While studying oil palm plantation expansion in Indonesian Borneo as part of her Ph.D. work at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Dr. Kimberly Carlson witnessed how growing global demand, coupled with poor forest governance, resulted in rapid loss of tropical forests. Led by her adviser Lisa Curran and collaborating with the Indonesian NGO Living Landscapes Indonesia, Carlson’s research has helped uncover the impacts of oil palm development on forest loss, carbon emissions, and stream water quality. She finished her Ph.D. wishing not only to document the dynamics and effects of agricultural land use change, but also to design studies that directly inform tropical land use policy.
As a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), Carlson’s current research aims to inform policies that influence agriculture’s effects on forests and greenhouse gas emissions. In partnership with scientists at UCS, she recently completed a review of greenhouse gas emissions factors from peatland draining; these data will help the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil quantify greenhouse gas emissions from certified oil palm plantations. Carlson is collaborating with NGOs and other academics to study how sustainability certification affects environmental outcomes such as deforestation. She is also expanding her research to a global scale. Carlson is beginning to examine tradeoffs between global crop production and greenhouse gas emissions, and identify strategies to mitigate these emissions. Along with colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Carlson recently founded the Twin Cities Tropical Environments Network, to raise awareness of tropical regions in the decidedly temperate Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. Next year, Carlson will start a position at the University of Hawai’i, where she looks forward to continuing her solutions-oriented research on the human dimensions of tropical agriculture and land use change.