Counteracting Global Warming

Investigating ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere

by Prof Pete Smith and Dr Pietro Goglio

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The UK is committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Alongside significant emission reductions, large-scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere could considerably increase the likelihood of achieving this goal.

Researchers know there are ways to approach this challenge but they have yet to be demonstrated on scales that are climatically-significant. Major questions remain around their feasibility, as well as impacts on society and public attitudes.

To help answer these questions, the £8.6 million Greenhouse Gas Removal Research Programme will evaluate the potential and wider implications of a variety of options. For example, researchers will investigate the potential for increasing carbon storage in agricultural soil and forests, and new ways to remove methane gas from the air on a local scale. Other researchers will look into using waste materials from mining as a greenhouse gas removal technique, and explore how bioenergy crops could be used in power stations in combination with carbon capture and storage methods. Recognising that the UK alone cannot solve these problems, the research will address the political, socio-economic, technological and environmental issues concerning the potential for greenhouse gas removal on a global scale.

The programme

Professor Tim Wheeler, Director for Science and Innovation at NERC, said: “The UK research community is addressing the challenges of climate change by providing world-leading, independent research to inform decision-making that will ensure future wellbeing and prosperity for the UK and internationally. This new Greenhouse Gas Removal programme will shed light on how new approaches could be used to prevent the effects of climate change, alongside reducing emissions, aligning with the UK’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement. This multi-disciplinary research embodies the research councils’ shared commitment to working together to provide vital answers to society’s most pressing questions.”

Four interdisciplinary, multi-institute consortium and seven topic-specific projects have been awarded funding. Around 100 researchers from 40 UK universities and partner organisations will be involved, and seven research studentships providing PhD training will also be supported.

Summaries of the projects can be found in the following sections. Full abstracts can be read on Grants on the Web, visit gotw.nerc.ac.uk for full information.

Multi-institute consortium projects

The four multi-institute consortium projects funded are outlined in the following sections.

Feasibility of afforestation and biomass energy with carbon capture storage for greenhouse gas removal

Led by Dr Naomi Vaughan of the University of East Anglia, this study will investigate whether increased biological removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (with either natural or managed carbon storage) could deliver significant climatic benefits, and evaluate the environmental, technical, economic, policy and societal implications of such approaches.

Releasing divalent cations to sequester carbon on land and sea

Led by Gideon Henderson of the University of Oxford, this study will assess the practicability of using enhanced weathering of waste materials from mining as a greenhouse gas removal technique. It will investigate the availability of suitable materials, the rates of their breakdown, mechanisms for accelerating carbon dioxide uptake, implications for the ocean, and societal implications.

Comparative assessment and region-specific optimisation of greenhouse gas removal

Led by Niall Mac Dowell, Imperial College London, this study will focus on the conditions for meeting the Paris Agreement targets, regional variation in the options for greenhouse gas removal, the scope for inter-region cooperation to reduce climate policy costs and how greenhouse gas removal technologies will interact with low carbon energy systems.

Soils research to deliver greenhouse gas removals as well as abatement technologies

Led by Professor Peter Smith at the University of Aberdeen, this study will analyse the global potential for soil-based greenhouse gas removal, and how this varies by practice and region. This will include investigating the social, cultural and ecological impacts, current policies that prevent implementation and future policies that may enable wider adoption, managing risks, and integration with other greenhouse gas removal approaches.

The seven topic-specific projects funded are:

  1. Greenhouse gas removal in the land sector, addressing the gaps – led by Joanna House, University of Bristol. The project will identify the emissions reduction gap in the land sector at a country level, using this to identify options and incentivise greenhouse gas removal activities based on improved carbon accounting.
  2. Greenhouse gas removal in the iron and steel industry – led by Phil Renforth, Cardiff University. The project will investigate the techno-economic impact and environmental feasibility of using iron and steel slag deposits to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, based on fieldwork at Consett and Port Talbot. Systems will then be designed to scale up to climate-relevant greenhouse gas removal.
  3. Co-delivery of food and climate regulation by temperate agroforestry – led by Martin Lukac, University of Reading. This model-based project will examine the potential for agroforestry (combining trees with agriculture) as a greenhouse gas removal technique in temperate regions, estimating carbon storage in trees and soil. Policy and socio-economic barriers will also be investigated.
  4. New methodologies for removal of methane from the atmosphere – led by Euan Nisbet, Royal Holloway, University of London. The project will carry out proof-of-concept methane sampling to identify major ‘intractable’ agricultural and industrial sources; it will also design and test novel biological and chemical methane-removal systems that are economically viable.
  5. Metrics for emission removal limits for nature – led by Simon Tett, University of Edinburgh. This project focuses on the reversibility of climate change, to determine how its adverse impacts might be affected by the timing of the deployment of greenhouse gas removal.
  6. Assessing the mitigation deterrence effects of greenhouse gas removal – led by Nils Markusson, Lancaster University. This project will investigate how greenhouse gas removal can interact with, and so complement, reinforce or deter, existing and anticipated conventional mitigation through emission reductions.
  7. Harmonising and upgrading greenhouse gas removal consequential life cycle assessment – led by Pietro Goglio, Cranfield University. This project will develop methods for comparing all the implications (indirect costs and benefits) of using different greenhouse gas removal techniques, using the approach of consequential life cycle assessment.

Could soil combat global warming?

Here’s a focused look at the final topic-specific project, harmonising and upgrading greenhouse gas removal consequential life cycle assessment, from Prof Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen.

A £2million project investigating how soil can be used to combat global warming has recently been announced. The project will be the most comprehensive global assessment of the potential of our soils to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and its findings could have a significant bearing on whether or not we can hit the 1.5°C warming target to which many aspire.

The project – Soils Research to deliver Greenhouse Gas Removals (GGRs) and Abatement Technologies (Soils-R-GGREAT) – will analyse the global potential of soil-based greenhouse gas removal, and how this varies by practice and region.

“this study will assess the practicability of using enhanced weathering of waste materials from mining as a greenhouse gas removal technique”

Scenario modelling studies show that it is unlikely that we will be able to meet the target to limit climate warming to “well below 2°C” outlined in the Paris Agreement without removing a significant quantity of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It appears to be virtually impossible to meet the target of 1.5°C of warming without GGR. Therefore, given the importance of GGR for climate stabilisation, the global potential, feasibility, barriers and impacts of GGR technologies needs to be assessed.

Preliminary analysis suggests that widespread implementation of GGRs could have significant impacts on land competition, greenhouse gas emissions, physical climate feedbacks (e.g. albedo), water requirements, nutrient use, energy and cost, but that soil carbon sequestration and biochar used as GGR practices have significant potential for GGR (4-6 thousand million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, together), and can do so with much less competition for land, water and nutrients than, for example bioenergy with carbon capture and storage and afforestation, and at much lower cost than enhanced mineral weathering and direct air capture of carbon dioxide.

In addition, soil-based GGRs could help deliver other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly poverty, hunger, climate and life on land. Yet constraints due to high uncertainties about the GGR achievability, the need for site-specific options and incentives, social and ecological impacts, and the risk of impermanence have limited soil-based GGR activities to date.

Life cycle assessment

Cranfield University will carry out the consequential life cycle assessment (LCA) of greenhouse gas removal technologies, which will be combined with scenario database analysis, network data analysis, biophysical modelling, stakeholder engagement and expert consultation. The consequential LCA of greenhouse gas removal technologies related to soil allows us to have a comprehensive and holistic assessment of the environmental benefits. We will focus on soil carbon sequestration through improved land management, and the addition of biochar to soils to increase soil carbon storage. We will work closely with other partners and consortia to ensure consistency across assumptions about land and resource availability.

The Institute for Resilient Futures, of which I am a member, is a world authority in using such tools and approaches to inform better decision making, and therefore grasping the opportunities offered by change. When it comes to these climate warming targets there is no doubt that they are ambitious, and as such the solutions must be innovative. These are perilous times and only be working with the best minds around the world can we hope to deliver the answers, and bring us back from the brink.

More information

As outlined in this article, this project at Cranfield is part of a larger research programme on Greenhouse Gas Removal. The University of Aberdeen is leading a team of academics from Cranfield University, the University of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), University of Newcastle, the James Hutton Institute and the international Climate Change and Food Security (CCAFS) initiative. Interim results will be published by the end of 2017 to feed into the IPCC Special Reports on the “1.5°C target”, and “land use and climate change”.

Author Details

Prof Pete Smith and Dr Pietro Goglio

Pete Smith is the Professor of Soils and Global Change at the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland, UK) and Science Director
of the Scottish Climate Change Centre of Expertise (ClimateXChange). He is a Fellow of the Royal Societies
of Edinburgh and London.
www.abdn.ac.uk/ibes/profiles/pete.smith
Dr Pietro is a Lecturer in LCA and systems modelling. He carried out his University studies in Agricultural Sciences and a PhD in AgroBiosciences and Environmental sciences. His past research focused mainly in LCA, greenhouse gas estimation and monitoring, agroecosystem modelling. He has also carried out research in the field of bioenergy, with lignocellulosic bioenergy and transformation systems. He has worked with most temperate arable crops including wheat, barley, maize, clover, alfalfa, triticale, oilseed rape, Ethiopian mustard, sunflower and sorghum. He has also carried out research in assessing the biomass potential and resource use at territorial level.
www.cranfield.ac.uk/people/dr-pietro-goglio-1343315