Science in Society Archive

'Zero Carbon Britain' or Dust Bowl Britain?

A project based on a fallacious assumption about biofuels. Patrick Noble

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has just published what seems its definitive Zero Carbon Britain Report [1].

The report is based on the following assumption: If biomass is burned, the chemistry is more or less reversed, and the original energy and raw material (C02 and water) are released.  There is then no net gain or loss of CO2, which is why biological fuels are considered to be “Carbon neutral”.

Unfortunately, this assumption is true only if no fossil fuel energy is expended in growing the biomass, in producing the fertilizers, pesticides and other chemical inputs, does not involve destroying natural carbon sinks and creating huge carbon sources by cutting down forests and turning other natural ecosystems into agricultural land, and so on; not to mention the displacement of indigenous peoples and decimation of biodiversity (see [2, 3] Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits, SiS 33, ‘Land Rush’ as Threats to Food Security Intensify, SiS 46; and many other I-SIS articles dealing with the topic).

But someone must have said this at a Beautiful Person’s party, so now it is generally accepted, and by most of my friends.  More to the point, The Centre for Alternative Land Use, the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, and even the IPCC assume it is true.  (The Institute of Science in Society is one notable exception (see its comprehensive reports [4. 5] Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 and Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free .)

Consequently, every chart, graph and conclusion of the CAT report is suspect. CAT’s “sequestration sink” will actually empty a little more at each harvest, creating annual losses of CO2 to the atmosphere.  CAT’s “biological fields” are emphatically not “carbon neutral”.

The terrifying thought is that the Welsh Assembly is adopting Zero Carbon Britain as a blue print for Zero Carbon Wales. That has galvanised me to speak out and sound a warning that we could well end up instead with a Dust Bowl Britain.

I wrote about this a couple of years ago, immediately after CAT’s first Zero Carbon Britain report was released [6], and sent it to the authors, but got no acknowledgement.  Nothing has changed in principle, although the details have become more sophisticated.  I use the old report for analysis here, as it deals more specifically with acreage, rotation and exposes the fallacy of CAT’s underlying assumption more clearly.

The old report says that there are 18m hectares of agricultural land in Britain, and proposes what many may agree to be necessary: a reduction of livestock numbers, an increase in arable and intensive horticultural land and an increase in woodland, at the expense of permanent pastures (6 m ha down to 1 m ha) and rough grazing (6 m ha down to 2 m ha).

However, the report also suggests that 4m ha of short and longer rotation woodland be burnt for energy and that a third of the arable rotation (Rape and Miscanthus) should also be burnt.  That means the output of 40.5 percent of the agricultural land of Britain is to be combusted. There is no suggestion as to what would replace the combusted nutrients and minerals lost to the land, though it mentions that “organic methods” will increase carbon sequestration. Under the CAT agricultural regime, British agricultural land will move inexorably towards desert and life in the soils will be annually reduced, so less and less carbon is sequestered.

Laws of agricultural practice are very simple, although the effects of our practices are complex beyond classification: “You’ll not get ow’t from now’t.”

The suggested arable rotation is twelve years: years 1-3, Miscanthus grass, to be burnt; year 4, fallow legume; year 5 turnip; year 6, wheat or potatoes; year 7, rape oil fuel;  year 8, grain legume (peas or beans); year 9, green manure, year 10, cereal; year 11 green manure; and year 12,  spring cereal under-sown with clover.

All the straw in this rotation is burnt for energy; So not only are the crops of four years out of the twelve year rotation destroyed by fire (or turned into biofuel), returning nothing but lifeless gas and ash, but also the straw from three years of cereals. As a farmer I can tell you that after those twelve years, Britain’s agricultural yields will have fallen so dramatically that most of us will not have enough to eat.

The report proposes that by adding organic matter to the soil, organic farming is following its essential principles and also providing a carbon sink. But, it simultaneously suggests that we burn a large proportion of the organic matter extracted from the soil in the biomass grown.

CAT suggests that bio-energy crops act as break crops to maintain the health of the soil. It suggests that “for various reasons” unstated, successive harvests of Miscanthus deplete soil nutrients very little and also improve soil structure.

However, ‘Dust bowl’ Britain will arrive a little more slowly in CAT’s new report, as some anaerobic digestion of grass silage has been introduced to mitigate the all-consuming fire.  But there is no mention of sewage.  We can maintain life in the soil by two methods, first, by good husbandry on the farm – composting, using livestock manure, etc. -  and second, by efficient return of human manure.  Without an industrial revolution-scale re-design of our city sewage systems to return human manure to agricultural land, we shall not be fed.  City sewage from homes is an essential part of the cycle of agriculture that has been lost so far.  As Mae Wan Ho says, a circular economy is the way to sustainability (see  [4, 5, 7] Sustainable Agriculture, Green Energies and the Circular Economy, SiS 46)

Farmers throughout history have understood that we’ll only harvest if we also return life to the soil.  Cities exist because we have known that.  Cities are built on agricultures.

But now, Modernity has no sense of the difference between the living and the lifeless.  For instance, bio-charring – turning biomass into charcoal to be buried in the soil, mistakenly proposed as a way to sequester carbon (see [8] Beware the Biochar Initiative, SiS 44) – actually reduces the mass of life in the soil and therefore above the soil, by slowing fermentation and mineralisation that regenerates plant food.  The wood chip boiler essentially reduces a total mass of life to total lifelessness.  The burnt willow will never re-grow at its former rate.

The Zero Carbon Britain report is anxious about life and the instability it causes to carbon, totally unaware that it is life in the soil that begets life above the soil.  On page 205, in connection with biochar, the CAT report [6] states:  “The crucial problem with most forms of organic matter applied, or returned to the soil is that they are unstable.  They are high-energy “food” materials easily attacked by decomposer organisms, mostly microbial, which readily break them down and release stored CO2.”

The only tool we have to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels is to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us [9], says the creator of Daisy World (rightly).  But then he abandons Daisy World by supporting biochar, and proposing to sequester daisy carbon in anaerobic deep ocean, thereby totally negating the muscular power of daisy pump.  How can the daisy pump keep pumping without CAT’s unstable and unruly, “mostly microbial” living creatures to mineralise organic compounds to provide plant food?

The lungs of Earth expand as her bio-mass expands, to provide oxygen for aerobic organisms, such as the human species (see [10] O2 Dropping Faster than CO2 Rising, SiS 44); and as the night soils of London are returned to the market gardens of the Thames Valley.  The human economy is not a separate system.  It is part of a greater metabolism of nature.  When economy and ecology are seamlessly enmeshed, then the economy will run at optimum speed and for the benefit of people and planet.  When they are not, then friction between them will slow both their cycles, grind down bio-mass and release wasted economic heat. (Note added by editor: Or else the economy goes bust in total disregard of the ecology, as it does from time to time.)

Biofuels are not carbon neutral.  They have a greater atmospheric CO2 effect than fossil fuels, according to the most reliable evidence [2-5, 7].  More to the point, if we burn life, we add to atmospheric CO2 and also reduce the mass of CO2 absorbing life, which makes it more serious than burning fossil fuels.  When we burn fossil fuel, we add to atmospheric CO2, but the mass of life continues to live and breathe, and regenerate oxygen. 

We must therefore put out as many unnecessary fires as we can and attempt to re-grow the bio mass of Earth.  All true farmers know that.  Growth also increases the muscular power of James Lovelock’s Daisy pump. 

Patrick Noble is an organic farmer from Denbigh in North Wales, and author of Romantic Economics

Article first published 28/06/10


  1. Zero Carbon Britain 2030, A New Energy Strategy, The second report of the Zero Carbon Britain Project, Centre for Alternative Technology, 2010,
  2. Ho MW. Biofuels: biodevastation, hunger & false carbon credits. Science in Society 31, 36-39, 2007.
  3. Ho MW. ‘Land-rush’ as threats to food security intensity. Science in Society 46, 42-45, 2010.
  4. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, I-SIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009,
  5. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, et al. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, I-SIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2008,
  6. Zero Carbon Britain Report, Centre for Alternative Technology, 2007, Chapter 7,
  7. Ho MW. Sustainable agriculture, Green energies & the circular economy. Science in Society 46, 8-13, 2010.
  8. Ho MW. Beware the biochar inititative. Science in Society 44, 14-17, 2009.
  9. “James Locelock on biochar: Let the Earth remove CO2 O2 for us”, James Lovelock, The Guardian, 24 March  2009,
  10. Ho MW. O2 dropping faster than CO2 rising. Implications for climate change policies. Science in Society 44, 8-10, 2009.

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David Hodges Comment left 30th June 2010 03:03:04
Yes, we need to return human faeces to the soil, not least because of peak phosphorous - we are running out of other sources of phosphorous. But not as sewage, as it is currently understood - i.e. everything that gets flushed down drains, including considerable quantities of highly toxic waste. And current sewage treatment methods do not reliably destroy all of the pathogens in sewage. It is vastly inefficient to add water to faeces for the purpose of flushing them away, then have to extract the water later. We need to say goodbye to the flush toilet and replace flush toilets with composting toilets. After faeces have been composted sufficiently long (up to 2 years in some cases) they can be used safely as high quality fertilizer. To avoid issues with transport they should be used as locally as possible, ideally on-site.

Rory Short Comment left 30th June 2010 03:03:41
The author's under lying conviction is 100% correct. The only way that we can really enhance let alone maintain human life is by enhancing life as a whole because we, at the end of the day, are nothing but one of the products of the totality of life and to believe anything else is to commit oneself to arrogant ignorance.

Todd Millions Comment left 7th July 2010 16:04:35
Mr-Noble Are the sewarages of britian suitable at all for any sort of compost/recovery?I expect not.So-neibourhood gas digestors?Still waterborne-which is a pain as the even lowflush consumption would surely be better put in a restored canal system with intregated alage/fish production(along with the most effiecent-'what's the hurry 'transport).Composter toilets on all reno installations?Good but they do require some knowledge and proper operation,usually this is too much for the suburbanoid.Though an 8 yr old can be shown how. Sydeney Australia was reported 15 years ago too have a trenches in fruit orchards for sewage sludge.After 1 year of earthworm work over,these batches were reported to be pathogen free and of exellent fertilizer quality-would temp and moisture levels be too much for such an approach in britian?Would any earthworms still be alive given the spray levels they've being subjected too? Certianly even with extreme phosphourus shortages,the americain expedeint of very quitely changing the USDA rules and dumping raw sewage sludge on root and other crops is too be avoided-though recinded,the affects have being neat freak apperances of diseace control,used by organic large chain buyers to screw the farmers-again.The bromide fumigation this practice nesseictied as well also drove out small producers who couldn't afford the fumigation equipment-I don't even want to think of the release of greenhouse gases of far greater potency than methane this fubar entailed-which the 'reformed'usda is now trying too coverup.