Discover more from Planet Earth & Beyond
Chocolate Could Save The World
Your favourite treat has hidden carbon-capturing talents.
The Olmecs are believed to be the first people to make chocolate from cacao, and from them, it spread to the rest of Mesoamerica. Chocolate was so impactful to these societies that the Aztecs and Mayans believed it was a gift from the gods, using it for religious rituals and even giving it to victorious warriors after battle. Needless to say, its impact on modern society is just as large. In fact, in 2009, Cadbury’s saw a huge spike in sales after the 2008 recession, as people turned to the delicacy to soothe their stress. But we are only just started to tap into the potential of this wonder plant. You see, not only can it massively influence society, but also dramatically sway the climate by sequestering tens of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. So, the question has to be asked, can chocolate save the world?
It all starts with the cacao plant. Like all plants, the cacao tree uses photosynthesis to combine water and atmospheric carbon dioxide using sunlight to produce sugars. Some of these sugars are used to fuel the plant’s metabolism, giving it the energy it needs to sustain itself. But the rest, the plant uses as a building material, combining them into organic polymers to make fibrous tissues that make up its roots, trunk, leaves and even fruit. This is why you sometimes hear people say that trees are made from air.
Normally, this captured carbon doesn’t stay locked away. Once the plant dies and undergoes decomposition, or it is digested, these organic polymers break down and release their carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. This is why we can’t just grow more plants to offset climate change, as they only temporarily store carbon away.
But we ingenious Humans have come up with a way of interrupting this natural re-release of carbon dioxide, allowing plants to lock carbon dioxide away for hundreds of years. The idea is that you take biomass (dead plant material or waste plant material) and heat it to 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 Fahrenheit) in an oxygenless environment, which is a process known as pyrolysis. This way, the carbon within the biomass forms incredibly strong bonds with elements other than hydrogen or oxygen, rendering them biologically inert.
The result of this process is a back ashy fibrous material called biochar. As the carbon it contains is unable to enter back into the biosphere, it can be spread on fields as a fertiliser, as all the nutrients once locked away in the biomass are now free and available. Once used like this, the carbon it contains gets stored in the soil, where it can stay for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Biochar is an incredibly powerful technology. A single tonne of biochar can fertilise 4356 square feet of field (0.1 acres) and remove 2.5 to 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But during pyrolysis, biochar also emits biogas which can be syphoned off and used as a carbon-neutral fuel source, so each tonne of biochar also produces around 5,700 watts of gas power. What’s more, as biomass is so plentiful, and pyrolysis is such a simple process, the IPCC it could be used to sequester up to 2.6 billion metric tons of CO2 per year!
Now right now, 2.6 billion metric tons per year is only the equivalent of 7.2% of global emissions. But in the future, when we have slashed our emissions dramatically, this could be a crucial technology that helps us reach net-zero.
So, what has this all got to do with chocolate?
Well, while Bilchar technology is relatively simple, it isn’t cheap at around $1,070 per tonne of biochar, and it is difficult to scale up. What we need is a high-value crop with lots of waste biomass, that way, the costs of biochar can be absorbed, and the technology can be advanced to the point at which it can be scaled.
Enter Chocolate! By weight, 80% of the cacao harvest is waste by-products, as the cacao pod and cacao bean husks are thrown away. And, because of sky-high demand, the price of cacao is high, and the profit margins (at least on the final product, if not for the farmer) can be decent. This makes it an ideal plant for biochar development.
What’s more, annual cacao production is massive! In 2020, around 4.69 million tonnes of chocolate was produced, which would have produced around 18.76 million tonnes of biomass by-products. This could be used to make 6.6 million tonnes of biochar and sequester up to 19.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide!
So, in theory, we could make it so that for every kg of chocolate you consume, 4.2 kg of carbon dioxide is captured and stored away!
But there are some major hurdles on the way here. You see, pretty much all cacao farms are in tropical developing countries, and the farms themselves tend to be small, not very profitable family businesses (hence why fair trade was created). This means that doing on-site biochar production is out of the question, as neither the farmer nor their government can afford to set up the expensive facility. As such, the biomass must be transported to a processing plant to be turned into biochar, then delivered back to the farm to be used as fertiliser (as these are the soils it works in best). These vast logistics have a dramatic carbon footprint which negates the offsetting done by the biochar, rendering the whole process useless!
This is where Germany-based Circular Carbon comes in. You see, cacao beans are shipped in still in their husks to protect them and are processed into chocolate in factories in developed countries. So, they teamed up with the chocolate factory next to their biochar factory to turn their cacao husks into biochar, then can then be used as a fertiliser in EU farms or even as an ingredient for low-carbon concrete. While this biochar technically doesn’t offset carbon, thanks to the extensive shipping that gets the cacao to Germany, it does dramatically reduce the climate impact of the chocolate.
The idea is that they can develop biochar technology and bring the price per tonne down. They can also start selling carbon credits for the carbon dioxide they have captured and make it a profitable venture. They can then open more sites and maybe even open biochar factories next to the cacao farms themselves to have an even bigger impact or use other less ideal biomass sources, like wheat or oat stems and husks.
So, it will be some time before the biochar industry can reach the 2.6 billion tonnes of annual captured carbon dioxide level. But chocolate could be the crop that helps to launch this planet — saving technology, thanks to its unique set of properties. It feels great to know that in the future, we might be able to repent for our decades of horrific climate crimes by eating more chocolate. Needless to say, I will be doing my part when the time comes, will you?
Thanks for reading! Content like this doesn’t happen without your support. So, if you want to see more like this, don’t forget to Subscribe and follow us on Google News, Flipboard, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter, or hit the share button below.