MIT climate action updates for 2017

October 20, 2017

MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change was released two years ago, in October 2015. This update provides highlights on climate action at MIT since last year. (Highlights from 2016 can be found here.)

Highlights from around the Institute

MIT announced that it will host a summit this December to highlight the regional leadership of the northeast U.S. and eastern Canada in responding to climate change and to explore strategies for building on that leadership. The summit, to be held on MIT’s campus on Dec. 7 and 8, will bring together policymakers, researchers, and business and civic leaders from the New England states, Atlantic Canadian provinces, New York, and Québec. Michael R. Bloomberg will provide the keynote address at the summit.

In June, after President Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, joined with the presidents of 11 other leading research universities to reaffirm their commitment to addressing climate change, consistent with the Paris Agreement.

The Climate Action Advisory Committee, chaired by Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, provides advice on the implementation of the Plan for Action on Climate Change. In 2016-17, the committee focused primarily on developing goals for engaging with industry, government, and civil society. The committee is now working to develop a roadmap for the first goal, which focused on helping subnational and national governments meet their climate goals.

The Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change announced new members for its Energy-at-Scale project: Iberdrola and the National Institute of Clean and Low-Carbon Energy. The project assesses the economic and environmental impacts of scaling up low-carbon technologies. GE joined the Joint Program as a sponsor of Pathways to Paris: ASEAN, a project focused on identifying technology and policy pathways regarding nationally determined contribution targets for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Joint Program also joined Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, to help catalyze opportunities for continuous improvement in productivity, environmental quality and human well-being across the agricultural value chain.

ClimateX now has 1,500 members in over 70 countries. The ClimateX team recently completed season one of its Climate Conversations podcast, which features interviews with MIT climate experts. Additionally, a new ClimateX “Projects” capability allows users from around the world to share their climate action projects, ideas, and success stories with the community and create teams of people who share their interests. This December, ClimateX will provide digital support for the regional climate leadership summit, as a way to open up the summit conversation to the broader community. Anyone interested in collaborating or learning more should contact the climatex_team@mit.edu

Climate CoLab continues to grow its community and global partnerships. The platform now has over 90,000 members, and in 2016 and 2017 it ran 27 sector-specific contests, which garnered almost 900 innovative proposals. Contest winners will be announced in early 2018. Earlier this year, the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Resilience Initiative: Anticipate, Absorb, Reshape (A2R) collaborated with Climate CoLab on a contest on ways that communities could adapt to and prepare for climate-related hazards. The contest’s Judges Choice Winner was awarded one trip to present before the A2R Leadership Group. Other Climate CoLab contest partnerships include the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and MIT’s Solve initiative. Finally, Climate CoLab will partner with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Mexico, and the United Kingdom on an official side event at the UN climate conference, COP-23, in November in Bonn.

MIT’s Lorenz Center and the MIT Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences have launched a new online publication, Climate@MIT, to report on cutting-edge climate science research on campus and in the field.

Campus greenhouse gas emissions and campus as a living lab

In October 2017, MIT published its first greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy, which lays out the pathways and strategies that will guide the Institute in meeting its goal of reducing campus emissions by at least 32% by 2030. The report was developed collaboratively with the Office of Sustainability, Department of Facilities, Office of Campus Planning, and the Environment, Health and Safety Office. The strategy and implementation plan will be continually revised as new working scenarios and strategies emerge.

The 600-acre Summit Farms solar project, made possible by a power purchase agreement among MIT, Boston Medical Center, and Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation, became fully operational early this year. MIT’s purchase of power from Summit Farms will be equivalent to 40 percent of the Institute’s current electricity use.

The Office of Sustainability will also soon release MIT’s third comprehensive greenhouse gas inventory. The inventory covers campus emissions in fiscal year 2017, and will for the first time quantify the impact of the Summit Farms solar energy purchase on MIT’s climate footprint. It is anticipated that in 2017, the PPA will contribute to a significant reduction in MIT’s net greenhouse gas emissions. Read more about MIT’s progress on reducing its emissions here.

In May 2017, MIT launched a new website in beta form, Energize_MIT, making available a broad swath of detailed information about energy use and greenhouse gas emissions on campus to students, faculty, and staff. The site offers a single web-based entry point to a centralized pool of data, which will improve collaboration across operational and departmental groups.

In addition to its 2030 emissions reduction goal, MIT aspires to carbon neutrality. In the spring of 2018, MIT will launch a new course, Solving for Carbon Neutrality at MIT, which will be listed in Mechanical Engineering and Urban Studies and Planning. Co-led by Prof. Tim Gutowksi and Julie Newman, director of the Office of Sustainability, the course will challenge students to identify pathways for MIT to achieve carbon neutrality. The development of the class is funded through an Environmental Solutions Initiative curriculum grant, with support from the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation.

The Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office of Sustainability have hired a student fellow to begin to examine issues that MIT would encounter if it were to consider implementing an internal carbon price. The Department of Facilities has already incorporated a shadow carbon price into the life cycle cost calculator that it uses for large capital projects.

Environmental Solutions Initiative

The Environmental Solutions Initiative’s second call for research seed grant proposals closed in February 2017. During the summer of 2017, ESI selected six of the proposals for funding, spanning ESI’s three research domains: climate science and earth systems; cities and infrastructure; and sustainable production and consumption. Each grant is for two years.

The new environment and sustainability minor launched in September 2017, after approvals by the Committee on Curriculum and the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in March 2017. The minor includes two required, multidisciplinary subjects, plus a sequence of three electives. The Minor curriculum integrates four content “pillars”: earth systems and climate science; environmental governance; environmental histories and cultures; and engineering for sustainability. Students may pursue electives within one of the four pillars, or may create their own elective sequence. 

ESI has made progress in its work to embed environmentally-focused problem sets into the General Institute Requirements. During 2016-17, Professor Peter Dourmashkin and his team developed and tested problem sets in Physics GIR subjects.  This pilot effort had positive results, and ESI has been working to develop problems sets and other materials for use in additional classes during 2017-18.  

In January, ESI and the Office of the Vice President for Research announced a new collaboration between MIT and Conservation International. Several CI scientists participated in ESI’s second annual Hackathon for Climate during IAP 2017, and in September 2017 ESI and CI co-hosted a two-day workshop at MIT with CSAIL and the Media Lab on the opportunities for deploying artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics to advance conservation and environmental priorities.

ESI launched its People and the Planet Lecture Series in September 2016, and has since hosted five lectures, featuring Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and CEO of the Environmental Voter Project; Conservation International scientists Sandy Andelman and Will Turner; ESI visiting scholar and award-winning science writer Deborah Cramer; former US Congressman Bob Inglis, founder of climate change group republicEn.org; and Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Center.

MIT Energy Initiative

The MIT Energy Initiative has made significant progress in attracting new and existing MITEI industry members to join the eight Low-Carbon Energy Centers that were announced in the Plan for Action on Climate Change. MITEI has held workshops and presentations for center members and the faculty co-directors have shared their visions for the centers at venues including MITEI’s 2016 Annual Research Conference, whose theme was “The Global Energy Challenge: Accelerating the Transition.”

In December 2016, MITEI released its Utility of the Future study at launch events at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and at the Florence School of Regulation in Brussels, Belgium. The report, developed in collaboration with the Institute for Research in Technology at Comillas Pontifical University, recommended proactive reforms to ensure that both distributed and centralized energy resources are integrated efficiently in the shift toward a low-carbon energy future. The report will inform research conducted through MITEI’s Center for Electric Power Systems Research, one of the eight Low-Carbon Energy Centers.

Also in December 2016, MITEI launched the multidisciplinary Mobility of the Future study to explore how consumers and markets will respond to potentially disruptive technologies, business models, and government policies in the transportation sector. The study is led by faculty chair William H. Green, a professor of chemical engineering, and executive director Randall Field of MITEI.  

With a grant from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and other members and donors, MITEI has invested $1.5 million in energy and climate change education and curriculum development. Revisions to the Energy Studies Minor curriculum to streamline and expand offerings are underway and expected to take effect in the 2018-19 academic year. As part of this expansion, a new group of energy courses was developed and offered for the first time in the past academic year. MITEI’s new Undergraduate Energy Commons has proven popular with students, with undergrad-centered events focused on career opportunities in low-carbon energy taking place throughout the academic year.

Together with the Office of Digital Learning, MITEI is making progress in creating low-carbon energy edX courses that can be accessed by learners everywhere. The courses will be directly related to the research performed in MITEI’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers.

Through the Tata Center for Technology and Design, MIT continues to extend its international energy and climate impact. Graduate students are catalyzing positive change through on-the-ground research projects in energy, water, the environment, and other areas—throughout India, as well as projects in Nepal, Uganda, and Rwanda. The Tata Trusts has committed an additional $15 million over five years to support “Grid Edge,” an ambitious program under Vladimir Bulovic to develop low-cost printed solar modules for rural electrification.

In addition to its Annual Research Conference, MITEI has hosted numerous other events on campus focused on the transition to low-carbon energy, including discussions of energy storage, improving offshore wind farm operations and monitoring, and how electricity markets can be designed for the clean energy transition.

MITEI and the Environmental Solutions Initiative are leading an MIT community response to the recent storm-related disasters in the Caribbean by convening an International Conference on the Resilient Reconstruction of the Caribbean.  The conference, which will take place at the MIT Samberg Center on December 12-13, 2017, is an initial step toward our ultimate objective of rebuilding the countries and communities impacted by the storm for the long term. 

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