Imperial College London

£30 million official backing for greenhouse gas removal programme

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Photo shows a white mechanical arm with finger-like protrusions  held out in front of a field of grasses, it's fine weather with blue sky and fluffy clouds

Greenhouse gases measured in a field of Miscanthus grasses in Aberystwyth

Research teams across the UK have been chosen to probe innovative ways of removing greenhouse gases to help to stabilise the climate.

Encompassing a dozen universities and with funding for nearly five years, the UK government has given official backing to its largest-ever research programme to understand and scale-up greenhouse gas removal (GGR) techniques.

The programme consists of five GGR demonstration projects around the country and a Directorate Hub led by the University of Oxford, with support from the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London.

The consortium – named CO2RE - has been chosen to coordinate the national programme. It will have a strong research function and will also liaise with the demonstrators, business, policymakers and the public to evaluate a variety of approaches to GGR.

The work commences this month, and Imperial is recruiting two new posts to be employed on the project (see our vacancies).

Unlike techniques to reduce emissions at source, GGR aims to capture and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases already in the air.

Researchers agree that halting the progress of climate change by achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions requires dramatic cuts in emissions created by human activities including transport, agriculture, energy production and heating or cooling buildings, but it also requires GGR.

Eyes on the UK in 2021

This year, the UK Government is hosting the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow and is expected to set out its plans for reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The role of the CO2RE Hub will be critical in bringing together leading UK academics, building a GGR community and catalysing more ambitious climate action.

This investment, in conjunction with the UK Centre for Greening Finance and Investment, another programme involving Imperial researchers, means a comprehensive approach to informed climate action.

Dr Steve Smith, Executive Director of Oxford Net Zero and a visiting researcher at Imperial’s Grantham Institute, said: "This is a really exciting and important time to build a research hub for GGR. Ahead of COP26 we are seeing a wave of commitments to net zero emissions from governments, cities and companies, and also a raft of approaches to carbon removal starting up.

"Here in the UK, the Climate Change Committee predicts that reaching net zero by 2050 will require us to double the rate of carbon removal by natural landscapes, and to scale up industrial removals to the size of current emissions from electricity. Many questions of science, engineering, economics, governance and public engagement are still to be answered. We intend to tackle these, bringing people together from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, so that GGR contributes to ambitious, effective and sustainable climate action."

Engaging with public opinion

Imperial's Grantham Institute will be responsible for a national programme to engage public opinion over the issues surrounding climate change and need for GGR. The team is led by Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute and winner of the 2021 President’s Award for Leadership in Societal Engagement.

Ms Gilbert said: "This hub provides us with an opportunity to engage with stakeholders from the earliest stages of technology development. We will be starting conversations, and working closely with stakeholders across the business and policy spectrum, and the general public.

"We want to get a feeling for how different groups of people across the UK understand the need for greenhouse gas removal, the options we have to achieve that and how different people would like to see us implement these different approaches at a larger scale. This is a chance for us to get people involved in this story from the very first chapter."

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lead for the Hub, and Director of Climate Law at Edinburgh University, said: "At the most basic level, it will be necessary to ensure that these new technologies and techniques are consistent with existing air, water, soil and habitats regulatory regimes... Social robustness demands that GGR is developed and delivered in ways which fulfil the rights of individuals and communities...the new GGR sector needs to strike a new path for the UK, not just in terms of our collective emissions profile but also to create more just and sustainable futures."

Professor Richard Templer, Director of Innovation at the Grantham Institute, who is also involved in the project, said: "We recognise that developing the right approaches to removing greenhouse gases will require agility. As questions and opportunities arise amongst the Demonstrators and new ideas appear within the community, we want to use our funding to seed timely responses to challenges and opportunities."

Demonstrating the technology

The Hub includes: University of Oxford, University of Edinburgh, University of Bristol, University College London, Imperial College London, University of Leeds and University of Manchester.

The five demonstrators are led by Aberystwyth University, University of Exeter, University of Nottingham, University of Sheffield and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The GGR Demonstrators which will join the CO2RE Hub in the Programme are:

  • Large-scale tree planting, or afforestation, to assess the most effective species and locations for carbon sequestration at sites across the UK, including land owned by the Ministry of Defense, the National Trust and Network Rail.
  • Peatland restoration at sites near Doncaster, the South Pennines and in Pwllpeiran, west Wales.
  • Enhanced rock weathering – crushing silicate rocks and spreading the dust 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, an opencast coal mine in Cumbria and railway embankments.
  • Rapid scale-up of perennial bioenergy crops such as grasses (Miscanthus) and short rotation coppice willow at locations in Lincolnshire and Lancashire.

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Adapted from a press release by University of Oxford / UKRI

See the press release of this article

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Simon Levey

Simon Levey
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Email: s.levey@imperial.ac.uk

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