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Eric Lambin wins 2014 Volvo Environmental Prize

Lambin is a pioneer in the analysis of global land use change, employing advanced data collection and satellite imagery to understand human decision making and its influence on ecosystems and global environmental change.

October 20, 2014
Tore Marklund
Eric Lambin in front of his computer screen
Eric Lambin (Photo: Tore Marklund)

A world leader in developing methods of analyzing satellite images of Earth and linking them to socioeconomic data, Eric Lambin, a professor at Stanford University and Université Catholique de Louvain in his native Belgium, has been named recipient of the 2014 Volvo Environmental Prize. Lambin and his research colleagues utilize the advanced imaging methods to track and link land use changes with changes in commodities trading and demand for biofuels or food crops. He is the fourth professor from Stanford University to receive the award, which will be presented at a ceremony in Stockholm on November 26.

Lambin’s research bridges several seemingly disparate scientific areas, including remote sensing science, social and physical geography and ecology.  Sometimes called the “people to pixels approach,” his technique can, with faster computers and improved data, make it possible for businesses, nongovernmental organizations and governments to monitor environmental impacts from human activities in almost real-time. Lambin embarked upon this research approach as a young doctoral student in Sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-1980s and has expanded it throughout his career.  

“Prof. Lambin is successfully bridging social, geographical and biophysical disciplines in order to advance the global understanding of land use change and what it means for human wellbeing,” said the Volvo Environmental Prize jury.  “This type of research is vital in planning for a transition to sustainability.”

Initially, deforestation was largely perceived as a result of population growth. In his research, Lambin has demonstrated the intricate, complex and sometimes cascading patterns of human activities that affect forests and other natural resources. His work has most recently shown the connections between changing land use patterns among countries.   For example, his analysis of land use in Vietnam shows how seemingly successful reforestation efforts within national borders can add up to something less positive when examined across national boundaries .

“It seemed like a success story,” Lambin said.  “But when we looked at all the data and compiled all information locally and nationally, we discovered that use of wood had simply shifted to imported wood, increasing deforestation in neighboring Cambodia and Laos.”

Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the Stanford School of Earth Sciences calls Lambin’s work “game changing.”

“From his early work that illustrated the complexity of linkages between human decision making and land use change, to his current work that connects land use dynamics across regions and across time, Eric’s research has advanced the science of global change and has been essential for decision makers who are concerned about conservation and sustainability,” Matson said.  “Beyond his great research, Eric is a fantastic teacher, advisor and mentor, who is helping create a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists and leaders.  We’re fortunate to have him at Stanford.”

In addition to his academic research, Lambin reaches out to broader audiences. His most recent book, Ecology of Happiness, addresses the impact of nature on humans, rather than the conventional approach of discussing human impact on the planet.

At Stanford, Lambin is the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor, Department of Environmental Earth System Science in the School of Earth Sciences, Senior Fellow in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He is also professor at the Earth & Life Institute and School of Geography, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.

The Volvo Environment Prize was founded in 1988 and has become one of the world’s most prestigious environmental prizes. It is awarded annually to people who have made outstanding scientific discoveries within the area of the environment and sustainable development. The prize consists of a diploma, a glass sculpture and a cash sum of Swedish Krona 1.5 million (approximately US$209,000).  Prior recipients from Stanford include Gretchen Daily (2012), Harold Mooney (2010) and Paul Ehrlich (1993).