Lead Author:
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Contributing Authors:
Noel P. Gurwick, U.S. Agency for International Development
Molly E. Brown, University of Maryland
Riley Duren, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Siân Mooney, Arizona State University
Keith Paustian, Colorado State University
Emily McGlynn, University of California, Davis
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Adam Rosenblatt, University of North Florida
Nathan Hultman, University of Maryland
Ilissa B. Ocko, Environmental Defense Fund
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Emily J. Pindilli, U.S. Geological Survey
Federal Liaisons:
Nancy Cavallaro, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Gyami Shrestha, U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Carbon Cycle Science in Support of Decision Making

Carbon cycle science to date has made significant advancements in understanding carbon dynamics and feedbacks between global carbon and climate. For these advances to be more useful in decision making, increased understanding and quantification are needed regarding how individual activities affect carbon sinks and emissions, both directly and indirectly. This information would aid accounting of energy consumption, fossil fuel combustion, as well as land-related emissions and sinks (see Table 18.2). Science-based estimates of net emissions associated with activities, complete with statistical uncertainty, may then be scaled up using relatively high resolution data on environmental conditions and human activities. This information then can be used to better understand how decisions under consideration by public and private entities may impact carbon sources and sinks.

Table 18.2. Research to Support Carbon Cycle Decision Making

Decision-Making Goal Information Gap Research Activity Need
Prioritize activities and geographic regions for soil carbon sequestration and net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions. Predict changes in soil carbon based on regional changes in land-management practices. Calibrate existing soil models with field data and develop multivariate meta- analyses of field data.
Consider carbon stock changes in private and public forest management plans. Understand net carbon stock changes associated with land-management strategies. Assess forest carbon stocks and net changes in stocks at the regional and landscape levels associated with fire, regrowth, harvesting, thinning, and wildfire management.
Consider carbon stock changes in land-use planning and in legislation and policies that affect national and global land use. Understand the connections between direct and indirect land-use change and national and global changes in population, diet, affluence, technology, energy, and water use. Integrate science-based carbon stock and flux estimates, including uncertainty estimates, with global and regional socioeconomic models.
Increase the use of bioenergy, bioproducts, and renewable energy. Compare net emissions of alternative technologies to existing technologies and capture regional differences, if warranted. Conduct life cycle analyses (LCAs) for all proposed bioenergy, bioproducts, and renewable technologies and compare these analyses with LCAs for fossil fuel technologies.
Incentivize sustainable bioenergy. Develop accurate bioenergy emissions accounting at individual facilities. Calibrate existing forestry models to accurately reflect forest owner planting responses to market signals.
Protect vulnerable high-carbon landscapes. Identify land areas at high risk of settlement conversion. Project trends in urban development and land-management choices.
Maximize carbon mitigation on lands at risk of natural disturbance. Project natural disturbances and their carbon impacts. Develop region-specific carbon accounting protocols and management guidance.
Optimize national gross domestic production (GDP), its factors, and GHG emissions. Understand factors of GDP and emissions and how those factors can be used to decrease emissions while positively affecting GDP. Include GHG emissions in analyses of GDP and national economic growth.
Optimize energy production and consumption for reduced carbon emissions. Understand fuel mixes, substitutes, combustion efficiencies, energy intensity, and carbon intensity associated with energy production and use. Develop and integrate models that investigate carbon intensity of fuel use at local to national scales, with feedbacks to other related sectors (e.g., land resources and bioenergy).

Many land-management decisions at the U.S. Federal and state level (i.e., conservation programs) over the past decade could not have been made without the previous generation of work on carbon cycle science and efforts that supported basic research, fostered co-production of knowledge, and linked scientific inputs with the needs for inventories, assessments, projections, and decision making. Yet, with the evolving interests of communities and policymakers, as well as new policy requirements for implementing and setting national goals, new needs have emerged that emphasize input from the scientific community at the international, national, and subnational levels. Establishing strong partnerships among scientists, stakeholders, and funding sources may be essential for making effective use of carbon-related research over the coming years.


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