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John Field: Harvesting climate change mitigation with agriculture

John Field

John Field is interested in how bioenergy and sustainable farming practices can play a crucial role in the mitigation of planetary environmental change. At the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Field is using his modeling and assessment expertise to better understand carbon cycling and greenhouse gas emissions in natural and agricultural ecosystems.

His environmental and engineering modeling work can point to ways to reduce agricultural emissions, store more carbon in soils, and efficiently produce and process bioenergy crops on lands that are marginal for food crop cultivation.

What climate-related problem are you working on?

I work on biofuels and land-based climate mitigation, studying how we might change the way we farm and manage land to store more carbon and produce fossil-free energy sources.

Why does the research matter?

Most projections to a stable climate assume a whole lot of land use for biofuel production and carbon storage. Air travel in particular is hard to decarbonize, and advanced biofuels might be our best bet there. It's important to understand the environmental effects of these measures early, before we deploy them at large scales.

What keeps you motivated?

There are still a lot of fundamental disagreements about the viability and sustainability of these measures, so it's an intellectually challenging area to work in. More broadly, I'm an outdoors person, and I want to protect the special places that I love for future generations (and find cleaner ways to travel to those places myself!).

What about the research keeps you up at night?

Questions about the future impacts of climate change on the agricultural system go through my mind. If climate change disrupts existing food production and forces agriculture to expand into new areas, we might not have as much flexibility in future land-use decisions as we would hope.

What would you tell a student interested in pursuing a career in climate science or a related field?

Go for it! There will be a great need to better understand climate science, impacts, adaptation, and mitigation for the foreseeable future. Climate work is often an uphill battle, though, and you have to be content to make a small impact on a really big, really tough problem.