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Carbon is the good guy

Carbon today has become the prime villain in climate change narrative. But carbon is not the bad guy we make it out to be. It is our inability to manage carbon that is creating this crisis.

Carbon plays a crucial role in maintaining ecosystem health by serving as the basis for energy flow and the building block for organic matter. The following are some of the ways in which carbon contributes to ecosystem health:

  1. Photosynthesis: Carbon is the primary component of photosynthesis, which provides energy and organic matter to the ecosystem.

  2. Organic matter: Carbon, combined with other elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur, forms the organic matter that is essential to soil fertility and ecosystem health.

  3. Soil structure: Organic matter helps to improve soil structure, water-holding capacity, and nutrient availability, which supports plant growth and contributes to ecosystem health.

  4. Biodiversity: Ecosystems with high levels of organic matter and carbon support a diversity of species, contributing to ecosystem resilience and stability.

  5. Carbon cycling: The cycling of carbon through the atmosphere, land, and water is a key component of the Earth's climate and ecosystem health.

Maintaining and improving the carbon content of ecosystems plays a crucial role in maintaining and improving ecosystem health. The trick is to recognise where carbon balance is out of kilter and correct it.

In simple words, industrialisation has extracted too much carbon from the ground (mainly in the form of fossil fuels) and put it in the air. If we can put this extra fugitive carbon back into the earth, we can bring back the balance. Easier said than done. But with the right tools it is not just possible but can be financially viable too. All we need to do is employ scientific methods that connect the dots.

Wasted opportunity:

The contribution of waste mismanagement to total carbon emissions in India is difficult to estimate precisely, as data on waste management practices and associated emissions can be limited. However, it is estimated that the waste sector contributes around 2-3% of India's total carbon emissions.

Improper waste management practices, such as open burning of waste and illegal dumping, can release greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, contributing to India's carbon emissions. Additionally, the energy consumed by landfilling and incineration of waste can also contribute to carbon emissions.

So we've got this mountain of waste that not only emits GHG's but also causes severe damage to the ecosystems where it is disposed. What do we do with it?

The carbon content of biochar (a type of charcoal that is produced from the pyrolysis of organic materials such as agricultural waste, forestry residues, food waste and other biomass) produced from the pyrolysis of municipal solid waste (MSW) can vary from 30%-60%, depending on several factors, including the composition of the waste and the conditions of the pyrolysis process. Typically, biochar produced from MSW has a carbon content of around 30-60%.

The estimated daily waste generation in India varies depending on the source, but it is estimated to be around 62 million tons per day. This waste is generated by both urban and rural populations and can include a variety of materials, such as household waste, industrial waste, agricultural waste, and construction waste. If we do the math, pyrolysis of this waste can convert 10-15 million tons of carbon into biochar. Every single day.

The amount of energy that can be produced from the pyrolysis of one ton of municipal solid waste (MSW) can vary widely depending on the composition of the waste and the conditions of the pyrolysis process. However, it is estimated that one ton of MSW can produce around 300-600 kWh of energy.

So, in theory, pyrolysis of 60 million tons of MSW can generate 18 TWH of energy per day. On an average, India currently produces 4 TWH of electricity every day. Even if we pyrolyze 10% of India's waste, we can meet half our energy needs.

Ok, so now we have removed the threat of emission of this carbon into atmosphere, created an abundance of energy and locked it into biochar. Where do we put this mountain of carbon?

The carbon content in Indian soils varies depending on several factors such as soil type, climate, land use, and management practices. However, on average, the carbon content of Indian soils is relatively low compared to other regions. The carbon content of Indian agricultural soils ranges from 0.5-3% and is often depleted due to poor management practices, such as tillage and overuse of synthetic fertilizers. In comparison, the carbon content of undisturbed forest soils in India is typically much higher, ranging from 4-8%.

Low soil carbon levels can result in poor soil structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity, which can negatively impact crop yields. Increasing soil carbon levels through practices such as reducing tillage, using organic fertilizers, and adding biochar to the soil can help to improve soil health and increase crop productivity.

Biochar can be used to increase soil carbon. When added to soil, biochar can act as a long-term carbon sink, as it is highly stable and resistant to degradation, and can persist in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years. By increasing the carbon content in the soil, biochar can help to improve soil structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity, which can benefit crop growth and yields.

Biochar also has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon in the soil and reducing the need for tillage, which can otherwise lead to carbon oxidation and emissions. However, the impact of biochar on soil carbon sequestration will vary depending on factors such as the type of biochar used, application rate, and soil type.

Biochar has been shown to improve soil fertility, water retention and increase crop yields. The exact impact on crop yield varies based on factors such as type of crop, soil quality and climate conditions. In some cases, studies have reported yield increases of 20-50%.

The presence of organic carbon in the soil provides a source of energy for soil microorganisms, which in turn improve nutrient cycling and soil fertility. This can lead to better root development and increased uptake of essential nutrients, ultimately resulting in improved crop yields. However, more research is needed to fully understand the effects of biochar on crop yield and to determine the optimal conditions for its use.

So let's stop blaming carbon for our problems. We are the one's who pulled it out of the earth and released it into the atmosphere. It's time to put it back where it belongs, so it can support life, not kill it.

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