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UEA helps tackle challenge to cap global temperature rise

Researchers at the University of East Anglia are part of a major £8.6 million programme to investigate ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to counteract global warming.

Dr Naomi Vaughan, of UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, will lead one of four multi-institute consortium projects as part of the Greenhouse Gas Removal Research Programme, which will evaluate the potential and wider implications of a variety of options for large-scale removal of greenhouse gases.

Alongside significant emission reductions, this could considerably increase the likelihood of achieving the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep global temperature rise well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1·5°C above pre-industrial levels.

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, and the programme aims to help answer them.

Recognising that the UK alone cannot solve these problems, projects within the programme will address the political, socio-economic, technological and environmental issues concerning the potential for greenhouse gas removal on a global scale.

Entitled the ‘Feasibility of afforestation and biomass energy with carbon capture storage for greenhouse gas removal’, the UEA 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.

For example, it will look at the planting forests to lock up carbon, and using energy crops or waste from the timber and agricultural industries to generate electricity and capture and store underground the CO2 produced when the electricity is made.

Both of these approaches require large areas of land on which to grow the energy crops or trees and the project will investigate how realistic it is to depend on these methods of CO2 removal, and what the consequences would be for the climate, land-use, ecosystems, and wider social and political systems.

Dr Vaughan, a lecturer in climate change, said: “A key aim is to make a comprehensive life cycle assessment of the effect of the chosen technologies on the carbon cycle, working from the scale of supply chains to particular power plants, to the UK national scale, to the whole Earth system. 

“We aim to go beyond this and also consider the wider effects and trade-offs of the technologies on societies and policy, the climate system, land-use, and ecosystem services. These include impacts on the release of other greenhouse gases, physical effects on the climate system, for example changing the reflectivity of the land surface to sunlight, effects on the water cycle and water quality, on biodiversity, and on the recreational value of landscapes.”

The total funding for the UEA-led consortium is £1.6m, and the work will be carried out in partnership with researchers at the Universities of Manchester, Exeter and Aberdeen, as well as the Met Office. 

Other projects will explore new ways to remove methane gas from the air on a local scale, 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.

National science coordinator for the programme Dr Phil Williamson, an associate fellow at UEA, said: “To sort out the problem of climate change, ideally we need to stop releasing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. But there's also another side to the equation: the deliberate removal of what is already there. The Greenhouse Gas Removal Research Programme will investigate whether such drawdown is possible at the scale required.”

The programme is jointly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The Met Office and the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are providing in-kind support.

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.

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