Page last updated at 08:07 GMT, Thursday, 3 September 2009 09:07 UK

Coconuts used to capture carbon

By Saroj Pathirana
BBC Sinhala service

Biochar (Chiaria Goia)
Biochar is a charcoal made from bio-waste

The Maldives aims to reduce its CO2 emissions using fertiliser. The "biochar" is a charcoal made from bio-wastes such as coconut shells.

The Maldives government has launched the project together with a UK-based company, Carbon Gold.

Minister of state for fisheries and agriculture, Aminath Shafia, told BBC News that the project would also reduce the use of imported fertiliser.

"Farmers are heavily using inorganic fertilisers," she said.

The pilot project aims to produce biochar using bio-waste, including coconut shells, which are abundantly available in the archipelago.

Biochar is produced through the "slow cooking" (pyrolysis) of plant wastes. The resulting black char is rich in carbon and can be mixed with soil as a fertiliser.

"While wasting the environment we are wasting a lot of money by buying [fertiliser] from abroad," Ms Shafia said.

"So we were looking into a project that could develop it using something that is available in the country."

Phased roll-out

Maldives beach (PA)
The Maldives wants to be carbon neutral by 2020

President Mohamed Nasheed, who earlier announced a target of going carbon neutral by 2020, has welcomed the new partnership.

"Biochar has a crucial role in helping us achieve carbon neutral status as well as providing an economic and environmental boost to our people," he said.

Ms Shafia said that the project would be launched on three islands and rolled out to others if farmers responded positively.

Carbon Gold argues that the biochar is an effective way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The company says the fertiliser also improves soil fertility and locks up its carbon contents for several years after it is ploughed into the ground.

Daniel Morrel, a co-founder of the company, told BBC News that the Maldives was the first government to sponsor its production.

He described biochar as "carbon negative".

"Waste that would have rotted or been burnt before is now locked up and put very safely in the soil," he said.

'No guarantee'

However, some environmental campaigners have been critical of the idea.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year, the UK environmental commentator George Monbiot said that while charcoal improved plant growth in some cases, it actually suppressed the growth in others.

"Just burying carbon bears little relation to the farming techniques that created terras pretas (dark, nutrient-rich soils of the Amazon)," he said.

"Nor is there any guarantee that most of the buried carbon will stay in the soil."

Mr Morrel does not completely reject the argument.

"It is one of several solutions, but the great thing about biochar is while everybody is talking about reducing the CO2 emissions, this is actually taking CO2 out of the atmosphere."

He said that there was potential in Sri Lanka to launch similar projects using fish waste, but the company had not, as yet, been in contact with the Sri Lankan government.

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