By Maria T. Zuber, Vice President for Research
Delivered to the MIT faculty in the May/June 2019 issue of the Faculty Newsletter
I am pleased for this opportunity to share with you some thoughts about MIT’s progress under our Climate Action Plan (CAP). Let’s begin by going back to 2015. It was the hottest year in Earth’s recorded history, a title held only until 2016. It was also the year that representatives from 196 countries came together in Paris and committed to holding the global temperature increase to well under 2 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and to pursuing efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees. Here at MIT, 2015 was the year when a year-long campus-wide climate conversation culminated in President Reif’s announcement launching our Climate Action Plan.
The Climate Action Plan has five pillars; I will touch on just a few examples from each of them.
The first pillar is to improve our understanding of climate change and advance novel mitigation and adaptation solutions. Susan Solomon (EAPS/Chemistry) and her colleagues have used historical March stratospheric ozone concentrations in the Arctic to predict April surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere. Our Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change has developed a highly detailed model that integrates the future of energy and land use, water and agriculture, and emissions and climate. In their most recent analysis, John Reilly (Sloan), Ron Prinn (EAPS) and their co-authors provide fresh evidence that, absent major changes in policy and practice, greenhouse gas emissions will continue increasing after 2030, leading to rising average land temperatures and rising sea levels throughout the century.
Our second pillar is accelerating progress toward low- and zero-carbon energy technologies. It is through this second pillar that MIT may ultimately have the greatest impact, through inventing new solutions.
Lots of options already exist for slowing climate change: more deployment of renewables, more efficient use of energy, energy conservation, pricing that reflects fossil fuels’ real costs to the environment, and so on. But even if we do all of that and more, we are going to need new technologies to be developed and deployed at scale if the world is to slow down, stop, and ultimately reverse climate change.
MIT’s eight Low Carbon Energy Centers (LCECs), based at the MIT Energy Initiative, are the principal unit charged with making progress in this area. Each focuses on a crucial technology: advanced nuclear energy systems; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; electric power systems; energy bioscience; energy storage; materials in energy and extreme environments; mobility systems; and solar energy. The LCECs work with partners from many sectors to develop deployable solutions that can meet global energy needs sustainably.
Examples of promising work under this pillar range from Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ efforts to accelerate the commercialization of fusion energy to the work of Vladimir Bulovic (EECS) and his team to develop ultrathin, flexible solar cells that could transform almost any surface into an energy source. Other research under way includes Elsa Olivetti’s (DMSE) work to use artificial intelligence to speed the process of fabricating novel materials for energy storage and Gabriela Schlau-Cohen’s (Chemistry) research to better understand how plants reject excess energy that could lead to increases in yields of biomass and crops.
The plan’s third pillar is educating a new generation of climate, energy, and environmental innovators. A few thousand new students, undergraduate and graduate, come to MIT every year. They, along with our faculty, are our greatest resource, and the investments we make in them will pay dividends for them and for humanity for many decades to come.
With the impetus of the CAP, we established our new undergraduate minor in Environment and Sustainability in the fall of 2017. Our MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) runs the MIT Action Sustainability Corps (MITASC), begun just this spring to help both undergrad and grad students find work related to sustainability, as well as to provide mentorship and funding. Twenty-five students will take part in MITASC this summer. Also, since the launch of the Climate Action Plan, the number of students receiving the Sustainability Certificate from the Sloan School of Management each year has nearly tripled, with steady growth each year.
The fourth pillar is for MIT to share what we know and are learning about climate with the broader world. To that end, late in 2018 we held a “soft launch” of our climate web portal, climate.mit.edu, a place for the MIT community to learn about, discuss, and innovate around climate issues and for us to share what we know and what we are doing with the wider world. We have recently started a podcast, TILClimate (“Today I Learned”), to bring science-based climate information to new audiences. We are currently adapting Kerry Emanuel’s (EAPS) primer on what we know about climate change for web use, with a goal of making a basic understanding of climate change accessible to the public generally. John Sterman (Sloan) is using simulation games to help diverse audiences, including policymakers, develop a hands-on understanding of the climate problem and the major contributors to it. Adam Berinsky and Evan Lieberman (Political Science) are exploring the extent to which MIT’s reputation for rigor and objectivity makes us a more credible communicator of climate science.
The fifth pillar is to use our MIT community and campus as a test bed for change. The Climate Action Plan set a goal to reduce campus emissions by at least 32 percent by 2030. As of last year, MIT’s net contribution to greenhouse gas emissions has been reduced by 20% against a 2014 baseline, putting us almost 2/3 of the way to our goal. Our actual campus emissions last year were a modest 4% below that baseline, having ticked up in 2018 due chiefly to a colder than average winter. The balance of reductions are attributable to our partnership in Summit Farms, a 650-acre, 60-megawatt solar farm in North Carolina, which has the additional advantage of retiring dirtier coal-fired energy from that region’s electric grid.
These efforts, which I oversee with the invaluable assistance of a Climate Action Advisory Committee made up of faculty, students, staff, alumni, and Corporation members, represent just some of the important work proceeding on all pillars of the Climate Action Plan. In terms of executing stated elements of our plan, we are making excellent progress.
Underpinning our plan are two core elements of strategy: engagement and investment. Because the climate problem is so vast, MIT has sought partners from industry, government, NGOs, and other universities to collaborate on the search for solutions. In addition, because the path to solutions is uncertain, it will take immense new funding to support the range and intensity of research that can ultimately yield breakthroughs that match the scale of the need.
Looking ahead, beginning this October MIT will present a series of six Climate Action Symposia to consider climate science, policy, technologies, and the role of universities. The symposia are intended to give the MIT community an opportunity to consider what we have learned from these initial years of MIT action on climate change and what should come next.
Here are a few questions I believe we should consider:
- How might we increase the probability that our work leads to the breakthrough innovations the world needs?
- How do we contemplate engagements with partners who don’t share our sense of urgency?
- How can we secure a level of investment in decarbonization research sufficient to accelerate the development of practical, scalable alternatives to fossil fuels, particularly in the absence of major federal government support?
- In the spirit of risk management, are we investing sufficiently in adaptation, including research into possible geoengineering methods to slow or reverse climate change?
- How can we expand use of our campus as a test bed? Our efforts to date have taught us that while progress is possible, the work of MIT is inherently energy intensive. Once we have taken many small steps to increase efficiency, eliminate waste, etc., we are challenged in further reducing our carbon footprint by both the limited availability of low-carbon energy options and the lack of a price on carbon that reflects its true costs.
The next couple of decades are crucial to dealing with climate change. We know that over those decades hundreds of millions more people will be turning on the lights and air conditioners as development comes to parts of the world that have not yet experienced it. That future development will need energy to run on, and our challenge is to help humanity find new and sustainable ways to power the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.
While the climate challenge facing the world is certainly daunting, I remain optimistic that MIT can make a major contribution to overcoming it and I look forward to working with our faculty to help make it happen. I encourage faculty members to reach out to me with new approaches or ideas.