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China is under pressure to improve its agricultural productivity to keep up with the demands of a growing population with increasingly resource-intensive diets. This productivity improvement must occur against a backdrop of carbon intensity reduction targets, and a highly fragmented, nutrient-inefficient farming system. Moreover, the Chinese government increasingly recognizes the need to rationalize the management of the 800 million tonnes of agricultural crop straw that China produces each year, up to 40% of which is burned in-field as a waste. Biochar produced from these residues and applied to land could contribute to China's agricultural productivity, resource use efficiency and carbon reduction goals. However competing uses for China's straw residues are rapidly emerging, particularly from bioenergy generation. Therefore it is important to understand the relative economic viability and carbon abatement potential of directing agricultural residues to biochar rather than bioenergy. Using cost-benefit analysis (CBA) and life-cycle analysis (LCA), this paper therefore compares the economic viability and carbon abatement potential of biochar production via pyrolysis, with that of bioenergy production via briquetting and gasification. Straw reincorporation and in-field straw burning are used as baseline scenarios. We find that briquetting straw for heat energy is the most cost-effective carbon abatement technology, requiring a subsidy of $7 MgCO2e-1 abated. However China's current bioelectricity subsidy scheme makes gasification (NPV $12.6 million) more financially attractive for investors than both briquetting (NPV $7.34 million), and pyrolysis ($-1.84 million). The direct carbon abatement potential of pyrolysis (1.06 MgCO2e per odt straw) is also lower than that of briquetting (1.35 MgCO2e per odt straw) and gasification (1.16 MgCO2e per odt straw). However indirect carbon abatement processes arising from biochar application could significantly improve the carbon abatement potential of the pyrolysis scenario. Likewise, increasing the agronomic value of biochar is essential for the pyrolysis scenario to compete as an economically viable, cost-effective mitigation technology.
Clare, A., Shackley, S., Joseph, S., Hammond, J., Pan, G., & Bloom, A. (2015). Competing uses for China’s straw: The economic and carbon abatement potential of biochar. GCB Bioenergy, 7(6), 1272–1282. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcbb.12220