In March 1995, somewhere in the North Indian Thar desert, I attended a rave.

The location was a beautiful oasis. The condition we left it in was less beautiful. I was the last remaining Westerner on site, awaiting my return (by camel) to a nearby village. An incensed local Rajasthani threw rubbish at me: plastic bottles, sanitary towels, condoms.

This was my climate epiphany.

He needed someone to be outraged at and I accepted his grief. Returning to the UK I determined to do something about environmental issues. I wanted to learn what I was talking about and engage others to care.

The National Wales: Dr Elaine Jensen of Aberystwyth UniversityDr Elaine Jensen of Aberystwyth University

Twenty-seven years later: microplastics have been found in human blood for the first time, and the climate emergency is ever more urgent.

At the time of writing, “Daily CO2” tells me that CO2 levels are 420 ppm (parts per million). The Paris Agreement treaty on climate change, which the UK committed to in 2015, determines to limit global warming to well below 2oC, preferably to 1.5oC, below pre-industrial levels.

Pre-industrial levels were about 278 ppm.

In 2019, the Welsh Government became  the first government in the world to declare a climate emergency, and in March 2021 Senedd Cymru approved a net zero target for 2050. Net zero means carbon neutral, where emissions of CO2 are balanced with their removal. #

This is not easy.

It is also highly likely that we are now so far above pre-industrial CO2 levels that we need to physically remove CO2 from the atmosphere to avoid reaching the many climate tipping points we are headed towards.

We can facilitate atmospheric CO2 removal by enhancing natural carbon sinks - restoring peatlands and planting trees - but there are few functioning CO2 removal technologies, and we are likely to need engineered solutions (which carry many of their own technical, environmental, and economic concerns and difficulties) as well.

Perennial biomass crops for CO2 removal

Perennial (lasting for many years) biomass (plant-based material) crops are a type of CO2-removal technology. They capture CO2 during photosynthesis and store the carbon either above- or belowground.

We already use biomass to directly replace fossil fuels in ways that other renewable technologies can’t; for instance, to refine degradable bioplastics, butane, bioethanol and biogas, for pharmaceuticals, health supplements and food additives, and a range of high-value products in construction, packaging, and furniture making (this is in addition to using biomass for heat and power generation).

Ancient vs contemporary carbon, and long vs short carbon cycles

Using fossil fuels releases ancient stores of carbon into the atmosphere, creating a net CO2 increase.

Because plants capture carbon during photosynthesis, the carbon released during their combustion is contemporary. However, forest trees have long carbon cycles, taking 30-100 years to grow. Burning forest biomass to generate energy causes net CO2 increases (especially when it’s transported long distances) that will not be lowered until regrowth takes place.

This will be after the 2050 cut off for net zero.

Perennial biomass crops capture carbon annually, or over 2-3 year phases, and thus have much shorter carbon cycles. This results in zero or even negative emissions. Because these crops are perennial, remaining in the ground for years, they provide ecological habitats, erosion and flooding control, belowground carbon sequestration, and can help restore soil fertility.

What am I doing?

Here we are in May 2022, and the latest report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) details “widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people” caused by climate change.

There really isn’t any time to delay!

At Aberystwyth University we are developing energy crop knowhow around agronomy, yield optimisation, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and variety breeding for low grade and even contaminated land. We work with industry and academia identifying uses for energy crops to replace fossil fuels and to understand the social, economic, and environmental benefits of doing so.  

This is globally significant work, but it’s also highly relevant to Wales. As Welsh Government says, the necessary actions to achieve Net Zero in Wales are not just in their hands: we all need “to embed the climate emergency” in how we “think, work, play and travel”.

I’ve worked with energy crops since 2007 and I am convinced of their potential in our pathway to Net Zero. Yes, there are competing issues over land – food, biodiversity, recreation. Reforestation is certainly needed for carbon sequestration, but neither it, nor rewilding, will provide raw materials for fossil fuel replacements (which we can’t get from any other renewable technology!), or annual incomes for landowners.

I am now providing evidence to Welsh Government on how energy crops can contribute climate solutions for Welsh industry and agriculture, determining where energy crops are appropriate, to deliver not only Net Zero, but also the social, environmental, and economic welfare of Wales.

If you want to get involved in Net Zero Wales, have a look at the Calls to Action in Welsh Government’s All Wales Plan to see what you can do.

Elaine Jensen is a research fellow in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University and member of the BEACON and Crops for sustainable energy and materials research groups. She leads the FACCE-JPI funded MISCOMAR+. Her research interests focus on the use of plants (especially perennial energy crops) to help us steward planet Earth.

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