End the Burning – Begin the Growing

As I look across our fields I can see the deepening, or paling green of rotations. The deeper the colour, the swifter the flow of life and the greater the harvest yield. Life has energy – increased speed indicates increased mass.

Good agricultural technique places an economy as nicely as possible inside the complex flow (or very many flows) of an ecology. When economy and ecology are seamlessly enmeshed then both may run at optimum speeds.

Of course, economy offers a further complexity, which often hinders a proper application of agricultural technique. For instance, produce may flow away from a field (ecology) into an economy, which sends no wastes back in return – so that soil life diminishes, crop colour pales, life slows – and of course, crop yields fall.

Neolithic pioneers would have quickly learnt the rule of return, just as all organic gardeners and farmers must know it today. Slash and burn would have been chosen by some, but most would have become devoted to and grateful for their patch of soil. Ancestral commons have been passed devoutly to descendants. In most cultures, when thinking of soil, people find powerfully charged concepts such as “home” or “maternity”.

“We note that such virtue is traditionally found in labour, craft, dwelling and suffering supported, not by an abstract earth, environment or energy system, but by the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces. Yet, in spite of this ultimate bond between soil and being, soil and the good, philosophy has not brought forth the concepts that would allow us to relate virtue to common soil – something vastly different from managing behaviour on a shared planet.”
Declaration on Soil, Ivan Illich 1990

Yes, the rule of return is easy to understand, though much more difficult to perfectly follow. However, every gardener knows that if she grows a crop, harvests it, but returns nothing to the soil, then the following crop will be smaller. It is such a simple idea and one that is universally replicated not only in ecologies, but in physics and even social justice.

Yet consider this –

“If biomass is burned, the chemistry is more or less reversed, and the original energy and raw material (CO2 and water) are released. There is then no net gain or loss of CO2, which is why biological fuels are considered to be “Carbon neutral.”

That hypothesis was given to me by Peter Harper of the Centre for Alternative Technology in justification of the plan in Zero Carbon Britain 2030 to maintain a third of current UK air traffic by biofuels.

The hypothesis says that our allotment gardener can grow a crop, return no wastes to the soil and yet receive the same crop yield (the same photosynthetic leaf area) the following season. Plainly, Zero Carbon Britain 2030 is wrong and our ordinary gardener is right.

Here’s the truth – If we grow a crop, return nothing to soil but gas (& if lucky, ashes), then the following season’s crop will be smaller. Soil life (soil carbon) will diminish, area of leaf presented for photosynthesis will shrink and atmospheric carbon dioxide will increase. That is even before burning the crop. Biofuels of any kind (apart from AD) have a greater climate change effect than any fossil fuels.

(Anaerobic digestion replicates natural fermentation. It gathers gas for energy, while returning “digestate” to the soil.)

The tragedy is that IPCC climate change calculations assume the same (CAT) hypothesis. I propose that climate change is advancing far more rapidly than expected because “none land use change” biofuels have been entered in IPCC’s carbon budgeting as “carbon neutral”.

I’ve heard friends of mine repeat the above hypothesis with the careful tones of those who’ve come to understand a complex and esoteric idea. In the last few years we’ve had “important” BBC programmes reiterating it – most notably a series by the director of Kew Gardens and another by the particle physicist Professor Brian Cox. Both speak in hushed and awe- struck wonder at the power of photo synthesis. Of course it is right to marvel at the power of photosynthesis and the viewer is hooked. Yet the hypothesis is wrong.

How has this happened? It would not matter that it had happened if we were arguing the virtue of a hypothesis. The beauty of scientific hypotheses is that they always have been and always will be wrong. But the hypothesis has been universally accepted and applied in the carbon budgets of nation states, corporations – in personal and small business carbon footprints and finally in the Paris Climate Change Accord. All, assume that burning biomass can be carbon neutral if there has been no land-use change – that is energy from wastes, arable crops, “novel” crops (such as kelp & algae) and forestry are all considered to be carbon neutral.

I propose that physicists who dominate the climate calculation community (and perhaps intimidate it) have not entered the existing energy in the life which they’d burn. Biomass is entered as mass, which becomes energy by combustion. I think they miss a coefficient of time. Biomass carbon is entered by the same value that a lifeless mass of coal is entered – by its mass on the scales.

Consider this analogy to what has been done. Our IPCC physicist attributes to a pond of water (coal) the same mass as a river (life). But the pond has no energy, while the river is undeniably energetic!

As our physicist sits on the river bank, the mass of water is increased per second, per minute, per… while the pond (for the purpose of argument) remains the same. The animal biomass which writes this piece about biomass, will shortly stand up and walk to the veg field, where it will pick up a hoe and begin to hoe. That energy to do this and that – to change the mass of this and that, is ignored. The river is just a pond, says Professor Brian Cox. (as Albert Einstein turns in his grave)

Sometimes it needs a farmer/gardener to tell a physics professor what is truly what – as Albert Einstein knew – testing relativity by Newton.

Albert might tell me how better to enter the burning of biomass into a climate change prediction. For a start this simple rustic suggests mass/hour – a system for mass, similar to that we use for energy – kw/hour. I leave that to others, particularly because I don’t think we’ll find a proper energy coefficient for highly variable life. Sadly, I leave it as the lost coefficient of time – and tragically lost time – and rapidly accelerating climate change.

I suppose that 32ft per second sq. is embedded in that flow of water, just as the linear contribution of sunlight has entered the leaves. Sun and gravity are (for our purpose) linear, constant contributions.

We change and engage with variables not constants, otherwise we engage in futility.

Anyway, this writer can gaze across his fields and see a deepening and paling of green. Sometimes colours reflect expected patterns of increasing/diminishing fertility provided by crop rotations. Sometimes they reflect the weather. Very often they reflect this farmer’s miscalculations and mistakes.

Let’s consider a willow coppice, designed for a biomass boiler. I choose the innocent-sounding willow coppice unashamedly for polemical advantage. These willows are not entered in climate predictions, of the IPCC, or in any government carbon dioxide budgets, because they are considered to be in balance – photo-synthetic re-growth & combustion gas are thought to be of equivalent value.

Moreover, Willow coppice evokes a benign image of what may go onward the same though dynasties pass…

Right – Willow coppice will shrink as dynasties pass. The area of Willow leaf presented for photosynthesis will diminish as soil life diminishes, because willow stems and leaves have been sent, every three years or so, to the furnace and insufficient biomass (in autumn leaves) has been returned to soil.

But wait, says our physicist – wastes (sewage sludge) has been returned to the field to maintain a balance.
But wait again, says I – that sewage has been removed from a food cycle elsewhere, so that distant food- producing fields have been impoverished to feed those flames of yours. The biomass and photosynthetic area of the whole has been diminished.

Wait again turnip head, says the physicist, hydro-electricity has fixed Nitrogen from the air and feeds those Willows for nothing…

Well, nitrogen does stimulate growth but it also stimulates a plant to drain its soil of every other element. (It increases leaf biomass, while reducing soil biomass) And anyway, societies will become so energy deficient that electricity generation must be channelled to domestic and infrastructure demands to avoid economic collapse. Meanwhile, burning biomass will lead to ecological collapse.

It is true that nitrogen provides a kind of battery for generated energy – particularly energy produced far from centres of population (as hydro and wind often are). But a more useful battery/storage would be in hydrogen for transport or in conventional (and new generation) batteries for direct electricity usage.


And having considered the cycles of burning and regrowth, let’s now consider what we mean by sequestration. Here again, this writer is at odds with the IPCC and most carbon auditors.

The word suggests quietude and stillness and in the case of anaerobic layers of ancient peat, coal strata and so on, so it is.

But if we consider soil it is not. Soil is alive – soil mass flows between species in variable mass at variable speeds. As we’ve seen, the energy in that mass should give living carbon a greater value (mass plus energy) than lifeless fossil carbon.

If we take biomass from the living world and bury it in a carbon sump (in the Lovelock manner) then we shrink a life cycle and diminish subsequent photo synthesis. We have prevented a return of regenerative biomass to soil and have broken the rule of return. Carbon sumps increase atmospheric carbon dioxide. The same is true of the value given to carbon embedded in house timbers and so on. Of course, the negative effect is insignificant relative to the utterly destructive effects of biofuels, but I think it important to note for the sake of understanding bio-cycles.

The linear contribution of the sun just keeps on giving. Once upon a time there was no life on Earth and it shall be so again. So, life has expanded beyond an absolute rule of return. Forest fire, volcano and reasonable human activity (such as house building and an occasional log fire) have been balanced by the awesome power of photosynthesis. Coal, gas, oil and peat, once parts of living cycles, have lain sequestered – removed from life’s cycles and yet life has continued to expand to an optimum point.

Photosynthesis gives us leeway for husbandry mistakes, for a little frugal fire, but not for burning as a way of life.

But now millions of years of sequestration have been released in just a few decades to power an extra- ordinary and unprecedented way of life that must end as that combustion ends. As fossil fuels end, the ways of life they powered must similarly end.

We cannot replace the burning of coal gas and oil with burning the life out of Earth. On the contrary we must do all we can to re-grow the mass of life of which we are a part. Diminish any part and we diminish the rest – including the biomass (in crop yield and populations) of the economies of the species Man.

Here’s something in a sort of physicist language (possibly).

When economy and ecology are seamlessly enmeshed, then both can run at optimum speeds. When not, friction between them will slow both their cycles, grind down biomass and release wasted economic heat…

We’ve lost the coefficient of time.

Here are frightening statistics from UK Government’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra):

Electricity – Bioenergy 44%, wind 20%, Hydro 4%, solar 3%
Transport – Bio diesel 6%, bioethanol 3%
Heat – wood 15%, other biomass 4%, solar thermal & other 1%
So, biofuels account for 72% of UK’s so called renewable energy production. Only 28% may be called truly renewable.
Bioenergy 61.97%, wind 28.17% hydro 5.63%, solar 4.23%

I think many nation states must consume a higher proportion of truly renewable energy, but even so, I propose that biofuels explain the unexpected rapidity of climate change.

Even organisations such as Biofuel Watch, which campaigns very effectively against profligate burning, do so because it is crazy to grow crops for the furnace rather than for food. What’s more, biofuel crops grown by land use change are agreed by all to emit more carbon than they save. However, I know of none who oppose all biofuels from first principles. That is crazy, since every gardener, allotment-holder, or window-box tender should understand the rule of return – that subsequent crops cannot be grown on a diet of gas and ashes – that imported fertility must be taken from somewhere else, where fertility has been diminished.

Biofuels are a part of a fossil-fuelled hubris that cannot see why its extraordinary way of life must end. It turns blindly from burning one thing to wildly burning another. We’ve powered a way of life by combustion. It is the combustion (internal and external) which must end.

(July 2016) ***

By Patrick Noble, from his book Towards a Convivial Economy.