Privacy statement | Legal notice | Contact | Search

Soil Projects > Biochar


Biochar is char made from biomass, e.g. crop residues, green waste, wood chippings, chicken manure, etc. (for a comprehensive definition see this report). The concept is to sequester carbon (abating global warming) while improving soil functioning, e.g. crop production, by enhancing soil properties, e.g. water and nutrient retention. In addition, there may be benefits for waste management and energy production. The idea is to produce, transport and apply (to soils) biochar in a way that minimises overall emissions of greenhouse gasses (biochar systems) while sequestering carbon and enhancing physico-chemical properties of the soils that biochar is applied to.

However, soils, and the ecotopes they are part of, are very heterogeneous systems in space and time that are managed in a large variety of ways. This means that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, i.e. different soils will require different biochars. And the same soil that is managed in different ways, or is part of a different ecotope, will also require different biochars.

In recent years there has been a surge in biochar publications, in the scientific literature as well as in the popular media. Reviewing the scientific evidence, a recent JRC Scientific and Technical Report concluded that “large gaps in knowledge still exist regarding the effects (including the mechanisms involved) of biochar incorporation into soils. Considerable further research is required in order to maximise the possible advantages of such an application, while minimizing any possible drawbacks. For some potential effects very few or no data are available. For other effects data exist but they do not cover sufficiently the variation in relevant soil-environment-climate-management factors.”

In a period of rapid changes in both climate and land use, due to global change, revised agricultural policies and changing international market forces, it is vitally important to be able to assess the potential of biochar, both in terms of negative and positive potential. The functional lifetime of biochar in soils essentially moves biochar from the soil management box to the geoengineering box. While biochar may be considered as ‘soft geoengineering’ (i.e. ecosystem manipulation) in contrast to ‘hard geoengineering’ (e.g. putting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from the Earth), it can be considered ‘hard’ in terms of reverse-engineering. That is, it can be very difficult, or it takes a long time, to remove the biochar from the soils again if at any time that might become desirable.

JRC Role in Biochar

Biochar is listed here as a separate Soil project on account of its geoengineering status and its cross-cutting nature, i.e. it is relevant to all the Soil Threats. The JRC plays two main roles in the biochar issue:

As an independent and objective reviewer of relevant scientific evidence

As an active communicator and facilitator in the international scientific discourse

Biochar Meta-analysis and data

The Biochar Meta-analysis Database is being made publically available in order that the meta-analysis can be updated as new results become available. The matrix table is also available for download as a reference, to increase the ease at which studies can be found which have been attributed to each group. The database has been used for the meta-analysis in the following publication:
S. Jeffery, F.G.A. Verheijen, M. van der Velde, A.C. Bastos (2011) A quantitative review of the effects of biochar application to soils on crop productivity using meta-analysis. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. Volume 144, Issue 1, November 2011, Pages 175–187

Biochar Meta-analysis Database
Matrix Table

Contact Points

Frank Verheijen, Luca Montanarella
Tel: +39 0332 785689, Fax: +39-0332-786394, E-Mail: Luca.Montanarella at


Figure 1: Charcoal drawing by Marshall Short

Important legal notice
© European Communities, 1995-
Last updated:

European Commission - Joint Research Centre
Institute for Environment and Sustainability
Marc Van Liedekerke(tel. +39-0332-785179)
Panos Panagos (tel. +39-0332-785574)