UK invests over £30m in large-scale greenhouse gas removal

Coal fired UK power station blocking out a sunrise

Research teams across the UK will investigate the viability of five innovative methods of large-scale greenhouse gas (GHG) removal from the atmosphere.

The aim is to help the UK reach its legislated net-zero climate target by 2050.

The methods all have the potential to remove GHGs from the atmosphere – but their effectiveness, cost, and limitations need to be better understood and proven at scale.

Interdisciplinary research

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will invest £30 million in five interdisciplinary projects and a central hub located at the University of Oxford, to conduct the research over 4.5 years.

An additional £1.5 million will be invested in further studies in year three of the research.

The results will be used to shape longer-term government decision-making on the most effective technologies to help the UK tackle climate change and reduce CO2 emissions.

Research areas

These GHG removal (GGR) demonstrator projects will investigate:

  • management of peatlands to maximise their GHG removal potential in farmland near Doncaster, and at upland sites in the South Pennines and in Pwllpeiran, west Wales
  • enhanced rock weathering – crushing silicate rocks and spreading the particles at field trial sites on farmland in mid-Wales, Devon and Hertfordshire
  • use of biochar, a charcoal-like substance, as a viable method of carbon sequestration. Testing will take place at arable and grassland sites in the Midlands and Wales, a sewage disposal site in Nottinghamshire, former mine sites and railway embankments
  • large-scale tree planting, or afforestation, to assess the most effective species and locations for carbon sequestration at sites across the UK. It includes land owned by the Ministry of Defence, the National Trust and Network Rail
  • rapid scale-up of perennial bioenergy crops such as grasses (Miscanthus) and short rotation coppice willow at locations in Lincolnshire and Lancashire.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere

GGR describes a group of methods that directly remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

It is designed to complement efforts in emission reductions targeting those sectors which are difficult to decarbonise completely such as:

  • heavy industry
  • agriculture
  • aviation.

The £31.5 million programme is part of the second wave of the government’s Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF), which invests in high quality multi and interdisciplinary research.

Using innovative technologies

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), part of UKRI, said:

Reducing GHG emissions is a priority for the UK, but it’s clear that alone that will not be enough to reduce CO2 and meet the UK’s net-zero climate target by 2050.

These projects will investigate how we can actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere using innovative technologies at the scale required to protect our planet.

This investment by UKRI is especially significant as the UK prepares to host COP26 in Glasgow later this year.

Directorate hub

The GGR demonstrators programme will be supported by a central directorate hub.

The hub will provide an overarching coordination role, with specific focus on issues such as:

  • environmental
  • economic
  • social
  • cultural
  • ethical
  • legal
  • governance.

Professor Cameron Hepburn, from the University of Oxford, is leading the Directorate Hub. He said:

GHG removal is essential to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and stabilise the climate. Alongside the need for much faster emissions reductions now, we also need to start pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere.

GHG removal is not only essential, it also has the potential to become big business. As we rebuild societies and economies following COVID-19, we have an opportunity to orient ourselves towards the green jobs and industries of the future.

I’m delighted that UKRI is supporting such a strategic programme.

Tackling climate change

This work adds to UKRI’s long tradition of investing in cutting-edge research and innovation to understand, tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change.

This year the UK hosts the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) summit in November.

UKRI will use its role as a steward of the research and innovation system to bring our communities together.

We aim to create sustainable and resilient solutions and encourage new behaviours and new ways of living that enable the UK to reach net-zero by 2050.

Further information

Directorate Hub

Professor Cameron Hepburn, University of Oxford.

The hub will actively engage with business communities.

It will support innovation in GGR demonstrator techniques and their progression to readiness for market, ensuring economically, socially and environmentally viable options to develop the cases for GGR feasibility studies.

It will be supported latterly in the programme by Innovate UK.

The hub has four key responsibilities in order to achieve the programme aim. These are:

  1. coordination across the programme
  2. connecting to other relevant research programmes nationally and internationally
  3. conduct cross-cutting research on the diverse cross-cutting issues relating to GGR:
    • environmental
    • economic
    • social
    • cultural
    • risk perception and communication
    • ethical
    • legal
    • governance
  4. commissioning of small grants through a flexible fund.

Project team:

  • University of Oxford
  • The University of Edinburgh
  • University of Bristol
  • UCL
  • Imperial College London
  • University of Leeds
  • The University of Manchester.

GGR demonstrator project summaries

GHG removal with UK agriculture via enhanced rock weathering

Professor David Beerling FRS, University of Sheffield.

This project will rigorously investigate amending soils with crushed calcium and magnesium rich silicate rocks as a GHG removal technology.

It will accelerate natural CO2 sequestration processes with the potential to enhance UK food and soil security.

It will provide the first integrated whole system assessment of the science, societal and scalability opportunities and challenges of enhanced rock weathering deployment in UK agriculture.

Field sites:

  • UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Plynlimon Experimental Catchments (mid-Wales)
  • Rothamsted Research’s North Wyke grassland experimental platform in Devon
  • Rothamsted Research’s North Wyke’s cutting-edge arable research facility in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

Research team:

  • The University of Sheffield
  • University of Aberdeen
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Oxford
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • University of Cardiff
  • University of Southampton
  • Rothamsted Research
  • UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • project partners from the mineral and agricultural sectors.

GGR Plus (GGR+): sustainable treescapes demonstrator and decision tools

Professor Ian Bateman, University of Exeter.

This project will gather evidence, address knowledge gaps and allow decision makers to explore the GGR consequences of different tree planting options.

It will explore all the diverse aspects of forestry to identify “the right tree in the right place”.

Research team:

  • University of Exeter
  • University of Aberdeen
  • National Trust
  • Forest Research
  • over 20 project partners including policy makers, all the forestry authorities, many large landowners from the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) sector and networks to represent farmers and the timber and building sectors.

Perennial biomass crops for GHG removal (PBC4GGR)

Professor Iain Donnison, Aberystwyth University.

This project will address the technical and social barriers to the rapid scale-up of the perennial bioenergy crops, Miscanthus and short rotation coppice willow.

It will support the implementation of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) in the UK.

Alongside existing field trials, new field trials will be developed at:

  • Bishop Burton College, Lincolnshire
  • Myerscough College, Lancashire.

Research team:

  • Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) Aberystwyth University
  • Aberdeen University
  • University of Gloucestershire
  • Rothamsted Research
  • UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • project partners representing the key energy crop growers in the UK.

GHG removal by accelerated peat formation

Professor Christopher Evans, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Peatlands store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem. However, as a result of human disturbance they are rapidly losing this carbon to the atmosphere.

This project will work with natural processes to re-create, and where possible enhance, the environmental conditions that lead to peat formation.

It will re-establish a secure long-term carbon store in the landscape that has been lost to centuries of drainage.

The project will also seek to avoid the emissions of other GHGs such as methane, and to facilitate sustainable economic management of carbon-sequestering lowland and upland peatlands.

As part of this project, three demonstrators will be established both in representative lowland and upland peat settings:

  • on farmland in South Yorkshire, near Doncaster
  • land owned by the National Trust in the South Pennines
  • Aberystwyth University Upland Research Centre in Pwllpeiran, Wales.

Research team:

  • UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • Newcastle University
  • Aston University
  • Durham University
  • University of East London
  • Aberystwyth University
  • Bangor University
  • The University of Manchester
  • project partners from government, NGOs, the farming sector and business.

Biochar demonstrator addressing key deployment barriers for carbon sequestration

Professor Colin Snape, University of Nottingham.

Biochar is a relatively stable substance, compositionally similar to charcoal, produced from heating biomass in the absence of oxygen (pyrolysis).

This interdisciplinary project will address the uncertainties concerning the extent and scope of deployment of biochar.

This includes its stability with respect to carbon sequestration, together with quantifying effects on ecosystem services, economic viability and social acceptability.

Field trials will take place at:

  • arable and grassland sites in the Midlands and Wales
  • former mine sites
  • denuded railway embankments
  • forestry sites in England and Wales.

Research team:

  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Leeds
  • Bangor University
  • UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • Forest Research
  • Scottish Universities Environment Research Centre
  • project partners including from the agricultural sector, biochar producers and the international biochar community.

About SPF

The £31.5 million SPF wave two GGR programme is a UKRI initiative involving:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • NERC
  • Innovate UK.

The programme will support sustainable routes for large-scale removal of GHG from the atmosphere.

It will allow the UK to take a major step towards achieving net-zero emissions.

It will place the UK in a leading position to benefit from the £400 billion future global market in GHG removal.

Top image: Credit: sturti/GettyImages

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