By Philippa Westbury, Isabela Butnar and Mark Workman
How can sustainability be embedded into decision-making around Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR)? Well, researchers at CO2RE have been working to co-create knowledge on sustainable GGR, bridging the gap between academic, practitioner and public knowledge. The aim is to make the evidence, ideas and decision-making tools produced by the programme to be as useful and usable as possible to a wide range of decision-makers.
To that end, we have been bringing the perspectives of different groups into the development of Principles for Credible Greenhouse Gas Removal. These groups have been working closely with CO2RE’s multi-disciplinary team of researchers, led by Dr Isabela Butnar from UCL, to develop the Principles and the criteria and metrics that underpin them.
The Principles will enable the potential for sustainable scale-up of different GGR methods to be assessed consistently. To ensure that they reflect the priorities and concerns of different decision-makers, we’ve run seven workshops over recent months with different groups, including researchers, technology innovators, investors, NGOs and the public.
Engaging with GGR projects and partners
The sessions have given us valuable insight into the various contexts in which decisions about GGR are being made or views on GGR formed. For example, NGOs and the public may focus on social and environmental impacts and ethical considerations. Project developers need to assess the viability of particular GGR approaches, and investors want to make sure their net zero claims are legitimate.
Workshop participants have welcomed the whole-life-cycle approach to assessing carbon removal and the holistic nature of the Principles which encompass co-benefits and trade-offs. Also key are the enablers of sustainable scale-up, such as business models, governance frameworks, supply chains, public support and systems for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV).
We heard from research teams investigating how to optimise co-benefits alongside carbon removal.
Both engineered and land-based removal approaches may have co-benefits: a ‘win-win’ solution in certain situations. For example, land-based approaches such as biochar and enhanced rock weathering may help avoid fertiliser use and enhance food productivity. Small-scale bioenergy with carbon capture and storage produces electricity or heat alongside carbon removal, and may also have community benefits. We heard from research teams investigating how to optimise co-benefits alongside carbon removal.
Trade-offs make decision-making less straightforward. For example, investors may need to trade off financing projects in locations where low-carbon energy is available versus locations where there are supportive GGR policy frameworks. Reconciling competition for resources such as land and energy, and the potential for carbon emissions to be displaced to another part of the world, were further considerations that emerged from discussions.
The Principles have also been tested on GGR demonstration projects from the UKRI-funded GGR-D demonstrators programme and from Phase 2 of the UK government’s Direct air capture and greenhouse gas removal programme.The project methods include woodland creation and management; peatland restoration; perennial biomass crops; bioenergy with carbon capture and storage; biochar; enhanced rock weathering and direct air capture.
This has allowed us to explore a related question – what data is available to evidence the various metrics that underpin Principles? Uncertainty about future availability of low-carbon energy or feedstocks, as well as regulatory uncertainty, has emerged as a common challenge for project teams and decision-makers. Demonstration projects may only be operating along part of the value chain being evaluated. CO2RE colleagues are currently mapping the data gaps and will identify alternative sources of ‘proxy’ data to plug the gaps so that common assumptions can be made for the different GGR approaches.
Enhancing research through engagement
How then has this engagement enhanced the research process? It has been extremely valuable for us to get feedback on the Principles, validating their breadth and bringing nuance to how the dimensions are defined and evidenced. Testing the Principles on real projects has shown us a way forward in bridging between theory and practice – on the one hand, the detailed academic methodologies and evidence needs underpinning each dimension, and on the other hand, the practicalities of implementing the framework in the real world.
These activities have, more broadly, helped to create a platform for debate and shown us how we can enrich other areas of research through engagement.
Many of the insights emerged as a result of very detailed thinking done by the project developers and demonstrator research teams in applying the Principles to their projects, for which we are hugely grateful. Our discussions with investors and NGOs confirmed the robustness of the CO2RE Principles and helped us contextualise them: firstly within the existing certifications in the voluntary carbon markets and secondly in relation to the conditions required for government grants and subsidies for carbon, sustainable energy production and land use.
We have heard first-hand from people involved in a whole diversity of GGR demonstrations and their specific areas of focus and challenges; this includes developers of small-scale projects with a community focus who are making use of local resources and bringing greater awareness to local communities of what GGR is and why it is needed. Without this engagement, the need for a data mapping exercise would not have emerged as clearly. These activities have, more broadly, helped to create a platform for debate and shown us how we can enrich other areas of research through engagement.
The CO2RE team will continue to develop the Principles over the duration of the programme, until 2025, taking on board feedback from the workshops. Following the current series of workshops and a data-mapping exercise, the CO2RE team will publish an updated version (v2) of the Principles on the website in October 2023. Please click here to see a detailed timeline.
If you would like to be involved in the creation of the Principles, reach out to email@example.com. There will be opportunities to provide input to future iterations of the Principles at various points as they evolve.