The Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation – Advancing remineralization into the mainstream
Responding to climate change is one of the most complicated and one of the most long-term projects humanity has ever undertaken. If we’re going to manage this challenge, it’s going to involve new policies, new laws, and new ways of behaving. We have to think not of ourselves (that in itself is a challenge for human beings); we have to think of future generations.
Oliver Morton, The Economist
The grand challenge
A new paradigm for research has taken shape in a ground-breaking effort to mitigate climate change, and remineralization is the focus of this unique new approach.
The Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation was founded in 2016 to investigate the use of enhanced weathering (remineralization) as a key strategy to stabilize the climate. The Leverhulme Centre is a prestigious, international, interdisciplinary collaboration, harnessing the talents of experts from the University of Sheffield, the University of Southampton, the University of Illinois, and other leading UK and international institutions. Together, these experts are exploring the application of rock dust to soils as a way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Prof. Rachael James of the University of Southampton, explains in an engaging video from the Leverhulme Centre why we need this kind of research: “We can reduce our fossil fuel emissions, but actually that’s not going to be enough. We’re going to need to actively take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, as well.” Prof. John Shepherd, from the University of Southampton compares dealing with climate change to “trying to avoid a supertanker hitting the rocks. You have to start turning away very early on, because if you leave it too late, it becomes impossible.” This is the grand challenge these experts think remineralization can address.
“It’s a bit like trying to avoid a supertanker hitting the rocks. You have to start turning away very early on, because if you leave it too late, it becomes impossible.”
Researchers at the Leverhulme Centre also recognize that any solution to climate change, no matter how effective, must overcome economic and social barriers to implementation. To help overcome these barriers, they have set ambitious goals: they seek to study the effects of enhanced weathering not just on the climate, but also on the environment as a whole, on the global economy, on society, and on the local economies of developing countries.
The recent establishment of the Leverhulme Centre signifies a major shift within the climate science community. Remineralization has been gaining ground, partly based on the enhanced weathering research by professor David Beerling, James Hansen, and others. The current project pushes this momentum further. With increased attention to remineralization, greater understanding, greater acceptance, and greater application are sure to follow.
History and origins
The Leverhulme Centre developed out of previous research into the use of rock dust. In the 2000’s, David Beerling, along with other scientists who later went on to work at the Leverhulme Centre, performed research on the effects of mineral weathering on climate change over millions of years of Earth’s history. At that time, they focused on natural weathering, which takes place over millennia. However, eventually their focus shifted to enhanced weathering, which involves the deliberate application of finely ground rock dust to soils. Enhanced weathering can produce a variety of benefits. Prof. Steve Long from the University of Illinois explains the process:
We could accelerate the natural sequestration of carbon that occurs in geology. When silicate rocks are digested and carbonate rocks form, at the same time the rock dust acts as a fertilizer on the land and improves crop production and crop protection against pathogens.
For these reasons, enhanced weathering was judged worthy of more intensive research.
In 2016, a £10M Research Centre award from the Leverhulme Trust established the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation. According to their website, the Leverhulme Centre “aims to deliver transformative understanding of enhanced weathering with agriculture as a strategic ‘negative emissions technology’ for climate change mitigation, with the co-benefit of delivering resource-efficient sustainable food security.”
Researchers from around the world contribute to the Leverhulme Centre and its projects. Professor David Beerling of the University of Sheffield is the director. Nine world-class experts serve on their International Advisory Board – including Dr. James Hansen, former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and current Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute; Prof. Henry King from Unilever; and Oliver Morton of The Economist. In addition, they have 23 partners and 17 staff members from the University of Sheffield, the University of Southampton, the University of Illinois, and other universities and research organizations worldwide. Four doctoral students from the University of Sheffield work with the Centre. This scale of research on remineralization is unprecedented.
Themes and projects
The funding from the Research Centre Award has allowed the Leverhulme Centre to carry out a variety of research projects since its founding. Leverhulme is researching nearly every aspect of enhanced weathering, and they organize this research into four interconnected themes: Earth systems modeling, fundamental crop weathering science, applied weathering science, and sustainability and society.
Theme 1 – Earth Systems Modelling
Theme 1 uses computer modeling techniques to simulate potential large-scale (and global-scale) changes that may occur when crops are treated with rock dust. The goal is to understand the effects of enhanced weathering on the atmosphere and the oceans, including atmospheric carbon levels and marine ecosystems. The Leverhulme Centre has already begun to model soil-mineral geochemistry, which is the basis of remineralization. They have begun to model global agricultural production, because agriculture will be a major application of remineralization worldwide. They have begun to model earth system feedback to understand how changes could lead to either runaway negative effects or increasingly positive effects.
Theme 2 – Fundamental Crop Weathering Science
Leverhulme’s Theme 2 program is all about detailed, fundamental laboratory science. In controlled environment facilities in Sheffield, they are studying how genetic variation within a species of plant can influence the response of the plant to the application of rock dust. In the lab, they can study in detail the effects on each individual plant, including the effects on growth, carbon capture, and protection against pests and disease. Right now, they are studying maize and rice – two of the most widely-grown crops worldwide – to find varieties that respond better to rock dust treatment. The results of these studies will allow Leverhulme to choose better candidates for field trials (in Theme 3).
One aim of this program is to develop “a low cost and sustainable control strategy for resource poor farmers in Africa that helps to improve food security whilst contributing to climate change mitigation.”
Theme 3 – Applied Weathering Science
Farming happens in fields, not in labs, so Leverhulme’s Theme 3 program is a series of large-scale field trials. This gives Leverhulme the opportunity to study the effects of enhanced weathering in more natural, real-world conditions. There is also a possibility that on a larger scale, feedback loops may develop where the treated soil helps the crops, which in turn affects the soil in further positive ways via nutrient release and pH change. Their hope is that together this “may increase food/bioenergy crop productivity and slow soil greenhouse gas emissions.”
Theme 4 – Sustainability & Society
Any attempt to deal with climate change runs up against political and social issues. Global remineralization will depend on economic viability and reliable supply chains. With that in mind, Leverhulme’s Theme 4 program studies the real-world feasibility of enhanced weathering. They are modeling not just the environmental impacts, but also the socio-economic impacts. They are modeling supply and distribution based on real-world data. “The new model will, uniquely, account for the effects of enhanced weathering on crop yields, coupled with evolving agricultural processes and technologies (Theme 1) and related economic changes, including macroeconomic feedbacks.” Beyond that, they are studying people’s perception of remineralization. The goal is to find a strategy that works and that we can adopt in the actual global socio-political environment.
“The new model will, uniquely, account for the effects of enhanced weathering on crop yields, coupled with evolving agricultural processes and technologies … and related economic changes, including macroeconomic feedbacks.”
The scope of the Leverhulme Centre’s research encompasses every aspect, from the microscopic to the global. On the small scale, Leverhulme is studying the biochemistry and biology of several varieties of plants to test how they respond to rock dust. On the global scale, they are developing models of the Earth’s environmental systems to grasp its overall dynamics and identify feedback loops. They are modelling the global economy to understand the potential impact of increased agricultural yields. In between at the human scale, they are testing rock dust on several acres of crops, mimicking the conditions under which farmers actually use rock dust.
Every level fits together. It is important to understand how different rock dusts interact with plant biomatter in soils, because the relationship will affect nutrition, resistance to disease and pests, and more. We need to understand the effect rock dust will have on overall soil health and agricultural productivity. In the end, the goal is to address global problems like food security, food sovereignty, and climate change. It is important to understand the economic and social reality, which will affect whether farmers worldwide will adopt rock dust. It is important to understand how much good it can do for the environment, in particular, by sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change. Each study feeds into the others.
The Leverhulme Centre conducts research in labs and fields around the world. It is already well established that rock dust is effective, but there remains a lot to learn about it. Leverhulme hopes to shed light on the effects on different plants in different climates in different soils.
With that in mind, the Leverhulme Centre is conducting a major, multi-year research project at Energy Farm, a “living laboratory” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On plots that will alternate between corn and soy, they are testing a meta-basalt rock dust from Blue Ridge mine in the mid-Atlantic. The Centre acquired the rock dust through Tom Vanacore, who is the founder of Rock Dust Local and a member of RTE’s Board of Advisors. Vanacore explains the choice of rock dust as follows:
Basalt is ideal because it is readily available worldwide, can be applied at very high application rates with no downsides, and contains a broad spectrum of minerals and trace elements in good balance for effective remineralization. And it captures carbon very effectively both through mineralization (carbonation) and through the stimulation of vigorous plant growth and soil biology.
Vanacore further explained that the Illinois Energy Farm objective is to apply 425 tons of rock dust per year for four more years, which works out to 20 tons per acre per year. He added, “Interestingly enough [20 tons per acre] is the point where application rates of the basalt at [RTE’s] New Harmony Farm project in eastern Massachusetts seemed to peak in effectiveness.” You can read more about the Energy Farm project in their flyer.
Meanwhile in Australia, where sugarcane is a $2 billion dollar per year industry, the Leverhulme Centre has partnered with James Cook University to test the effects of enhanced weathering in sugarcane farming. Again working at multiple levels, they are starting with small trials of sugarcane in planting pots. Later, using the data from the planting pot trials, they will conduct full-scale research in sugarcane fields. This research in particular could lead to wide-ranging benefits. In addition to sequestering carbon and improving plant health, rock dust could help reduce or eliminate agricultural runoff that has damaged the Great Barrier Reef.
The Leverhulme Centre will also study the application of basalt rock dust to palm oil plantations in Malaysian Borneo.
In addition to these ongoing projects, researchers at Leverhulme have already published several papers detailing a variety of early results. This research demonstrates their commitment to studying every aspect of enhanced weathering. As background, they have described, in a study co-authored by James Hansen, the state of the climate and the need for negative carbon emissions. They have published a study on methods of modeling. They have conducted studies about the theoretical capacities of various methods of enhanced weathering in various contexts.
This is not just pure science for the sake of science; it is an attempt to find solutions to pressing political, social, and ethical problems. They have studied the ethics of enhanced weathering, and the public perception of it. These are important issues to clarify if we ever hope to get remineralization accepted by governments, corporations, and the public.
Tying it all together
The fact that such a prestigious, well-funded, long-term project is dedicated entirely to rock dust signifies an important development for remineralization and climate science. Remineralize the Earth and other pioneers of remineralization have long espoused the benefits of remineralization, but major research institutions have often been slow to adopt it as a research program.
RTE’s Tom Vanacore and Joanna Campe have been invited to participate in a workshop organized by Professor Beerling and his team, which will take place at the University of Illinois from August 20 – 21. The workshop will cover basalt rock dust application (timing, equipment, and storage), crop management, and climate modeling. It will also include a tour of the Energy Farm. Several researchers from the Leverhulme Centre will attend.
When Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase was published in late 2015, a lawyer of the climate scientist Dr. James Hansen from the University of Oregon contacted Remineralize the Earth with the aim of getting a copy of the book to Hansen. Dr. Hansen has since published multiple papers on rocks for crops in collaboration with the Leverhulme Centre. We at RTE hope that our work and the book have played a role in shaping their research.
“The work of the Leverhulme Centre is a pivotal moment for remineralization.”
The work of the Leverhulme Centre is a pivotal moment for remineralization. In the past and present, pioneers of remineralization have revealed new possible effective responses to climate change and new ways to improve soils. Significant developments have included the pioneering work of John Hamaker and the grassroots movement he inspired and the development of the field of agrogeology by the likes of Dr. William Fyfe, Dr. Ward Chesworth, and later Dr. Peter van Straaten. In Brazil, Dr. Othon Leonardos and his students Dr. Suzi Huff Theodoro (University of Brasilia) and Dr. Eder Martins (Embrapa) have brought about research programs in almost every university and region of Brazil. In 2015 at the University of Copenhagen, Greenland Perspective launched a five-year project exploring the economic, environmental, and agricultural benefits of remineralization using glacial mud.
But to make an impact, remineralization needs broader acceptance. The scale of the Leverhulme Centre’s work has propelled remineralization into the mainstream of climate science. Now it is taking its place as a serious option in high-level policy debates regarding climate change. There are eight years left of the Leverhulme Centre’s current grant, but their work will make an impact that will last much longer and ultimately make remineralization a key strategy for climate change mitigation.
Benjamin T. Rancourt received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2016. His continuing philosophical research focuses on understanding, knowledge, and science, among other topics. This research ties into his wider goal of encouraging deeper understanding of ourselves, our strengths, and our limitations. He hopes that greater understanding will help us use the resources available to us to preserve what is good and address what is wrong. Walking is his primary mode of transportation. He appreciates the natural world. He lives with his wife Julia in North Carolina, where he is a Assistant Professor for Teaching at North Carolina State University and William Peace University.