Daniel Sperling, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, is one of two recipients of the 2013 Blue Planet Prize. The prize, announced today by the Asahi Glass Foundation of Tokyo, has been described as the Nobel Prize for the environmental sciences.

Sperling is an international expert on transportation technology, fuels and policy, with a focus on energy and environment. His research is directed at accelerating the global transition to cleaner, more efficient transportation and energy, and mitigating climate change. The award recognizes Sperling for his unique ability to bring together the top thinkers and strategists in academia, government and industry to develop new vehicle- and fuels-policy approaches that are models for the world.

“I am deeply honored to receive the Blue Planet Prize, and I share it with my many brilliant and passionate collaborators,” Sperling said. “I hope to use this time in the spotlight to promote universities’ tremendous reservoir of policy-relevant knowledge – particularly policy that averts the pending disaster of global climate change. My primary goal is to bring science to policy.”

“UC Davis faculty work every day to bring sound science to the world’s most pressing problems, and Daniel Sperling is a wonderful example of that,” said UC Davis chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “We are proud of his accomplishments and pleased that his efforts are being recognized through this prestigious prize.”

Sperling was chosen to receive the Blue Planet Prize from among 106 candidates representing 27 countries. Also being honored this year is Taroh Matsuno, principal scientist at the Research Institute for Global Change, in the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

A professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy, Sperling founded the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS-Davis) in 1991. ITS-Davis is now the world’s leading academic program in transportation technology and policy, thanks to Sperling’s talent for building enduring partnerships with industry, government and the environmental community; integrating interdisciplinary research and education programs; and connecting research with public outreach and education. Today, the Institute is home to 60 affiliated faculty and researchers and 120 graduate students, and a $12 million budget.

ITS-Davis researchers pursue topics as diverse as:

  • Consumer response to advanced vehicle technologies, such as
    hybrid and electric cars
  • Bike- and pedestrian-friendly community planning
  • Traffic-flow theory
  • Battery and ultracapacitor capabilities and comparisons
  • World geopolitical implications of oil and natural gas development
  • Biofuels investment and production strategies
  • Multitasking and telecommuting
  • Hydrogen fueling infrastructure, and
  • The potential for converting the globe to 100 percent
    renewable energy.

Diverse though their interests may be, ITS-Davis researchers have in common a desire to educate the next generation and explore important research questions that contribute to knowledge. Many share a unique desire to apply their expertise and inform policy making at the local, state and national level.

Sperling championed early research into lifecycle analysis, with his students going on to develop the world’s most widely used lifecycle-analysis models for transportation fuels, and led the effort to transfer lifecycle assessment from labs into policy. For transportation fuel, lifecycle assessment means accounting for the emissions that occur in every stage of a fuel’s production and use.

The lifecycle approach is a critically important tool used to calculate greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, and other emissions that harm the environment. It forms the basis of many new climate and environmental policies around the globe.

“This year the world passed an ominous threshold – the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in human civilization,” Sperling said. Still, he is optimistic.

“Solutions are all around us. New technologies and new behaviors will transform our cities and energy systems. Policies are needed to stimulate innovation and encourage those changes in behavior, leading us to a tipping point of sustainable development. It is not easy, but with great effort we can recover our healthy blue planet,” he said.

A serial academic entrepreneur, Sperling has launched a diverse array of research centers under the auspices of ITS-Davis. They include the China Center on Energy and Transportation; the Energy Efficiency Center, the first university-based energy efficiency center in the United States; and the new Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy. Fifteen years ago, he created the Graduate Group in Transportation Technology and Policy, the unique, multidisciplinary program at the heart of ITS-Davis’s academic offerings. He also co-directs the Institute’s Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways program, a four-year, multidisciplinary research program funded through a consortium of private and governmental organizations. He has advised corporations and governments around the world.

In 2007, then-govenor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Sperling to the state’s globally influential Air Resources Board, where his understanding of transportation and energy inform clean-air and energy policies. Sperling co-led the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) study, which formed the basis of the revolutionary standard, the first of its kind to tackle carbon pollution from transportation fuel. The LCFS is in effect today in California and under consideration in other states. It is a model for similar polices in Canada and the European Union. ITS-Davis researchers provide technical support to California as it implements its clean fuels standard.

In the past 25 years, Sperling has authored or co-authored over 200 technical papers and 12 books, including “Two Billion Cars” (Oxford University Press, 2009). He has made 500 professional presentations in his career, including over 60 keynote talks in the past four years. He serves on numerous academic and research panels and in 2010 received a Heinz Award.

The Heinz Awards, awarded annually by the Heinz Family Foundation, honor the late U.S. Senator John Heinz by recognizing the extraordinary achievements of individuals in the areas of greatest importance to him. In 2010, the awards honored Sperling and nine other environmental innovators who are addressing global change caused by the impact of human activities and natural processes on the environment.

This year is the 22nd year of the Blue Planet Prize. Previous recipients include: Amory B. Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute; Paul R. Ehrlich, director of the Center of Conservation Biology at Stanford University; Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); James Hansen, recently retired director of the U.S. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Joseph L. Sax, professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley; David R. Brower, chairman of the Earth Island Institute; and Lester R. Brown, founder and president of the Worldwatch Institute.

“Many of my heroes have won this award, and I am humbled to join this distinguished group,” Sperling said.

Sperling will travel to Tokyo for the awards ceremony on October 30 and give a commemorative lecture on October 31. Each Blue Planet Prize recipient receives a certificate of merit, a commemorative trophy and a supplementary award of 50 million yen (about $500,000 U.S.).

About the Blue Planet Prize

The Blue Planet Prize was established in 1992 by the Asahi Glass Foundation of Tokyo. The award’s name was inspired by remarks of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, who observed that our blue planet is beautiful and we should work to preserve it. The Asahi Glass Foundation named the prize in the hope that “our blue planet will be a shared asset capable of sustaining human life far into the future.” http://www.af-info.or.jp/en/

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has more than 33,000 students, more than 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an annual research budget of nearly $750 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges – Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools – Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.