It sounds like science fiction — extracting carbon dioxide from the air, just like magic.
But in the UK, the largest trial of its kind is about to test just that, by exploring the relative capabilities of carbon farms, tree planting, bioenergy crops, rock chips, and charcoal to suck CO2 straight out of the atmosphere.
The project is being funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a public body sponsored by the UK’s government’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
It will start by investing £31.5 million over four and a half years to test the most effective forms of carbon capture across 247 acres of land, and will inform government policy on climate technology going forwards.
“This is seriously exciting and pretty much world leading,” said University of Oxford’s Professor Cameron Hepburn, who is coordinating the research.
“Nobody really wants to be in the situation of having to suck so much CO2 from the atmosphere. But that’s where we are — we’ve delayed [climate action] for too long.”
The carbon capture tests will focus on five different areas, and take place across rural locations in Wales and England, on land owned by the government and heritage-charity the National Trust.
Research teams will replant and restore damaged lowland peatlands with mosses to transform them into carbon farms, as well as bury a form of charcoal called "biochar" in crop fields to take carbon from the air while enriching soil at the same time.
Further carbon will be extracted through “bioenergy crops” like coppiced willow and miscanthus grass that can remove CO2 from the air and cleverly store it in its roots, or even with certain types of crushed silicate rocks, which would be scattered underground.
The test will also compare the best trees to plant for carbon capture — and the best places to plant them.
We're investing in trials to test the large-scale viability of five innovative methods of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Alongside emissions reduction, these methods could help the UK achieve its #NetZero targets.— UK Research and Innovation (@UKRI_News) May 24, 2021
Find out more: https://t.co/RtBQpBC444#COP26pic.twitter.com/z1WZtbk2TJ
Despite the exciting potential of the project, Hepburn insisted that the technology alone would not be enough to stop the climate crisis: “There’s no suggestion that [CO2 removal] is a substitute for reducing our emissions,” he said.
The announcement comes after John Kerry, the US’ presidential envoy for climate, said on May 16 that half of the emissions reductions needed to reach net-zero by 2050 will come from technology that doesn’t exist yet. Experts said such an idea was “virtually impossible,” since it has historically taken decades for new technologies in energy to become mainstream.
Kerry’s dismissal was met with disdain by climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has previously advocated for immediate radical action using any and all technology already available. On Twitter, she mocked: “I spoke to Harry Potter and he said he will team up with Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes & The Avengers and get started right away!”
So, while these trials are far from any silver bullet, it is just the latest in a line of exciting developments on climate technology — in Iceland, massive fans are being installed on barren hillsides that will aim to transform CO2 into stone.
And elsewhere, there’s been a huge drive for forward-thinking ideas that could change the game with billionaire Elon Musk offering $100 million for the best "technology for capturing carbon," whereas in the UK, Prince William is leading an initiative called Earthshot, which offers a series of cash prizes for innovative inventions that solve specific problems within the climate crisis.