Episode 28, Inside COP22 Marrakech with Albert Bates
Todays guest is Albert Bates who we spoke to last year because he attended the COP21 Paris Climate Conference so he gave us the inside story on that in Episode 16.
Albert also went to the latest Climate Conference, COP22 in Marakech and so he’ll be sharing with us what the so-called world leaders are doing about Climate Change and many other environmental issues.
I had to put Part 2 of Episode 27 on hold because there is time sensitive information in these next two podcasts, but do stay tuned. There will be a follow up towards the end of this month.
Albert is a really great communicator, educator, and advocate for positive change in the world. I love reading his blog posts, and of course, having him on the show whenever I can. He recently created a Patreon page where you can go and support his important work. I’m definitely a Patron, and recommend you do to. We need more people like Albert around. You can google it or find the link to his Patreon page in the show notes for this episode.
Next weeks guest is Peter Bane, who was actually our very first guest for the very first episode of this podcast, and he never fails to amaze so be sure to subscribe, and follow Realeyes Homestead on facebook to get updates when our new episodes come out.
Thank you for listening.
See you next time.
Music Credit: Speed Me Towards Death by Rob Dougan (Instrumental)
- Why didn’t we hear much about COP22 in Marakech?
- How the US election affected the conference
- Origins of the COP (Conference of the Parties) conferences
- Whole Earth Summit
- Kyoto Protocol
- How Clinton and Obama botched the COP 15 Copenhagen Treaty
- Who Brought Obama around on Climate Change
- Which set the stage for the Paris Climate Agreement at COP 21 in 2016
- The unexpectedly rapid ratification of the Paris Agreement by most countries
- Where Change comes from (bottom-up)
- Incentives vs. Fines/Taxes
- Discussion of Bio-mimicry, Permaculture, Ecological engineering and Circular economies in the Conference
- Huge interest in Creating more Eco-villages
- Albert’s “Cool Tool” Biochar
- What about the Cities?
- Upcoming courses and opportunities to work with Albert
Levi: It’s kind of appropriate too because last time we talked about the Paris Climate agreement, COP 21 and now there’s this new on in Marrakech – COP 22. You kind of mentioned this when we first started that it didn’t get a lot of press because it happened it happened pretty much at the time of US election, which of course took over all media outlets.
Albert: Actually the election happened during the starting week of the COP so it was an interesting transition there within the conference itself as people came to grips with the reality that you had to use Donald Trump and President of the United States together in one sentence.
Levi: So that was towards the beginning of the conference at that?
Albert: It was like the second or third day of the conference.
Levi: So how did that shift, even just the mood or how people talked?
Albert: I think that most people were caught off guard. I don’t think the majority of people there thought that such a thing could even happen. So when it actually happened, they were thunderstruck, jaw dropped, didn’t know how to react, couldn’t believe it, and had to go back and consult with their delegation at home to figure out what they doing. It was just so unexpected for many. For me, I looked at it like, ‘well, I live in Tennessee. It’s a red state. I know what’s going on.’ This does not come as a great shock to me. It was definitely a challenge and it took a few days, I would say, maybe the better part of the first week and into the second week before people got their sea-legs and began to recognize that there was no way that the momentum that was created in Paris can be undone. It has absolutely nothing to do with who is President of the United States or whether there’s Republican Congress or any of that. That’s one country out of 195 and it’s also important from the standpoint of it’s not national governments that are leading the way these days. Who’s really leading the way I the global economy and that we crossed this threshold between renewable and fossil fuels and there’s no going back and that renewables are the way forward in the future for anybody’s economy. If you try to go back to fossil fuels and coals and that sort of thing in this time, you’re just condemning your country to second class status in the world at a number of levels.
Levi: That threshold that you mentioned, are you talking about cost per kw-h that renewables are now more affordable than many forms of fossil fuel?
Albert: Yeah. If you take away the subsidies for fossil fuels, it’s even more ridiculous. But right. If we cross this point, we also cross this point of speed of the rollout. So the amount in which the transition picks up momentum and it’s to the point now where nobody is out building (even natural gas plants) — Well, I can’t say nobody. I mean, we’ve got some holdouts in Australia and other places, and India, which are still building coal plants. It’s kind of like the nuclear industry in the United States. No business in their right mind would build a nuclear plant but if you put enough government money and enough government push behind it then you might get one. That’s kind of happening with coal and various places but I think that sort of thing is just very much the dinosaur wiggling its tail for the last time before it croaks.
Levi: Yes. I hope you’re right. That’s a pretty optimistic view. So jumping back a little bit. What were some of the original intentions or agreements that all these countries made at last year’s Paris Climate talks?
Albert: Okay. Let’s jump back even further then. I’ll just go back to the reason we called this COP 22. It means the Conference of Parties. Parties to what? The parties of the real convention which is back at Real Earth Summit in 1992. It was the first Earth summit. That adopted 3 treaties (3 conventions) there: Biological Diversity; Convention and Combat Desertification; and Climate Change Conference (framework convention on climate change). Recently, they added a fourth one which is the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. So they were looking at the whole earth and they said, “Let’s meet every year and let’s work on these problems together.” This is the 22nd conference that just happened in December in that line. There were 197 parties in Paris with near universal membership. That was where they birthed the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement.
Levi: Back when these meetings (Earth summit) first started, it was at the origin of the Kyoto Protocol?
Albert: Kyoto was COP 10 or something like that. It was 10 or 12 years on and what you were doing at that point– The first stage is a really basic organization stuff. How do you chart a roadmap that gets you to something that all countries could all agree upon and how to enforce it and so on and so forth? When they started in 1994, the US and 166 countries ratified the convention on climate change. That was the basic treaty. There was less scientific evidence then than there is now. You look back then and they were going on the Montreal Protocol which went back to 1987 to ban hydrofluorocarbons in the atmosphere to stop to ozone effect. The Montreal Protocol broke ground in a significant way because it was based on a precautionary principle. It said that it’s in an interest of member states to act for human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty. So back in 1994, there was much more scientific uncertainty. They started the international conference of scientist (the IPCC) and that began to fill in the gaps that they had in the science and they had these other issues that came up as they negotiated. Over the course of twenty or more years, you start to get into tougher problems like legacy on missions. The rich company is industrialized at the expense of the atmosphere comments gaining wealth through their eras of coal and oil that rightfully belongs to the whole earth and to all nations. Because of that, industrialized nations have special obligations. So over the course of many years, they agreed under the convention to support climate change activities in developing countries by providing financial support and technological transfer action on climate change above and beyond the other assistance to development that had already been happening and above and beyond the requirements for the developing world. Now you have this issue that has been raised in recent years after Kyoto of what about countries that now get to the stage like India and china where they’re industrialized and where they’re becoming the largest polluters. Really they shouldn’t have a differentiated responsibility at this point. They should be putting in as much as everybody else and trying to bring it back to a pre-industrial atmosphere. Those aspects are all the nitty-gritty of what goes on at these conferences. Then we had sort of watershed moment at Copenhagen back in 2009 COP 15. That was the point at which the countries of the world were to have signed a legally binding treaty with hard limits on admissions and fixed targets that were backed by sanctions. The annual meetings for more than 10 years had been leading up to that very moment and the big players (China, India, Russia, and Europe) were all on board. At the last minute you had Hillary Clinton and the new President, Back Obama, arrive and scotch the whole deal. You can go back now and you can listen to what they say and their own fake news tells a different narrative and blames it on house Republicans but in fact what they did was refuse to sign and to give the other big players to agree a substitute a voluntary pledge system for the legally binding treaty that had been pre-negotiated. In order for Obama and Clinton to get that to happen, they put forward this proposal of 100 billion dollars, basically the slush fund or the bribe to get other countries to go with this voluntary pledge system instead of a binding treaty. Well, there was kind of this buyers’ remorse that followed Copenhagen and it wasn’t just the activist who were feeling like they’d been betrayed. IT was pretty much a lot of the countries of Europe and others who has worked so hard for this treaty and then had seen it go down in flames. So for 5 years, they tried to recover from that Copenhagen disaster. In that same period of time, you had this backroom scene at the White House with John Holdren, the President’s Science Advisor, gradually schooling him on the science of climate change and letting him know in certain terms that this is probably the largest issue facing anybody in the world and that it’s an existential question and that he really needs to get behind this. So he brought in White House Aide Brian Deese and others to help him change his blocking and begin to make progress on the negotiations, not set up the Paris deal.
Levi: Can you describe blocking?
Albert: Sure. We’re going back to the pre-Paris shenanigans. For many years, the United States was kind of a secret block on this process. So they slowed things down. It was obvious during the Bush years it was no secret there but when you got into the Obama and Clinton years, it was really not so obvious but it was still going on. Actually, much more progressive initiatives coming from China and others and the US was kind of working behind the scene to slow things down and to make sure that they didn’t ask for too much and that we didn’t have to actually reduce our missions or keep to our pledge in Kyoto.
Levi: I’m wondering about the motive. You were saying that Clinton and Obama were blocking and slowing the process earlier in his terms. I was wondering, do you have any feeling on the motives?
Albert: Yeah. I don’t really know. I can’t really speculate on what goes on in people’s minds. To some extent, I have to say they were not getting good enough science advice. Bless John Holdren and Brian Deese and others who eventually got to the president. John Holdren being the President’s Science Advisor. They eventually got him to be fully aware and he actually turned around. With Hillary and that crowd, I have to say there’s a lot of this fossil fuel investment that’s stranded and they were pretty heavily invested in this mantra of everything, all choices. We’re going to do nuclear, we’re going to do fossil, and we’re going solar. We’re going to do all of it at once because we need all of it to make our empire great. They were kind of wedded to that and they were also playing real politic with the Republicans so they figured they could find the middle ground and seize the middle electorate if they moderate their views and so forth. So there was sort of the political angle. You saw it happening around the world but I think at some point you have to come to Jesus moment when you actually understand the implications of what happens when you actually get to one degree, two degree, three degree, four degree, five degree places that the humans species has never been before. What was it like when you walk out doors and it’s above forty or above 100 Fahrenheit. What was it like when it’s above 50 or above 120 Fahrenheit? What was happens when instead of having that once or twice a year? That happens 90 a year? So those kinds of things, those questions when they finally start to have those kinds of moments of realization, I think that definitely has an effect. So going back to the Kyoto, that was Clinton and Gore period. Gore was the one who rode it on the white horse and saved the deal (at least that’s the way the narrative goes). In actually, what happened in Kyoto was, at the final hour they did agree on a fixed number for every country based on its differentiate norm. The more developed world owes more so has to come down more and the less developed world has a room to grow a little bit and even can increase their emissions. Based on that formula, you had targets based on the 1990 or 1994 levels of emissions. The United States was supposed to come down by a few percent in its overall emissions by some fixed date (like 1998 or 2000). The United States did not do anything like that. It just kept expanding and growing and expanding emissions and so did China, India, and all the ones who were allowed to. As a result, we got this runaway effect of more industries worldwide, more emissions worldwide. The Mauna Loa data that Charles got put up there just kept going up and up and up.
Levi: Part per million? Four hundred parts per million.
Albert: Exactly. With no sign of coming down. So for many years until the agreement, everyone was trying to do something and nothing was much happening. Then Paris set this new target, right? The new target was two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspirational goal of 1.5. To reach those goals, you have to have appropriate financial flows, you have to new technology framework, you have to have enhanced capacity building all put in place. Those were the kind of discussions that went on in Paris. The more significant things I think that happened in Paris was they actually started to think about how you can do draw agroforestry systems, how you can have tree-planting and how you can have agroforestry systems and how you can have renewable energy conversions and actually there can be a global stock take every five years and if you’re not moving fast enough, you have to increase your efforts. All of that was actually for the first time letting science lead the way, saying, “Okay. Practically now, let’s see how we can do this.” It was as if all of the various disasters that had happened with the hurricanes in the Philippines and the various kinds of flooding and hurricane Katrina and what-not, it had opened the eyes of people who I thought that this was a problem that could be put on a back burner. Now in Paris you have this treaty and then what happened next surprised everyone, which was a head of expectations. You have 126 parties ratified Paris by last summer. So out of 197, 196 ratified in less than six months. That surprised everybody. So by the fifth of October, amongst before the start of the Marrakech conference, the Paris Agreement had entered into legal force. So the first session of the conference of parties that arrived through the meeting in Paris was called CMA1 (the meeting of parties to the Paris Agreement). That’s the new regime. That took place from 15th to 18th of November in Marrakech.
Levi: The agreement or the treaty that was made in Paris– was that then optional or are those legally binding?
Albert: The point of Paris was to set the goals. To tell the fossil industry that their time is over and to send a signal to the renewable energy industry that it’s time to ramp up. It was this cybernetic ways of thinking and gamesmanship and going back to Ronald Neiberg and some others in the early days of the computer where they started– and actually game theory that goes back to Herman Kahn in the early nuclear war game theory– It’s about creating systems where you encourage people to take the next step. If you get into combat where you’re arguing over points, then you come to loggerheads and it’s a seesaw and nobody really wins. It’s back and forth all the time. It goes through cycles. To get actual progress to move it off of that and move it forward, it’s often better to not have a clear sense of winning and losing but rather a sense of a gradual progression or evolution to something better all the time. The idea of Paris (and this is sort following on the Copenhagen thing) is that you set pledge systems in place but then you find ways to put incentives for upping your pledges. Dis-incentives, if you don’t meet you pledge, those can be economic and other things but the encouraged faster progression than just setting laws and adding some law breaking and some buyers. Who around the UN is a police force than enforce a carbon tax. There isn’t nobody, right? So sooner and later, you have some rogue government (oh, I don’t know. Donald Trump?) That would take power and they just snub their noses at the idea of carbon tax and that would be the end of it. So instead of that, they simply put the onus on engineers and on the fossil fuel investors to say, ‘ okay. We’re out of that era. We’re sending market signals here. We recognize the governments are slow to change but the businesses can’t be slow to change that they have to stay ahead of what’s going on. So in broad stoke, we need to re-establish a relatively stable climate and that’s going to be good for business. But to do that, we’re going to have to have some cooperation and we’re going to have a reform of agriculture, reform of transportation, energy systems, the built environment, houses, and cities. All of these are going to have to go to version 2.0. You guys are lucky. You’re going to profit from all of this. Let’s go ahead and figure out how to make it happen.’
Levi: These incentives and dis-incentives, they’re mostly financial?
Albert: Yeah. Actually, it’s not coming from government’s per se. Governments are sort of studying the bar and saying that this is where we’d like to go but industry is now responding to that saying, “Oh, well! If you’re going that way, if you’re going to take away fossil fuel subsidies eventually, if you’re going to give more help to renewable energy, then let’s clean our portfolio and let’s reposition ourselves for this new kind of paradigm.” So what you saw was this multi-billion and multi-million packages for support of clean technologies. Building capacity to report back on climate action plans and initiatives and helping developing to develop faster with renewables. You had something like 165 countries and under two coalitions, under two degrees coalitions. Those are countries that committed to reduce their emissions by 80% by 2050. So that’s 665 members there and the combined GDP of those is close to 26 trillion, which is a third of the global economy. It’s about a billion living in North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. So now you’re starting to have initiatives where you’re putting real money to work. You saw the issuance of things like green bonds by Deutsche Bank and Citibank and they’re talking in number like (I’m trying to get the actual number here) 500 billion dollars in 2016 in green bonds going out to projects that would be involving renewable or water and building projects that were in line with carbon reduction. So everybody’s sort of swapping over to this new economy. That’s why I said when the dust had settled on the US election, everybody sort of had this moment of realization. ‘Oh, Trump can’t stop this. This is not something that one country or one person can stop or even the Republican congress.” They can go back and they can build coal plants if they want. They can build nuclear plants if they want. That’s wasting their time and wasting their money because the world is spending trillions on looking for alternatives to that and advancing that industry and anybody who doesn’t get on board with that is going to be left in the dust.
Levi: So I have to ask. What would you say to people who are more leaning towards the idea of a free market economy where they don’t agree with this type of– I guess controlling it from a top-down way.
Albert: I don’t think there is any top-down control. That’s kind of like a fiction. You can go to a Brittenburg meeting or to Bilderburg. One of those kind of wants where you go and you attend these seminars and you hear from all the other masters of the universe. But honestly, there’s not a lot that can be done at that level. It doesn’t happen that way. What really starts to happen is people put solar cells on their roof. Maybe there’s a company that out-bids another company for their business by having better batteries or having a better feed-in Tarrif deal for getting a grid tie. When you do that, that’s all happening at the grassroots. That’s happening at the bottom level where people are actually deciding to change their personal lifestyle. They find pretty soon that they like it more, that’s it better for them. The stories of it not being better are pretty rare and the stories of people who enjoy that kind of thing and really enjoy their new life are better, are much more common. So you get this snowball effect, right? Snowball start very mall but by the time they got to Paris, it was pretty big snowball and now Marrakech, it’s like 10 times bigger. I’m solely amazed at some of the things I saw going on there. I’ll give you an example. On the final day of the conference, you had the secretary general of the British Commonwealth. This is Baroness Patricia Scotland . She gets up to the joint high level segment and each of the leader is given three minutes to close out the conference. She speaks for the Commonwealth collectively of 52 member states. Among them countries on all continents and it includes highly vulnerable island countries and it includes desert countries in Africa. So she’s speaking from the standpoint of half the world or third of the world that is directly affected by real climate change but has advantage of a common language and common laws and close to related systems of governance. She says, “Okay, look. A month ago, we (the British Commonwealth) convened the ground-breaking and dynamic gathering on regenerative development to reverse climate change. She tells the UN people that she brought together biologists, ecologists, oceanographers, regenerative development specialists to consider ways to reverse the human impacts on climate change. I got to say (I was at that meeting) Maddie Harland from the permaculture magazine in the UK, people from the Buckminster Fuller Institute, Janine Benyus from Bio-mimicry, Tom Goreau from the Coral Reef Alliance. A lot of us were there. John Liu of Ecological Restoration. I’ll give you a direct quote here on what she’s told the planetary. She said, “Our focus was on developing positive action for the living world to restore climate balance, including bio-mimicry, permaculture, ecological engineering and circular economies. It’s through such pioneering approaches, I believe, that as on so many occasions in the past, the potential for our Commonwealth’s networks meetings will be mobilized to lay the foundations on which progressive global consensus can be built to create a safer and more sustainable future for all. So here’s someone who is addressing the UN plenary and using the word permaculture without having to define it. I got to tell you. This is when the snowball gets pretty big when we’re starting to see real change. She’s manage to insert in a high-level deliberations in the intergovernmental agencies this keyword “swarm” that was foreign to them but it’s familiar to permaculturists. Regenerative development, biomimicry, ecological engineering, circular economies. When we were there in Marrakech, we kept meeting with government officials. We had a global eco-village network that I was representing, signed memorandum of agreement with several African country to build more eco-villages. China wants to build 100 eco-villages in 5 years. The government of Senegal has 12,000 eco-villages they want to build. You got Morocco, you got more attendee, you’ve got others that want to build eco-villages and they want consulting help, they want others to come and assist in their development and design. Patricia Scotland said to us, “You want access? You have it!” They’re looking for the solution now. They’ve got the picture. They’re looking for people who have solutions. So for me, the solution is don’t bank money, bank soil. If you want to stop climate, take it out in the air and put it on the ground. Take the carbon out. So that’s the solution. Let’s plant trees. Really, that’s where we come in as permaculturists. It’s to come and show them how to do it now.
Levi: Then basically, sounds like the intentions of the Paris Climate Agreement were basically met and the moved forward.
Albert: I don’t there’s many startling breakthrough that’s happening in Marrakech that’s not expected. What was startling was the fact that the Paris Agreement had been ratified so soon. Nobody expected it to be ratified by the time of Marrakech but it was already ratified. So now, what happened there was fine lining it. How do we have the stock take in 3 years and what do they need to assist the countries that are already on the way. For my group (the eco-village network), it was kind of really impressive. We had these little Pokémon things at every booth and you get from the UN organizers that give you this US bead that you would carry around on a keychain. When you came into a booth you like, you could download all their literature by rubbing our usb magnet front over this little pokey and then you’d have all that on your usb that you took home. You’d didn’t to exchange paper. So what that also did is it data (big data) so that as the conference wore on, the UN could see which booths were getting the most traffic. Who were getting the most downloads at their booths through these handout usb things?
Levi: That’s pretty cool.
Albert: Yeah. So now, after about a week, they told us that we were in the top ten percent (the global eco-village network)
Albert: So it’s like, ‘why is that? Why are all these government officials and delegations, business people and so on, coming to us?’ Well, eco-village is showing people at a very personal level that the future is something that you need to be afraid of. Our demonstration of showing 20,000 eco-villages in the world (particularly very strong bunch of them from Africa) that that was infectious. Now we have friends in high places. My cool tool is the Terra Pretta do Indeo (the dark earth of the Amazon), the idea that you could put carbon into soil and it also builds soil fertility. You put that into an eco-village design context so now you begin to have net draw down carbon negative eco-villages. I don’t use carbon negative very much. It’s kind of bad programming. I like draw down. It’s a pretty good word.
Levi: But isn’t draw down– I’ve heard that used in the Overshoot book to talk about drawing down all resources as a negative thing rather than draw down of–
Albert: Well. I’m using in Paul Hawkins sense of draw down from the atmosphere into the soil. But you got to be careful about the words in this context. They haven’t come up with really good things. My favorite word is cool. My idea is we can create a cool meme of what it is that we want to do that sets a style point, as well as repair the atmosphere.
Levi: Yeah. I know. That sounds brilliant. Like the idea of using bio-char or terra-preta to bank carbon. I guess for those who are not familiar, do you want to give us just a little synopsis of how that works?
Albert: For thousands of years, we had this practice by indigenous people actually deepening the soils while they fed large populations of people. It was kind of–
Levi: Is that in South America?
Albert: Yeah. It was in many parts of the world. We’re now learning as we do more archaeology on this but this process was first discovered in the Amazon basin around the equator. It’s very unusual that you find deep ridge black soils close to the equator. Usually in the tropics where you had these two distinct seasons of rainy and dry seasons, fertility is not stored in the soil. It’s stored in the living biomass. So when the tree dies, it goes back very quickly into another generation of vegetation, rather than going into the soil for future storage.
Levi: And that’s because all that rain leaches the nutrients out?
Albert: That’s part of it. It’s partly because of the clay soils that haven’t been glaciated in so long. It’s also the fact that you don’t have a temperate season. You don’t have a cold winter that covers everything and allows it to incubate for a while. There’s a lot of reasons for that but the basics of it are that you create this relatively infertile clayey soil in most of the tropics. Then if you actually go and farm that intensively as they did in the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, in the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates in the Middle East, and in Northern Africa, and northern part of China. Those early cradles of civilizations had one thing in common. They all created deserts. That’s what happens if you take those fragile soils and you overwork them in irrigation and the plow, and so forth. Pretty soon you have a desert. In Brazil, the opposite happened and the reason was that you had people who learned this technique of adding hard-fixed carbon to soil. You can call it charcoal but I don’t like to use that word because charcoal also implies something that you’re buying at a hardware store to put your stake on and it may have additives to make it burn evenly or so forth, but you don’t know how it’s made. What they made was what we’re calling bio-char which is essentially a pure form of biomass that’s been burned in the absence of oxygen to create a very hard matrix of molecular structure (kind of like graphite). What is does is it stays for a very long period. You look at the soils of the equator around Brazil where they started making these soils years ago. They carbon-dated them now (something like 8,000 years ago was the first that they found) and 4,000 years ago there was a real hayday of it where it was spreading widely all over the whole region. They were going meters deep in these rich, black soils. The heavier the population, the deeper the soil, which is exactly the opposite to the agriculture on the other side of the world where the more people who have, the more your soil was depleted. Most of the world was going from soils that had started at 20 percent more carbon after the last ice age and got quickly down to 5 percent or less today (some places at 1 or 2 percent). Whereas in the tropics of the South and Central America, you’re finding soils that are meters deep and were man-made. So it’s a different style of agriculture. As we look more at that, we can see how we can do that pretty much anywhere. When we do that, we’re taking carbon that would otherwise go off to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide if you burn it or if you let methane decompose. Even if you’re composting, that’s going to cycle back to the atmosphere, even from the upper layers of the soil. Also, animal agriculture. As manure breaks down, it gives off methane and carbon dioxide that goes back to the atmosphere. What you’re doing by converting it, by pyrolyzing it, by turning it into this bio-char, is you’re replicating this ancient indigenous Indian technology that actually brings about a diminishment of carbon in the atmosphere and by that same move, a diminishment in the oceans because the oceans are trying to equalize with the atmosphere all the time. So you’re decarbonizing both the atmosphere at the ocean by re-carbonizing the soil. That’s what bio-char is in a short statement.
Levi: I know you have to burn wood to create the bio-char but is that a carbon negative process?
Albert: Actually, you don’t burn it. You bake it.
Levi: No, I mean you have to burn something on the outside to bake it?
Albert: I mean, it depends on how you get your heat. The thing is, you’re not burning. Burning is oxidization, right? So if you think about it, you think about a wooden match. You strike a wooden match and you got a little phosphorus tip at the end of that match so it has a bright yellow flame as it sparks into light. Now it begins to burn and you see a little waft of smoke coming off the end of that match. you light whatever it is you’re going to light and if you let it continue to burn until it hits the point at which your thumb and your index finger starts to feel the heat, what you get is this long black carbon thing. If you blow it out, if you quench it at some point, you’re left with this little piece of charcoal in your hand (maybe a little piece of wood where your thumb is) and what you got there is the two-stage process of burning biomass. The first stage is where you’re burning the gases that are pent up inside the wood. So you’re raising the temperature. The gases start to go off, they volatize. Those gases are burned in a flame with smoke and then as you keep going, you begin to burn the wood itself. The carbon itself combines to become carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide and it begins to turn to ash. The carbon is going off to the atmosphere at that point. If you stop it before that happens, it you left with that piece of charcoal in your fingers, what you got now is you’ve just burned off the gases but you’re left behind with the carbon itself, which is a fertilizer. When you put that into the ground, if you look at it under a microscope, it’s full of pores and that become habitat for microbes, bacteria, and soil microorganisms (the soil food web). They love that stuff. They can’t eat it, it’s not useful that way but it’s useful as habitat for them and it stores water when it rains and it stores air in the soil (all these good things). That’s the part that we’re actually saving. We’re not burning that part. We’re quenching the fire before we burn down the carbon. My goal is to put this into the eco-village design context, right? Now we start to think about how can we design a permacultural settings, whether they’re small holder farms or eco-districts that are net sequestering and that the energy systems may have rotational biomass waste after you’ve made your food, after you’ve fed it to your animals or fed it to yourself, you have various forms of waste in that process. Now you’ve processed that, some of that is going to be needed for compost that goes back to feeding the next generation of plants. But a lot of that can go into making things like bio-char and bio-fertilizers which can then serve as carbon sequestration. If you do that on an appropriate scale where you’re balancing the size of your population to the ability of your biomass to support it, now you can into the cycles that they had in America for thousands of years and in Australia and other parts of the world as well where you’re able to have a virtuous cycle of soil building (where the soil gets deeper and richer year in, year out). That’s the kind of solution year in tools that’s profitable, actually. It makes it so that you have sources of income for farms and for industries and you get your energy and you get your fuels for various purposes (cooking and whatever). At the same time, you’re reversing climate change by depriving the atmosphere of stuff that would otherwise get and now beginning to go back to the whole scene in which we evolved.
Levi: Totally with you there. I was wondering though. So many people now (I think the majority of
humans) live in cities. So the idea of building eco-villages– I guess I was wondering if you also address retrofitting and also what you would say for people who live in basically concrete jungle where there’s not an abundance of wood material to create bio-char and create an eco-village. Or is it going to be a migration?
Albert: So you’re asking a country boy to give you a lesson on urban permaculture? I have an inherent bias there because I’m somebody who has lived in cities. It’s a nice place to visit. I enjoy the culture but I don’t linger. It’s not my cup of tea. I’d much prefer being out in the countryside. But I have to recognize that with the population that we have, what we’re given, of 7 billion people and going higher all the time that we actually need to stack people in vertical configurations. If we spread them like a Kampuchean revolution across the country side, one of two things would happen. Either they would all perish, or they would all wreck the countryside (probably a little of both). So I’m kind of in favor of cities but not as ghettos, not as stacking people. I think that it’s possible and there are plenty of good examples of cities that have greened up and could feed themselves. I think that was Bill Mollison. “Every city should feed itself.” You can do that by rooftop gardening, by using all available space like what they did in China with the boats in the harbor all making food. So there are lots of ways to provide for the needs of the city without having to constantly pillage the surrounding countryside.
Levi: So we need to lift some of those bans on livestock in cities. That’s maybe a start.
Albert: Yeah, look at Miami, Florida which has chickens or New Orleans which has chickens. This is because of a large Latino population. In the case of New Orleans, because of the French tradition where you actually have free range chickens in the streets of New Orleans. It’s part of the city ordinance because there’s a cross-cultural heritage.
Levi: Yeah. It’s kind of insane that it’s been illegalized.
Albert: In a lot of South American countries you find things like [?] where people are raising guinea pigs underneath their beds and things in the cities. It’s just a cultural tradition that you have. Everybody gardens. It’s what people do. That includes animal gardening.
Levi: Cool. We should probably wrap this up for now but is there anything else that you want to share?
Albert: Well, in general, I think any realistic climate mitigation strategy has to clarify what are the requirements for a safe global climate? You got to progressively build scientific and political support for strategy but you really have to clear about this strategy. I think permaculture is where that comes in. That’s really important to clarify what needs to happen next. How do you do it on a scale and a timeframe like we’ve never seen before in human history? The first rule of holes is if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Right now, we find ourselves in this huge hole and for some strange reason, which I cannot explain, we’re continuing to dig. It’s gone to the point where we’re creating problems that our children will have a very difficult time solving if they’re able to solve them at all. So we really need to be a little more responsible as the adults to not keep doing that. What are the responsible things that people can do to take action? I would say that unless you’re planting 10 times your own weight in trees every year, stop driving. Stop even taking the bus. Unless you’re planting another 10 times your own weight in trees every year, stop flying. If you eat beef or poultry or swine, they should be pasture raised, otherwise you should be a vegan. Make your own electricity. Grow as much as your own food as you can. If you’re male, get a vasectomy. Or choose a same-sex partner. If you’re female, don’t have sex unless your partner either had a vasectomy or is of the same sex. If you’re married and you want a child, adopt a refugee. Develop a viable strategy for accelerating change within your job or your profession or existing institutions. Work on catalyzing systemic transformation. That’s a really thrilling thing to be doing. You get up in the morning with a spring in your step when you start doing that. Develop national and international alliances to educate and encourage and pressure people (decision makers) at all levels to take effective action. Get with small groups, go to the council meeting together, have potluck dinners with your neighbors. Organize. I’ll say this again. I said this before. Bank soil, not money. Make compost. Make soil. Make bio-char. Get your soil good and keep doing it. That’s the one thing you can do every day. It really makes you feel good about yourself.
Levi: When are you coming back to Tennessee at any point?
Albert: I got some interesting coming up. I got this meeting I’m going to two days from now in Merida. The government of Mexico passed a law saying that they have to go from fossil fuels to renewables fairly quickly, which is smart because they’re running out of fossil fuels fairly quickly down here. They are looking at biomass and they are having some difficult times with it thinking about the changing of the climate in the Yukatan and so forth and what did we do to have biomass plantations for feeding energy systems. So I’m going to talk to them about bio-char and regenerative agriculture and how to have ecological biomass energy systems. I’m giving a testimony to the government committee in Merida on Thursday this week. I’ll come back from that and I have a few weeks and then I’m off to Belize where I’m doing our annual permaculture course. In fact, if I was going to give a plug, I’d give it for that. We do this permaculture course at the Maya Mountain farm at Belize every year. So that starts on February 25th and goes until March 10th. It’s a fantastic course because it’s a farm that’s been working for 25 years as a permaculture farm and it’s got everything working for it. Aquaponics and food forests and animals and the whole nine yards is just a beautiful system. So we teach. We have about 15 or 20 people there on scholarship from the Lush Foundation and those are Mayan villagers. They come every year to learn. Then we have people coming in from Europe and North American and South America to also take that course, including people who are already permaculture teachers because it’s such an amazing thing that you learn just by being there. So that’s happening every soon and after that, I go back to Tennessee in the middle of March and I’m back for the season where we’ll be doing permaculture apprenticeships. We’re doing permaculture apprenticeships at the farm where people can come and stay for two months or three months and get their permaculture certificate while they’re actually engaged in farming and eco-village life with others who are of like mind. It’s another amazing experience doing the practical work while getting the certificate. Then I’m also doing occasional forays out in the world to do speaking engagements of one kind or another. I’ll be doing another course in Ireland in August (another permaculture design course at the Club Jordan eco-village) then another probably in China at the end of the year, before looking to Bonn and the climate of the UN in Bonn, Germany in November.
Levi: You’re a real mover and shaker, Albert. It’s good. It’s really good to see the increased interest into all these stuff.
Albert: Well, I just have my 70th birthday and I figure I don’t know how many good years I got left to do this kind of travel but I’m going to take advantage of it as long as I can and push as hard as I can because I think we’re on to something here. In fact, we maybe on to the only thing that can get us back to the Holocene so I better get going and I don’t have a whole lot of time to work on it so I’m going to work as hard as I can. Hopefully, I get to train up a bunch of successors. When I was in China last year in October, we trained a whole cadre of permaculture teachers. They had a lot of permaculture courses there already but they didn’t have a lot of teachers that were Chinese. So now we have permaculture teachers who were Chinese (certified and ready to go). So that’s the kind of thing where I feel like, ‘okay. I’m replacing myself.’ That’s real succession.
Levi: That’s awesome. Albert, it’s a really wonderful. You’re a wealth of inspiration so thank you so much for coming on and sharing all this message.
Albert: Thank you for having me, Levi. I hope you’d do it again soon!