Biomass Energy: The climate protective domain


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  • Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute
  • Senior Fellow, Precourt Institue for Energy
  • Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies; Professor, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences
  • Melvin & Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies
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  • Gloria and Richard Kushel Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment
  • Professor, Earth System Science
  • William Wrigley Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
  • Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
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Senior Fellow
  • William Wrigley Professor of Earth System Science
  • Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
  • Senior Fellow and Founding Director, Center on Food Security and the Environment
Visiting Assistant Professor
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Elliot Campbell
UC Merced

Biomass energy sources are among the most promising, most hyped, and most heavily subsidized future energy sources. They have real potential to heighten energy security in regions without abundant fossil fuel reserves, increase supplies of the liquid transportation fuels, and decrease net emissions of carbon to the atmosphere, per unit of energy delivered. On the other hand, increased exploitation of biomass for energy also has the potential to sacrifice natural areas to managed monocultures, contaminate waterways with agricultural pollutants, threaten food supplies or farm lifestyles through competition for land, and increase net emissions of carbon to the atmosphere, as a consequence of increased deforestation or energy-demanding manufacturing technologies.

Planting perennial bioenergy crops can lower surface temperatures by about a degree Celsius locally, averaged over the entire growing season. That's a pretty big effect, enough to dominate any effects of carbon savings on the regional climate - David Lobell

Here, we focus on the net forcing of climate, accounting for gains and losses of ecosystem carbon and changes in the absorption of solar radiation at the earth's surface, as well as net offsets of fossil emissions. In this project, we provide two deliverables. The first is a set of tools for quantifying the integrated impacts on climate of expanding the area utilized for biomass energy production. The second is a series of global maps of net climate forcing from biomass deployment, as a function of biofuels production technologies, efficiencies, and time horizon. The new contribution of our research is a thorough assessment of the climate consequences of converting landscapes from their previous uses to biofuels. This includes net climate forcing from both greenhouse gases (not limited to CO2) and surface albedo (reflectance).

The project plan integrates four streams of activity. Stream one will use a new technology for interpreting remote-sensing data to quantify carbon and climate forcing from forested lands recently converted to biomass energy. Stream two will extend this analysis to the global scale, using carbon-cycle modeling, combined with several kinds of observational data. Stream three will focus on climate forcing from food-biomass interactions, with an emphasis on understanding indirect clearing that occurs as biomass for energy pushes food agriculture into other lands. Stream four will look at net climate forcing from biofuels-related direct and indirect conversions. It will use climate models and satellite observations to quantify the component of climate forcing due to effects on albedo.