demand. Forth Ports also wrote down the value of Ocean Terminal by £2.4m although Hammond said the Leith retail complex continued to attract new high-quality tenants.Forth Ports, which has extensive excess land around Leith, has scaled back its property development since the recession hit and Hammond cautioned against hopes of an early recovery for the sector. "We believe that we won't be seeing a real recovery in the property markets until, probably to coincide with the tram being built in Edinburgh, in 2012."Shares in Forth Ports closed down 28p at 1,280p

Windfarms blamed for disrupting weather forecasts

Wind farms have been blamed for disrupting the lives of birds, bats and, most recently, the land-bound sage grouse. But now the massive spinning blades affixed to towers 200 feet high have also been blamed for affecting weather preictions.

Published: 7:00AM BST 27 Aug 2009

Wind turbines can appear on Doppler radar, which is used by weathermen, like a violent storm or even a tornado.
The phenomenon has affected several National Weather Service radar sites in different parts of America, even leading to a false tornado alert near Dodge City, Kansas, in the heart of Tornado Alley. In Des Moines, Iowa, the weather service received a frantic warning from an emergency worker who had access to Doppler radar images.

The alert was quickly called off in Kansas and meteorologists calmed the emergency worker down, but with enough wind turbines going up last year to power more than 6 million homes and a major push toward alternative energy, more false alerts seem inevitable.
Radar software can easily filter out buildings, cell towers and mountain ridges on radar screens. But because weather radar seeks motion to warn of storms, there's no way to filter out the spinning blades.
Dave Zaff, science and operations officer with the National Weather Service office in Buffalo, New York, said that 99 per cent of the time the farms will not pose a problem.
But in a worse-case scenario, a forecaster could disregard a real storm for turbine interference, he said.
"If you take a glance and then all of the sudden you see red, you might issue an incorrect warning as a result," he said.

Turning charcoal into Carbon Gold

A chocolate maker and music promoter aim to create a £1bn biochar industry, in a controversial effort to fight climate change
David Adam, environment correspondent, Thursday 27 August 2009 14.47 BST

In a patch of woodland on the outskirts of Hastings, on the English south coast, a group of men huddle around a brick laboratory as smoke curls from its two chimneys. The men are trying, with some chemical trickery, to bring a lucrative piece of South America to Sussex, to spark what they believe could be a £1bn industry in Britain.
The business is controversial. Some maintain it should be outlawed, and others say that only full-scale legalisation would control the risks. Until the fuss dies down, the men have decided to bury the powder they make in a nearby field.
Craig Sams, a millionaire chocolate maker, and Dan Morrell, a former music promoter and entrepreneur, are producing charcoal, and their aim is to get rich by selling it to tackle global warming.
Together Sams and Morrell make Carbon Gold, a company they have set up to exploit the growing interest in green solutions to climate change. The brick laboratory is, they claim, Britain's first dedicated facility to produce biochar, which is what you call charcoal when you are selling it as a solution to global warming.
Their idea is a low-tech take on the futuristic concept of carbon capture and storage. Carbon, in the form of wood from trees and agricultural waste, can be turned to charcoal and buried in the ground, so storing it away from the atmosphere. If enough carbon can be buried in this way, then it could bolster so-far feeble global attempts to address climate change through cuts greenhouse gas emissions.
Making and burying biochar to help reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere has some heavy green backing, including scientist and author James Lovelock and Jim Hansen of Nasa. The journal Nature Reports Climate Change said that biochar "could be the closest contender yet for a silver-bullet solution to climate change".
But it also has some high profile critics. Writing in this newspaper in March, George Monbiot said: "The idea that biochar is a universal solution that can be safely deployed on a vast scale is as misguided as Mao Zedong's Great Leap Backwards." He added: "According to the magical thinkers who promote it, the new miracle stops climate breakdown, replaces gas and petroleum, improves the fertility of the soil, reduces deforestation, cuts labour, creates employment, prevents respiratory disease and ensures that when you drop your toast it always lands butter side up."
Good idea or bad, if Sams and Morrell have their way, green consumers who want to offset the damaging emissions from their flights or cars will soon be able to pay Carbon Gold to make biochar on their behalf. Within weeks, the company expects to be approved by the offset industry's unofficial watchdog. Bigger markets could follow: the firm is among those lobbying for biochar credits to be included in the UN's clean development mechanism - a global carbon trading scheme used by countries such as Britain to meet ambitious carbon targets. A decision could be made as soon as December, at key climate talks in Copenhagen.
Morrell, who founded Future Forests, which later became the Carbon Neutral Company, said: "Biochar is the only technology that enables us to take invisible carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, transform it into black lumps of pure carbon and, by ploughing it into the soil, prevent it from going back into the atmosphere."
He added: "We don't want to clear-cut woodland and turn it to dust. That's slightly alarmist. We're not saying this is the answer to global warming, but I don't see why it can't be one of a suite of solutions."
The duo's biochar facility runs on wood from surrounding trees, part of a woodland owned by Sams. By lighting a fire in a chamber beneath and fiddling with the way air flows through the device, the team says it can convert about a third of the carbon locked in the wood to charcoal in 24 hours. The wood part burns and is part baked, in a process called pyrolysis.
Biochar is not emissions free - the rest of the carbon from the wood goes up in smoke, but Morrell says it is better for the climate than burning or leaving it to rot, which can produce methane. He says their primary targets are large agricultural sites such as vineyards and olive producers, which have large amounts of waste cuttings.
Under Carbon Gold's business model, the firm would supply the technology to farmers and others, and take a cut of the valuable carbon credits generated by each tonne of carbon they store. It is already working on a similar project in Belize.
"It's almost like a franchise," says Sams, a founder of Green and Black's chocolate and former chair of the Soil Association. "It's the same principle as McDonalds," he adds, then wishes he hadn't.
Morrell's answer to the critics of biochar is a rule book produced by the company that is currently being considered by the Voluntary Carbon Standard, which regulates carbon offsets. Morrell says it includes safeguards to make sure wood and other feedstocks used are sustainable, as well as to preserve biodiversity and to give work to local people. "Of course it will be easier to just clear cut forest, but we think we can set the bar high enough to keep those people out."
There could be other benefits too, he says. Biochar could help make more soil productive, because it offers a surface for bugs to thrive. Charcoal mixed into the ground by Indian tribes centuries ago is often credited for the acclaimed rich and dark terra preta soils of the Amazon basin. If benefits can be proven, and Carbon Gold says local soil scientists are investigating, then biochar could perhaps claim extra carbon credits based on reduced fertiliser use. Sams is already experimenting with charcoal sprayed and ploughed onto a field next to the Sussex woodland.
Mike Childs, climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said: "The problems with biochar are largely the same as biofuel. If you manage it properly then making limited amounts is OK, sensible and useful. But there is massive pressure on forests for land and protecting ecosystems, and the potential to produce lots [of biochar] comes up against those pressures. In the short term it is not the answer to climate change."