Exeter’s NetZeroPlus project to form vital part of UK bid to remove greenhouse gases from atmosphere

Ancient oaks at Crock Hill, Hampshire, cared for by the National Trust. Credit NT Images & John Miller

The project will help implement the planting of 750,000 hectares of trees over 25 years – an area greater than Devon. Credit: NT Images and John Miller

A project to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere will be crucial to the UK’s bid to reach Net Zero by 2050 – and is set to spark the biggest change in land use since the Second World War.

The NetZeroPlus project, led by Professor Ian Bateman from the University of Exeter Business School, is one of five interdisciplinary projects that will receive a total of £31.5m from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – with each project investigating a different method of removing harmful greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

The Exeter project will help to implement the planting of 750,000 hectares of trees over 25 years – an area greater than Devon. Professor Bateman, Director of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP), said: “Trees represent the most cost effective way of removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere, while at the same time delivering many other benefits such as enhancing biodiversity and delivering recreational and health improvements.

“However, planting trees without proper planning could have disastrous consequences, such as when tree-planting occurs on peatland, which can result in releasing into the atmosphere vast quantities of carbon and methane that such areas naturally store.”

NetZeroPlus will gather evidence, address knowledge gaps and allow decision-makers to assess the consequences of different tree-planting options and explore the diverse aspects of forestry to identify “the right tree in the right place”.

Professor Bateman’s team, which includes researchers from the University of Aberdeen, Forest Research, the National Trust and over 20 other industry and government partners, will supplement existing data with a nation-wide system of new measurement sites to identify the best species, best locations and best management to maximise greenhouse gas absorption and other benefits of woodlands.

Rosie Hails, Director of Science and Nature at the National Trust said: “This research is a good example of how we can link the best science understanding with delivery on the ground, and of how co-design between academics and practitioners can achieve the greatest impact.

“The National Trust has a commitment to establish 20 million trees over the next decade, this will enable us to make the right choices in where we do that, delivering not only carbon sequestration but many other benefits for people.”

Partnerships with the forest and construction industries will also investigate new ways to use timber to store carbon when trees are felled and replanted.

The project will weigh the potential benefits of forestry, such as how trees provide a habitat for animals and reduce the risk of flooding, against the potential costs and negative consequences.

NetZeroPlus will also investigate ways of ensuring trees do not push out UK agriculture, leading to greater reliance on food imports and the associated environmental costs.

Dr Sabrina Eisenbarth, a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Exeter Business School who is involved with the project, said this could undermine carbon sequestration in the UK by increasing emissions associated with food production abroad.

“It is vital to analyse adjustments in trade flows and foreign emissions to ensure the effectiveness of UK greenhouse gas removal,” said Dr Eisenbarth.

The research will finally be brought together in the form of a simple to use, free web tool that will allow anyone to see the effects of planting different trees in different areas.

Professor Bateman continued: “Hitting net zero by 2050 will only be possible by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – simply cutting emissions won’t be enough when sectors like aviation and farming are expected to still be emitting vast quantities of greenhouse gases.

“The role of trees combines the highest CO2 removal potential with lowest per tonne costs and greatest technology readiness level. The NetZeroPlus project therefore addresses arguably the most significant, important and timely greenhouse gas removal option currently available.

“I am really delighted that our project has been chosen to be part of this UKRI programme. I feel we can make a very substantial contribution to the vital aim of addressing the climate challenge we all face while also pioneering an approach to decision-making which takes into account all of the effects of land use change.”

The four-and-a-half-year Greenhouse Gas Removal Demonstrators programme is the largest UK government-funded programme to assess greenhouse gas removal methods to date, with the results set to shape government decision-making on which technologies are most effective in tackling climate change.

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.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of the Natural Environment Research Council, part of UKRI, said: “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a priority for the UK, but it’s clear that alone this 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 is especially significant as the UK prepares to host COP26 in Glasgow later this year.”

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