NetZero started as a family story over three generations. Guy Reinaud, the grand-father, was running Pro-Natura International, an NGO that pioneered biochar production and use in the 2000s, with a strong focus on developing countries. In 2020, Axel and Olivier, father and son, took advantage of the Covid-19 lockdown to build on Guy's ideas and developed a model capable of bringing biochar at scale, using carbon credits as a key lever and the tropics a the target geography. NetZero was born!
When the project was still at the idea stage, three other key people joined Axel and Olivier as co-founders: French climatologist Prof. Jean Jouzel, former vice-chair of the IPCC; Cameroonian agro-industrialist Aimé Njiakin, who provided the location to build NetZero's demonstration plant; and Brazilian engineer Pedro de Figueiredo, a former senior manager at Vallourec with deep expertise in industrial pyrolysis processes.
The company was officially incorporated in January 2021 in France. Very soon after, a group of 23 pioneer business angels provided the necessary seed funding to launch NetZero's activities.
Biochar can be produced from a wide range of biomasses. However, there are three main types of considerations when choosing the feedstock:
At NetZero, we have chosen to focus on residues from tropical agriculture. They currently have little valorisations schemes, are very abundant, and are a way to make sure they do not come from deforestation.
During biochar's production process (pyrolysis), significant amounts of flammable gases (syngas) are generated. As they come from the thermal degradation of renewable biomass (crop residues), these gases are renewable energy. NetZero's production process recovers the syngas and uses them for two puroposes:
Carbon credits have long been rightfully accused of greenwashing. They were cheap, poorly certified, focused mostly on emission avoidance (i.e., avoiding putting more carbon in the atmosphere, as opposed to removing carbon from the atmosphere), and with no permanence guarantee. Companies were buying these low-quality credits to claim they had offsetted their emissions, with little to no actual effect.
NetZero's carbon credits are very different and therefore do not suffer from the abovementionned issues:
By convention, carbon capture refers to filtering greenhouse gases at a source point (e.g., the chimney of an industrial facility), where flue gases are concentrated. This filtering technique can be combined with a subsequent step of underground storage of the gases; the process is then referred to as carbon capture and stored (CCS). CCS prevents adding more carbon to the atmosphere, and is therefore an emission-avoidance solution.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) on the other hand targets carbon already released and diluted in the atmosphere. CDR methods allow to take this carbon out and sequester it so that it no longer creates greenhouse effect. This approach is much more complex than CCS as CO2 makes up only 0.04% of ambient air.
Biochar is one of the most energy-efficient CDR solutions available, as it does not require technology to take the carbon out of the atmosphere; instead, plants do it naturally through photosynthesis. Only the sequestration part (extraction and stabilisation of the carbon from the biomass) requires human intervention (pyrolysis technology + biochar burial) to make sure the carbon will not go back to the atmosphere.
To be noted that, in order to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, it will be necessary to combine all solutions, so no working technology should be put aside.
As for every practice related to agronomy, biochar's effects can vary depending on soil type, crop type, agricultural techniques, weather, and more.
However, scientific studies unanimously conclude that biochar has significant positive effects when adequately applied in tropical soils. Compared to baseline agricultural practices, biochar raises yields by a double-digit order of magnitude when applied in the range of 1 kg/m2.
These benefits are mostly explained by the following three physio-chemical characteristics of biochar:
Biochar should preferably be used after an agronomic diagnosis assessing soil quality and baseline farming practices, in order to determine the optimal dosis and application method. However, here are some general guidelines:
Biochar has been extensively studied by scientists since the 1990s, both for its agronomic benefits and its climate impact. Over 15,000 publications have explored biochar's properties, use, impact, life cycle analysis, and more.
Some of the most recent, comprehensive, and best-regarded studies include Joseph et al. (2021) on agronomic aspects and Lehmann et al. (2021) on climate aspects.
NetZero's model differs from other industrial biochar producers in many aspects:
NetZero's model was built for the tropics since the beginning. This geography gives access to massive amounts of unused crop residues, maximise the agronomic benefits of biochar, and maximises social co-benefits. It is therefore an ideal geography to scale biochar. Some tangent areas such as Sahel and some parts of the Southern Mediterranean could also work, but it would be a case-by-case approach and such locations would anyway not represent a significant potential.