Huge £30m greenhouse gas removal trial begins in UK

Spreading rock chips, rewetting peatlands and examining the CO2-removing potential of grass species are among the techniques being backed by the government

Harry Cockburn
Monday 24 May 2021 17:28
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Tree planting techniques will be studied alongside other methods of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere
Tree planting techniques will be studied alongside other methods of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere

Research teams across the UK are set to begin work on various projects to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, as part of a £30m government-funded trial.

The aim of the 4.5-year-long project is to help the UK reach its legally-binding net-zero greenhouse gas targets by 2050, which it is thought can not be reached through cutting emissions alone.

The techniques which are being tested include using peat, biochar – a charcoal-like substance, tree and grass planting, and crumbling silicate rocks, all to draw CO2 out of the air.

The trials will assess the effectiveness of the methods, and the extent to which they can be scaled up to sequester significant amounts of carbon.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the government body funding the research, said the CO2 removal methods were only designed to complement existing efforts to cut greenhouse gases - particularly in areas which are currently difficult to decarbonise completely, including heavy industry, the aviation sector and agriculture.

Professor Cameron Hepburn from the University of Oxford is co-ordinating the research.

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.”

The project will be carried out on over 100 acres of land, making it one of the largest research works of this kind in the world.

UKRI said the programme will also engage with businesses and people in order to assess and promote the techniques’ progression and readiness for market to ensure they are viable.

The “enhanced rock weathering” technique will investigate amending soils on farmland with crushed calcium and magnesium rich silicate rocks, a process which can help accelerate natural CO2 sequestration, and as it improves the soil has the potential to enhance UK food security.

The accelerated peatland formation technique will re-wet existing peatlands and attempt to recreate and enhance the environmental conditions that lead to peat formation.

Currently 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.

Another of the methods - producing and depositing biochar, which is similar to charcoal and is produced from heating biomass in the absence of oxygen (pyrolysis) – will see trials in which it is buried at disused mines, in railway cuttings and forestry sites in England and Wales.

Meanwhile, other research teams will look at the UK’s tree planting efforts, including identifying land which could be turned into woodland, and examining the carbon-removing potential of growing miscanthus grasses and short rotation coppice willow, a woody fast-growing tree species usually cultivated to produce high biomass yields in a short period of time.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, the 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.”

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

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