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Biochar could solve smoke pollution problem in Chiang Mai



FILE PHOTO: Could biochar clear Chiang Mai's smoky skies?

The emerging technology of biochar may be at the forefront of dealing with Chiang Mai and its globally infamous smoke and air pollution. After another terrible burn season where the air quality was rated among the worst in the world, Chiang Mai is often rated the most polluted city in the world.

As scientists worldwide tackle climate change, Chiang Mai stands out as an example of how animal agriculture is a major and often overlooked part of the climate crisis. While coal burning and gas-guzzling automobiles tend to get the most attention in the climate change debate, food production is a massive contributor to the problem.

Michael Schaefer, an American university professor now running Chiang Mai’s Warm Heart Foundation explains that as people earn more money, they want to indulge in costlier foods such as meat and dairy. With the increased demand for these animal products comes an equally increased need for the staple crops that feed these animals like corn.

Corn growth has become a linchpin of farming in Chiang Mai as well as Myanmar and Laos. This farming feeds animals like chickens and pigs, whose consumption is unlikely to wane in popularity anytime soon. But burning the waste from the corn to feed livestock is what creates Chiang Mai’s massive smoke problem.

Corn is an inefficient crop with only 22% of the plant being edible making the amount of waste to be burned off problematic. The husk, cob, and corn stock have to be cleared before you can plant the next year’s crop. Other methods of clearing the land like tractors or hand picking are just too time-consuming and inefficient when a fire can do the job quickly.

The Warm Heart Foundation has proposed turning this waste in Chiang Mai into biochar, a version of charcoal that’s far more eco-friendly. Biochar can be used to make smokeless briquettes for our barbecues, as well as soil decontaminant and fertilizer. By using the waste from the burn off to create byproducts farmers can essentially have a secondary income source.

Creating biochar does not require expensive high-tech machinery, as smokeless incinerators can be built out of old oil drums or livestock feeding troughs. Putting that carbon-rich biochar back into the soil in Chiang Mai will last for thousands of years and remove it from the atmosphere.

Animal agriculture and food systems contribute 25 to 30% of the greenhouse emissions in the world according to the Our World in Data project from Oxford University. Agriculture accounts for half the usable land on the planet and 77% of that land is farming livestock, even though the animals raised only provide about 18% of the calories the world’s population consumes. Half of all the farming harvests go to feed these animals being raised for consumption. Animal agriculture also uses 15 times more land, 13 times more water, and 11 times more fossil fuel to generate protein.

It’s not a perfect solution for the environment, but a step in the right direction as converting the world to a plant-based diet is not likely anytime soon. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that farmlands roughly the size of North America and Brazil combined could be returned to nature if everyone stopped eating meat.

Letting nature take its course is still the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but without a vegan revolution, this is not likely. If Chiang Mai could start using this biochar production model it would remove hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and create more fertile fields allowing farming land to potentially be decreased and returning some land to nature.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post


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  1. Craig

    Friday, April 23, 2021 at 6:20 pm

    I’ll believe it when I see it (or don’t see it).

  2. peter pope

    Friday, April 23, 2021 at 9:12 pm

    A good step forward. At least someone tries to find a solution. Simple solution but needs to be enforced, otherwise useless. If it works it can be installed in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos aswell. Better than wait and see until you got lung cancer.

  3. ynwaps

    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 12:43 am

    Haven’t they tried that 3 years ago?

  4. Pi in the sky

    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 8:32 am

    Nobody ever wants to address the elephant in the room…overpopulation.

  5. Ton Bunchuai

    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 11:39 am

    There are always “Promises” but nothing ever comes to fruition. Lets just wait and see as it has been a problem for many years!

  6. Simon Small

    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 2:56 pm

    “Haven’t they tried that 3 years ago?”


    IIRC the problem was that it was too labour intensive as everything had to be done by hand as most of the corn fields are on hills / slopes, so it could only be done at a loss.

    The problem’s not the farmers who are barely making any profit from corn but the big companies like CP who control the prices, giving the farmers no option.

    The only way it would work I can see would be for buyers like CP having to buy a comparable amount of biochar as well, but I can’t see that happening.

  7. Crispy

    Friday, May 7, 2021 at 8:45 am

    It is another case “the polluter pays”. Why should the people of Chiang Mai pay with their health to feed meat eaters and fat food distributors?
    It’s no good sitting around lecturing producers, private companies are in business to make money.
    Government is there to resolve problems created by private enterprise. That is what government does – it passes laws and it makes regulations. The courts impose fines on those breaking the law.
    In this case, the problem crosses borders. ASEAN needs a committe to make laws and get them through member parliaments.
    Does all that sound too much of a challenge for the military governments of S E Asia? Yes it does.
    In effect, for a quiet life, the government’s turn a blind eye and sacrifice the lives of their people and the tourist industry.
    Whereas, we know that man is capable of solving very complex problems in ingenious ways if the challenge is clearly expressed as a roadblock to profits.

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Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10+ years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.

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