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Renewables > Bioenergy

The Climate-Protective Domain

Start Date: September 2008
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Christopher Field, Department of Biology, Rosamond Lee Naylor, Julie Wrigley Senior Fellow in Environmental Science and Policy, David Lobell, Environmental Earth System Science, Stanford University; Gregory Asner, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution


The project aims to develop a set of tools for quantifying the integrated impacts on climate of expanding the area utilized for biomass energy production. The product will be in the form of a series of global maps of net climate forcing from various strategies of biomass deployment. Ultimately, four streams of activity will be integrated. Streams one and two will use a new technology for interpreting remote-sensing data to quantify carbon and climate forcing from forested lands recently converted to biomass energy, and extend this to the global scale using carbon cycle modeling and observational data. Stream three will focus on climate forcing from food-biomass interactions with an emphasis on indirect clearing. Stream four will look at net climate forcing from biofuels-related direct and indirect conversions, using satellite observations to quantify the component of climate forcing due to effects on albedo.


Biomass energy sources have real potential to heighten energy security in regions without abundant fossil fuel reserves, increase supplies of liquid transportation fuels, and decrease net emissions of carbon to the atmosphere, per unit of energy delivered. However, 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. The future of biomass in the global energy system is structured by a complex interplay among four major factors. The first is technology and the opportunities for using new plant and microbe varieties and new manufacturing processes to increase the yield of usable energy from each unit of available land or water. The second is the intrinsic potential of the land and ocean ecosystems that can be used for biomass energy production. The third is alternative uses for the land and water resources that are candidates for biomass energy production. The fourth is offsite implications of biomass energy technologies for land, air, and water resources. Progress in assessing the realistic potential as well as the ecosystem and societal impacts of biomass energy production depends on effectively integrating these factors.

Streams one and two involve measuring and synthesizing carbon dynamics from expanding the area utilized for biomass energy, respectively. Changes in carbon stocks of forested areas recently cleared for biomass energy will be assessed using a new approach. This will involve utilizing the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (CLAS) to get an accurate estimate of the areas affected by recent clearing for establishment of biomass energy plantations and applying the Carnegie Ames Stanford Approach (CASA)-3D biogeochemistry model to estimate changes in carbon uptake (Net Primary Production) and carbon storage in plants and soils. The worldwide distribution of carbon stocks in areas that are candidates for biomass energy production, the changes in those carbon stocks following conversion to biomass crops, and the temporal pattern of the likely changes will also be quantified. This, combined with changes in albedo and evapotranspiration, identified in stream four, will provide the overall climate forcing from deployment of biomass crops.

Figure 1 Figure 1: High-resolution image of a portion of the Amazon following deforestation and forest disturbance from logging. The CLAS uses widely available satellite data from multiple sensors, along with advanced signal processing, computational modeling, and pattern recognition methods, to detect deforestation and forest thinning at very high resolution over millions of square kilometers.
CLAS provides detailed information on the amount of forest canopy opening or damage caused by natural processes and human activities. The output from this system is high-resolution maps of deforestation, logging, and other forest cover changes, as well as canopy structural and physiological properties that drive the CASA-3D model. The CLAS maps will be used to quantify the geographic extent and type of land-cover changes in 8–10 major regions of known biomass energy production. The results will also assist in the lower spatial resolution studies of albedo changes from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite sensor.

Stream three will involve modeling the impacts of various land use scenarios of biofuel crop expansion, driven by commodity price increases and market expansion related to demand for biomass energy. Stream four will determine the overall climate forcing from expanding the area utilized for biofuels by using remote-sensing measurements of albedo from the MODIS sensor and comparing pre- and post-deforestation images in places such as Indonesia and Brazil.

This research addresses a key set of challenges that will allow the determination of ways to deploy biomass energy crops that will reduce the net climate forcing.