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David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever encountered and kept me awake at night. I realised without doubt that from then on, I wanted to pursue the scientific understanding of nature as a career: academia beckoned. 

Why this book?

At one level, the answer is straightforward. The story of how plants won the land and diversified to ‘green the continents’ is central to our own existence and the millions of diverse species of animals we are fortunate to share the planet with. Everybody loves plants. Why wouldn’t you want to write a book explaining how it happened? At another level, I thought there was a problem. There are coffee table books documenting the diverse floras of the world with wonderful photographs, and there are worthy textbooks giving you the standard treatment of how trees evolved from algae. But it seemed obvious to me that we lacked a popular science account of how fast-moving exciting scientific discoveries are contributing to a new and deeply satisfying picture. The puzzle that confounded botanists for nearly a century has been (largely) solved. Yet at the same time our diverse floras, the legacy of those distant evolutionary events, are under threat from humans and human-made climate change. In writing Making Eden, I tried to give the big picture covering these issues too.

What’s next?

Climate change is one of the gravest threats facing society. It is increasingly obvious that urgent and drastic phase-down of our carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels for energy will be insufficient to avoid seeding catastrophic climate change. We will also have to figure out cheap, effective, scalable strategies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with well-understood environmental and social consequences. I am the founder and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation, which aims to develop the science and social science for one such strategy involving biogeochemical improvement of agricultural lands with natural and artificial silicates. In other words, looking at how we can harness the activities of plants to make them part of the solution to carbon removal. This work builds on fundamental advances I made earlier in my career and the translation of knowledge in this way perhaps helps reassure the public that scientists are not navel gazing 24/7.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

For many reasons, you need a gigatonne scale industry (1 gigatonne is a billion tonnes) to address the carbon dioxide removal problem. The same is true of the urgent problem of rebuilding our rapidly disappearing top soils that underpin food security for billions of people. The FAO estimates our agricultural top soil might be gone in 70-80 years – how can this problem not be headline news? Apart from the fossil fuel industries (coal, oil and gas), the only industries on the gigatonne scale today are steel and concrete (i.e. producers of bulk silicate waste), and agriculture. Why not think creatively about how we can link these industries together to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, rebuild soils, and increase food security? It seems to me this a grand challenge we can address with a decent prospect of success that also represents fundamental and exciting opportunity for building a more sustainable economy and reducing waste, especially in developing nations, such as China. Our centre is actively thinking about the feasibility of joining the dots in this way.


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