Reforesting could help Newcastle University offset half its emissions, researchers say

Academics at Newcastle University have found that two farms owned by the university store 16 times as much carbon as the university emits in a year

Researchers say the Newcastle University could offset 50% of its greenhouse gas emissions over 40 years if it converted some of its rural estates into woodland.

The findings come from a paper from academics based at Newcastle University.

Jiaqian Wang and Prof David Werner, at the university’s School of Engineering, published a paper after calculating the amount of carbon stored in the trees and soil at two farms owned by the university.

The researchers found that the university rural estate spanning 805 hectares currently stores nearly 104,000 tonnes of carbon: equivalent to 16 times the annual direct carbon emissions from the university. All of the soil on the estate stores carbon, but the soil in woodlands stores more than in meadows; both store significantly more than the land used for agriculture.

Researchers used trees samples, soil and historic land-use records of the sites to calculate the carbon capture of the estate in the northeast of England.

The university owns the farms for research, but the academics say different land management could help offset Newcastle University’s carbon emissions. “If the entire university farm sites were converted to coniferous woodland, an estimated annual 3,221 tonnes carbon could be stored over a period of 40 years,” the report says. “This number accounts for 50% of the annual carbon emissions.”

Wang and Prof Werner said their research was significant because few institutions with substantial landholdings “consider soil carbon preservation and augmentation in their carbon management plans”. They hope their framework will enable other institutions to “rationally consider their estates in future soil carbon management schemes”.

“Universities figure amongst the largest landowners in the UK,” said Prof Werner. “To achieve their ambitious net zero-carbon aims, universities should seriously consider carbon offsetting strategies for the land under their management.”

Oxford and Cambridge universities are amongst the largest landowners in the UK, for example, owning nearly 17,000 hectares. Local authorities in Wales own 17,000 hectares, and 32 councils in Scotland own 33,000 hectares. Golf courses in the UK cover 126,000 hectares, the authors added.

Universities UK, representing 140 higher education providers, has announced that all its members hope to become zero-carbon by the middle of the century – and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels.

Soils are the ‘elephant in the room’ in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a natural process that can be designed into a range of land uses
– Prof David Manning, Newcastle University

Matt Dunlop, head of Sustainability at Newcastle University, said: “Our priority in [the] pursuit of net-zero is to reduce emissions first, but for hard-to-abate emission sources, offsetting will have a limited place within our climate action plan.

“The challenge is to identify high-quality approaches to this issue, which are aligned to our charitable purpose, and which preferably deliver a range of co-benefits such as biodiversity improvement. It’s fantastic that our researchers are using our farms to actively engage with this part of the net-zero challenge.”

“My research shows that afforestation or conversion of some arable land into permanent grassland would be effective measures to offset tangible amounts of the university’s carbon emissions in its rural estate,” said Wang, the report’s lead author. “For example, converting one of the university farms into a forestry and carbon sequestration research centre with mixed woodland could capture and store about 1,856 tonnes of carbon per year, over a period of 40 years, to off-set at current rates about 29% of the university’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

Prof David Manning, a professor of soil science at Newcastle who helped co-author the report, said: “Soils are the ‘elephant in the room’ in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a natural process that can be designed into a range of land uses, from green space associated with highways and other transport infrastructure to landscaping and gardens.”

Newcastle University’s farm director, James Standen, said: “The main concerns would be the restrictions within our tenancy agreements and changes that might affect farm subsidies or our ability to deliver agricultural teaching and research. However, I would like to contribute more on carbon abatement, in cooperation with the other university stakeholders and as such we are a lead farm in a project with the Student Office of Sustainability aimed to link university land holdings to deliver exactly this output.”

The University of Winchester planted 1,000 trees in 2019 in its bid to reforest parts of its estate.


Read more: LSE country’s first carbon neutral university

Header image credit Matt Horne.

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