Agriculture and land use have a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions

A pioneering project, called ‘AI for Net Zero’ and led by experts from the University of Exeter, has received £2 million research funding from the UK Research and Innovation Council’s EPSRC, it has been announced. 

The pivotal new research programme, will design new AI technologies to drive the UK’s commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050. The new technologies will aide crucial decisions about land use changes, with a focus on initiatives to create new woodlands and forests.  

The twenty-three month project, which launches this month (May), will co-design new decision-support tools that will help shape policy, and on the ground initiatives, for tree planting across the UK. 

The new project builds on the work of an existing project, NetZeroPlus ( led by Professor Ian Bateman, with Professor Williamson and other researchers from the University’s Faculty of Environment, Science and Economy, and is designed to gather evidence, address knowledge gaps and allow decision-makers to assess the consequences of different tree-planting options and explore the diverse aspects of forestry to identify “the right tree in the right place”. 

The new initiative will enable the team to deliver bespoke decision support tools for a host of project partners, including Defra, and large land-holding partners such as the National Trust, Network Rail, the Woodland Trust and the Ministry of Defence, amongst others. The tools will embed AI technologies into state-of-the-art modelling, in order to provide “real time” data to determine which locations are best suited to planting new trees, and which species of tree will be most suitable. 

Professor Danny Williamson, project lead from the University of Exeter said: “I am really delighted that our project has been chosen to be part of this UKRI programme. I feel we can make a very substantial contribution to the vital aim of hitting Net Zero by 2050 while also pioneering an ethical-AI approach to decision-support which  quantifies and communicates uncertainty for all of the downstream effects of land use change and empowers decision makers without making decisions for them.” 

In order for the UK to meet its ambitions to achieve Net Zero by 2050, there needs to be a large-scale removal of greenhouse gases – and capturing carbon through tree planting offers an immediate, low-cost method to help achieve this. 

In the coming years, according to the Environment Act (2021), half a million hectares of new woodland will be planted across the country to store carbon and other greenhouse gases. Where to do so to maximise additional potential benefits such as helping nature recover and improving water quality, while minimising potential negative consequences such as losing land for UK agriculture, and new threats from wildfires, pests and diseases as the climate changes, remain imperative questions to answer.  

The new project is designed to help drive these complex decisions by using AI technologies to provide bespoke, decision support tools that can properly inform policy and planting schemes.  

“This research is a great example of how we can use AI to connect state-of-the-art transdisciplinary science and social science for on the ground delivery, and of how co-design between academics and practitioners can achieve the greatest impact,” said Professor Williamson. 

The research team will also ensure the modelling technology is accessible to all landowners and policy makers engaged in tree-planting decisions – enabling the latest modelling and data will be transferred into the hands of the users that will shape the UK’s Net Zero contribution from trees.