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Carbon Storage in Pasture through Ecological Restoration (CASPER)

Carbon Storage in Pasture through Ecological Restoration (CASPER)

The CASPER programme is aimed at substantially advancing understanding of how both plant-microbe soil interactions and agricultural management practices impact the potential for carbon sequestration. CASPER is novel in spanning research from the role of the microbial community in soil to the challenges faced by local communities in the tropics, living in areas of severely degraded land. Specifically, it aims to create low cost, accessible ways to improve productivity and soil carbon storage using native plants.

The 5-year programme will involve significant lab-based work in Exeter and fieldwork experimentation in Brazil working with local partners, communities and land managers in the region.

The team at the University of Exeter is comprised of 7 co-investigators, all based with the Geography department. Their expertise spans tropical ecosystem function and tropical plant diversity, soil science, biogeochemical cycles and greenhouse gas fluxes, microbiology, pastureland management, and the impact of land management practices on both carbon storage and local communities. Collectively, they have many years of experience conducting research in the tropics.

The CASPER team of Co-investigators, their Brazilian partners and associated post-doctoral researchers and PhD students will publish their findings through the standard academic channels.

The research will cover three key areas;

  • Identifying the mechanisms that can promote carbon sequestration in agricultural soils.
  • Identifying solutions to increase productivity and soil carbon storage in degraded Brazilian pasture systems using native plants.
  • Links and synthesis between these two elements.

The Exeter based lab work will focus on microbial sequencing and analysis of soil / carbon interactions, within the context of growing varied plant species. The aim is to provide the mechanistic detailed understanding of plant, soil and carbon interactions, which can then be applied in the context of the Brazilian pasture lands.

The field work will take place across various biomes in Brazil ranging from tropical rain forest to savanna, in close collaboration with researchers from the three partner institutions.

  • Instituto Ouro Verde (IOV) – an NGO focused on social participation as a basis for sustainable development.
  • Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) – a public research university in Sao Paulo
  • Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA) – a state-owned research corporation affiliated with the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture.

Underutilised and degraded pastureland are most concentrated within the tropics. Within Brazil, the world’s largest tropical country, pasturelands account for 21.5% of the whole Brazilian territory. Changes in land management over the last few decades have severely decreased soil carbon stocks in these pasturelands, and as a consequence much of this land can no longer support either local small-scale agriculture or grazing. Around 54% is under moderate or severely degraded condition, representing almost 1 million km2 (almost twice the size of France) which could be more efficiently utilised to increase carbon storage, biodiversity and social justice, whilst limiting the pressure to deforest native tropical habitats.

Brazil’s soils are some of the most depleted in terms of soil carbon in the world and research to facilitate cost effective land management solutions is vital. Due to the vast areas at stake, even minor gains in improving degraded soils provide huge potential for positive biodiversity and societal impacts, and increased soil carbon storage.
The teams will seek to evaluate land management restoration practices, informed by the soil science investigations. Interventions will involve both soil and plants, with the aim of restoring soil quality and land productivity. Both of those goals have far reaching biodiversity and societal impacts.

This is what is termed a ‘Nature Based Solution’ as one of the outcomes of the research may be improved carbon sequestration and storage. The CASPER project believes that well executed nature-based solutions projects should provide climate mitigation, improve biodiversity and social justice. This is an area of highly exploratory research. It is also one of the first pieces of research which aims to test the persistence of sequestered carbon in different ecosystems, including vulnerability to future climate change (a key factor in robust Nature Based Solutions.)

Under an existing research framework agreement, in 2022 the University signed a contract to collaborate with Shell Research Ltd on CASPER.

The project stems from the understanding that the science behind net zero is clear, as is the need to accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuel supply and demand, transition to renewable energy at scale, and invest in carbon dioxide removal. This work is at the heart of the University of Exeter’s Strategy 2030. High-quality nature-based solutions, independently verified to determine their carbon impact and social and biodiversity benefits, will play an important and necessary role in mitigating global emissions.

The CASPER Project provides a viable avenue for facilitating the scale and pace of change required, with potential for real world, global climate, ecological and societal impact.

The University’s partnership with Shell has been in place for over 15 years, working on collaborative research projects on advancing biofuels and renewable chemicals.