Industrial chimney
Developing methods for comparing implications of different greenhouse gas removal techniques

Last week (20.04.17), a nationally funded £8.6 million investment for greenhouse gas removal research programme was announced. Four interdisciplinary, multi-institute consortium and seven topic-specific projects have been awarded funding, with a Cranfield University’s project amongst them. Around 100 researchers from 40 UK universities and partner organisations will be involved, and seven research studentships providing PhD training will also be supported.

Cranfield’s project, Harmonising and upgrading greenhouse gas removal consequential life cycle assessment, is being led by Dr Pietro Goglio, of the Cranfield Institute for Resilient Futures. This project will develop methods for comparing all the implications (indirect costs and benefits) of using different greenhouse gas removal techniques, using the approach of consequential life cycle assessment. Dr Goglio commented:

The science basis behind the Paris climate agreement shows clearly that without further exploitation of greenhouse gas removal technologies, the targets set might not be met. The UP-Green-LCA is focused on harmonising and upgrading Life Cycle Assessment methodologies for greenhouse gas technologies across different economic sectors. This will be carried out by improving current methods of assessment which integrate environmental assessment with economic models. In these projects, economic models will integrate social and political drivers which might affect the introduction of greenhouse gas removals and will be made less reliant on assumptions.

The overall national research programme will evaluate the potential and wider implications of a variety of greenhouse gas removal options. Researchers will investigate the potential for increasing carbon storage in agricultural soil and forests, and new ways to remove methane gas from the air on a local scale. Other researchers will look into 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.

Cranfield’s involvement

To achieve the UK targets for cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a steady reduction of 3% should be achieved and maintained every year by the whole UK economy.  This is the requirement for UK in order to achieve the potential target of 1.5 degrees C of global warming. Different techniques (e.g. land management and use change, ocean fertilisation, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, biochar, direct air capture) have been proposed to remove GHG; but their implementation can have large and unforeseen effects considering all the impacts across the economy. Some techniques such as afforestation, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage could potentially have large land use change and affect the food chains.

Methodological approaches, such life cycle assessment (LCA), have been widely adopted to assess different greenhouse gas removal techniques (GGRTs). LCA allows to account for all the impacts from raw material extraction, production, transport, use and waste disposal of a production systems, product or service. In particular consequential LCA approaches have been used to assess the consequences of the various applications of greenhouse gas removal techniques. However consequential LCA is largely based on assumptions and large uncertainties are bound to this approach. Further there is no consensus on the LCA methodology to assess GGRTs, let alone the results, and a fair comparison of the efficacy and cost of the different GHGTs is required to have an accurate assessment of the benefits of GGRTs. 

This research proposal is an attempt in reducing the lack of consistency and increase accuracy and robustness of the impacts of alternative GGRTs. The main aim of this project is to harmonise the various LCA approaches to assess GGRTs, including biochar application, biomass carbon storage, land management change, ocean fertilisation and direct air capture. The project also aims to systematically test and assess the uncertainties related to the application of the consequential LCA to GGRTs to improve consequential LCA approaches for greenhouse gas removal. The new approaches are compared with other consortia and research projects targeted to greenhouse gas removal techniques and will be used in a consequential LCA of specific case studies for each greenhouse gas removal group.

The methodology adopted consists in a systematic review across economic sectors and focuses on the specific methods of analysing consequential impacts and uncertainties in the analyses (e.g. assumptions about economic responses). Selected case studies will be used to test the current approaches to identify and rank the importance of the various sources of uncertainties (and other strengths and weaknesses) related to consequential LCA. This will be combined with a series of workshops with other researchers and key advisers involved in assessing GGRTs to harmonise the developed approaches. The advisors will form an advisory panel and will represent areas of the economy, policy and third sector organisations that would be affected by large scale implementation of GGRTs. This will feed into an upgrading process of current consequential LCA methods with the aim of making the assessment of GGRTs more robust and more accurate to achieve a real and substantial reduction of global warming (at least 1-10 Gt of CO2eq per year worldwide).