Biochar: A Potential Sustainable Solution to Energy and Agricultural Needs, and Climate Change Mitigation for Singapore and Southeast Asia

In addition to its agricultural and land remediation uses, biochar production generates sustainable energy. Credit: Unsplash/Sigmund

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The COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted businesses globally but also numerous sustainability projects and climate change mitigation goals. Notably, action against climate change is one of UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is rather concerning as to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and for global temperature to stay within 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, global emissions must be reduced to zero by 2030.

For land-scarce Singapore, climate change is an existential threat, given its small size and geographical location near the equator, a hotbed region for tropical storms.  Almost a decade ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed his desire for citizens to take up ownership of the environment and approach climate change by adapting the ‘Total Defence’ strategy at the launch of the Clean and Green Singapore 2011 campaign. Eight years later, Prime Minister Lee reiterated in his 2019 National Day Rally that “Both the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) and climate change defences are existential for us. These are life and death matters.”   Clearly, local policymakers are not sitting on their hands when it comes to climate change.

Yet current policy measures have not translated into sustainable results. Singapore may have contributed to 0.11% of global emissions in 2018 compared to China’s 30%, but emissions per capita is at 8.56 tons per capita, making Singapore 27th out of 142 countries based on IEA data from 2018, worse than China’s 7.95 tons per capita and 39th spot in the same report. The annual transboundary haze affecting Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia continues unabated without a definite solution, a sign that the region as a whole is not meeting its target for climate change mitigation. Noteworthily, COVID-19 has made food security a higher priority concern for Singapore, especially when 90% of its food is imported and subjected to the volatilities of the global food market, including climate change and the pandemic.

Here, Biochar is proposed as a potential solution applicable to Singapore and Southeast Asia to climate change, food security and energy needs.

Biochar: A Carbon-sequestering, Nutrient-rich Resource

Biochar is a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water. It is produced using pyrolysis by subjecting organic wastes to high temperature in an oxygen-deprived environment, while generating useful by-products to be reused for energy or component refining for industrial chemicals. The end-product has carbon as the main constituent, with other plant nutrient chemicals in variable composition. Application of biochar to soil is a carbon negative process, since carbon in biochar is more recalcitrant than the natural environment and will remain in the ground longer, without adding to the atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Biochar is particularly beneficial in agriculture. Farmers have a vested interest in increasing and maintaining the soil carbon in their fields as studies have shown a correlation between soil carbon levels and crop yield. Organic soil carbon plays an important role in the chemical composition and biological productivity in soil, which includes fertility and nutrient holding capacity. Biochar have been shown to improve crop production in maize, wheat, rice, oil palm, soybean, all of which are major crops and oilseeds used globally. Additionally, biochar can reduce surface runoff, and therefore nutrient leaching ,and promote more stable soil structure.

From research, Biochar has other interesting uses such as the removal of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), chemicals harmful to human health, from buildings, a potential building material that can strengthen concrete, and  a novel method to sequester carbon in concrete. Notably, biochar is significant in the recovery of washed-off fertilizer chemicals.  Water hyacinths used in the clean-up of fertilizer chemical contaminants in freshwater bodies are ideal materials for biochar production. Therefore, a future circular economy is envisioned, with environment sustainability at its core: remediation service, fertilizer chemical recovery and reuse, biochar production, and climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration.

A Potential Solution to Three Existential Threats

1) Climate Change Mitigation

With is carbon sequestering properties, Biochar can potentially remove up to 1.1 billion ton of CO2 per annum globally. Currently, Singapore has implemented a carbon tax of SGD$5 (~USD$3.80) per ton of Green House Gases (GHG) released for the period of 2019 to 2023, with plans to review the tax thereafter, and an end-goal of between SGD$10 to SGD$15 by 2030. By investing carbon taxes into carbon sequestration projects such as biochar production and selling it as carbon credits to other nations or corporations creates a win-win situation for everyone including the environment. One such project would be a biochar commercial plant in Johor, initiated by JTS Optimax Pte. Ltd., a Singapore-based start-up with the goal of converting oil palm waste in Malaysia to biochar and electricity.

Singapore can benefit economically from funding such projects  while exporting biochar-based technologies to neighbouring countries. One significant contribution could be the mitigation of the  transboundary haze crisis  by converting the large volume of agricultural waste material in the region into biochar instead of resorting to slash-and-burn. Not only will it entail a low-cost production of biochar, but also the production of electricity that could be supplied to rural areas. Additionally, biochar can generate a calculated agriculture value of between USD2.30 and 3.30 per hectare  while reducing fertilizer transportation and spreading costs. Amongst Southeast Asian nations, Philippines has been actively using biochar to remediate mining grounds and prepare rehabilitated grounds for replanting. Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia are each making inroads into biochar usage and production as well.

2) Food security

Singapore has signed an Agreement on the ASEAN Food Security Reserve which included the ASEAN Emergency Rice Reserve in October 1979. Despite the pact, agriculture activities in Singapore declined from the 1980s as food import became the cheaper and pragmatic option. In 2019, Singapore Food Agency has set a target of achieving 30% of the country’s nutritional needs through local means by 2030. However, this goal is not enough to ensure food security.

Biochar can provide a win-win strategy for food security. Being alkaline in nature, biochar can deacidify soil, thereby maintaining and saving scarce local arable land from fertilizer overuse through the direct application of Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium (NPK) nutrients. Additionally, direct uptake of biochar carbon by fungi crops and the use of biochar as scaffold for beneficial micro-organisms promote crop growth. More importantly, biochar indirectly improves crop production by reducing soil-borne plant diseases and promoting beneficial soil bacteria growth, thereby boosting soil health.

Biochar research in hydroponics has also shown that not only half of the growth substrate can be replaced with biochar and crop growth can be enhanced, but harmful algal growth can be reduced with its application. By replacing half of the Perlite or woodchip growth substrate with biochar will lead to significant production cost reductions for hydroponics farms which can promote price competitiveness with conventional soil-grown crops. However, proper application must be done to ensure the crops receive all the nutrients as biochar can act as a sponge for absorption of water and chemicals. Collectively, this means that with care, biochar can also be used in conjunction with Singapore’s current food security strategy of local vertical and indoor farming.

3) Sustainable Energy Needs

In fulfilment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Singapore has explored ways to source for more sustainable energy to satisfy the needs of the populace, including importing energy from Malaysia in a trial run. This is on top of increasing solar panel usage locally on HDB rooftops. Given the production of biochar yields sustainable energy production, this is one potential alternative source in which Singapore can import from Malaysia as well.

Therefore, biochar can directly and indirectly address existential threats to Southeast Asia namely, climate change, food security and sustainable energy needs. It is, thus, timely to incorporate biochar into national strategies to ensure a sustainable future.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Jason Cheng is a Research Advisor at JTS Optimax Pte Ltd, and has researched on biochar and its uses in the region for more than seven years.

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