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    Understanding air pollution from space

    Climate change and air pollution are interlocking crises that threaten human health. Reducing emissions of some air pollutants can help achieve climate goals, and some climate mitigation efforts can in turn improve air quality.

    One part of MIT Professor Arlene Fiore’s research program is to investigate the fundamental science in understanding air pollutants — how long they persist and move through our environment to affect air quality.

    “We need to understand the conditions under which pollutants, such as ozone, form. How much ozone is formed locally and how much is transported long distances?” says Fiore, who notes that Asian air pollution can be transported across the Pacific Ocean to North America. “We need to think about processes spanning local to global dimensions.”

    Fiore, the Peter H. Stone and Paola Malanotte Stone Professor in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, analyzes data from on-the-ground readings and from satellites, along with models, to better understand the chemistry and behavior of air pollutants — which ultimately can inform mitigation strategies and policy setting.

    A global concern

    At the United Nations’ most recent climate change conference, COP26, air quality management was a topic discussed over two days of presentations.

    “Breathing is vital. It’s life. But for the vast majority of people on this planet right now, the air that they breathe is not giving life, but cutting it short,” said Sarah Vogel, senior vice president for health at the Environmental Defense Fund, at the COP26 session.

    “We need to confront this twin challenge now through both a climate and clean air lens, of targeting those pollutants that warm both the air and harm our health.”

    Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its global air quality guidelines it had issued 15 years earlier for six key pollutants including ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). The new guidelines are more stringent based on what the WHO stated is the “quality and quantity of evidence” of how these pollutants affect human health. WHO estimates that roughly 7 million premature deaths are attributable to the joint effects of air pollution.

    “We’ve had all these health-motivated reductions of aerosol and ozone precursor emissions. What are the implications for the climate system, both locally but also around the globe? How does air quality respond to climate change? We study these two-way interactions between air pollution and the climate system,” says Fiore.

    But fundamental science is still required to understand how gases, such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide, linger and move throughout the troposphere — the lowermost layer of our atmosphere, containing the air we breathe.

    “We care about ozone in the air we’re breathing where we live at the Earth’s surface,” says Fiore. “Ozone reacts with biological tissue, and can be damaging to plants and human lungs. Even if you’re a healthy adult, if you’re out running hard during an ozone smog event, you might feel an extra weight on your lungs.”

    Telltale signs from space

    Ozone is not emitted directly, but instead forms through chemical reactions catalyzed by radiation from the sun interacting with nitrogen oxides — pollutants released in large part from burning fossil fuels—and volatile organic compounds. However, current satellite instruments cannot sense ground-level ozone.

    “We can’t retrieve surface- or even near-surface ozone from space,” says Fiore of the satellite data, “although the anticipated launch of a new instrument looks promising for new advances in retrieving lower-tropospheric ozone”. Instead, scientists can look at signatures from other gas emissions to get a sense of ozone formation. “Nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde are a heavy focus of our research because they serve as proxies for two of the key ingredients that go on to form ozone in the atmosphere.”

    To understand ozone formation via these precursor pollutants, scientists have gathered data for more than two decades using spectrometer instruments aboard satellites that measure sunlight in ultraviolet and visible wavelengths that interact with these pollutants in the Earth’s atmosphere — known as solar backscatter radiation.

    Satellites, such as NASA’s Aura, carry instruments like the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI). OMI, along with European-launched satellites such as the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment (GOME) and the Scanning Imaging Absorption spectroMeter for Atmospheric CartograpHY (SCIAMACHY), and the newest generation TROPOspheric Monitoring instrument (TROPOMI), all orbit the Earth, collecting data during daylight hours when sunlight is interacting with the atmosphere over a particular location.

    In a recent paper from Fiore’s group, former graduate student Xiaomeng Jin (now a postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley), demonstrated that she could bring together and “beat down the noise in the data,” as Fiore says, to identify trends in ozone formation chemistry over several U.S. metropolitan areas that “are consistent with our on-the-ground understanding from in situ ozone measurements.”

    “This finding implies that we can use these records to learn about changes in surface ozone chemistry in places where we lack on-the-ground monitoring,” says Fiore. Extracting these signals by stringing together satellite data — OMI, GOME, and SCIAMACHY — to produce a two-decade record required reconciling the instruments’ differing orbit days, times, and fields of view on the ground, or spatial resolutions. 

    Currently, spectrometer instruments aboard satellites are retrieving data once per day. However, newer instruments, such as the Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer launched in February 2020 by the National Institute of Environmental Research in the Ministry of Environment of South Korea, will monitor a particular region continuously, providing much more data in real time.

    Over North America, the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution Search (TEMPO) collaboration between NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, led by Kelly Chance of Harvard University, will provide not only a stationary view of the atmospheric chemistry over the continent, but also a finer-resolution view — with the instrument recording pollution data from only a few square miles per pixel (with an anticipated launch in 2022).

    “What we’re very excited about is the opportunity to have continuous coverage where we get hourly measurements that allow us to follow pollution from morning rush hour through the course of the day and see how plumes of pollution are evolving in real time,” says Fiore.

    Data for the people

    Providing Earth-observing data to people in addition to scientists — namely environmental managers, city planners, and other government officials — is the goal for the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST).

    Since 2016, Fiore has been part of HAQAST, including collaborative “tiger teams” — projects that bring together scientists, nongovernment entities, and government officials — to bring data to bear on real issues.

    For example, in 2017, Fiore led a tiger team that provided guidance to state air management agencies on how satellite data can be incorporated into state implementation plans (SIPs). “Submission of a SIP is required for any state with a region in non-attainment of U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards to demonstrate their approach to achieving compliance with the standard,” says Fiore. “What we found is that small tweaks in, for example, the metrics we use to convey the science findings, can go a long way to making the science more usable, especially when there are detailed policy frameworks in place that must be followed.”

    Now, in 2021, Fiore is part of two tiger teams announced by HAQAST in late September. One team is looking at data to address environmental justice issues, by providing data to assess communities disproportionately affected by environmental health risks. Such information can be used to estimate the benefits of governmental investments in environmental improvements for disproportionately burdened communities. The other team is looking at urban emissions of nitrogen oxides to try to better quantify and communicate uncertainties in the estimates of anthropogenic sources of pollution.

    “For our HAQAST work, we’re looking at not just the estimate of the exposure to air pollutants, or in other words their concentrations,” says Fiore, “but how confident are we in our exposure estimates, which in turn affect our understanding of the public health burden due to exposure. We have stakeholder partners at the New York Department of Health who will pair exposure datasets with health data to help prioritize decisions around public health.

    “I enjoy working with stakeholders who have questions that require science to answer and can make a difference in their decisions.” Fiore says. More

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    New visions for better transportation

    We typically experience transportation problems from the ground up. Waiting for a delayed bus, packing ourselves into a subway car, or crawling along in traffic, it is common to see such systems struggling at close range.

    Yet sometimes transportation solutions come from a high-level, top-down approach. That was the theme of the final talk in MIT’s Mobility Forum series, delivered on Friday by MIT Professor Thomas Magnanti, which centered on applying to transportation the same overarching analytical framework used in other domains, such as bioengineering.

    Magnanti’s remarks focused on a structured approach to problem-solving known as the 4M method — which stands for measuring, mining, modeling, and manipulating. In urban transportation planning, for instance, measuring and mining might involve understanding traffic flows. Modeling might simulate those traffic flows, and manipulating would mean engineering interventions: tolls, one-way streets, or other changes.

    “These are four things that interact quite a bit with each other,” said Magnanti, who is an Institute Professor — MIT’s highest faculty distinction — and a professor of operations research at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “And they provide us with a sense of how you can gather data and understand a system, but also how you can improve it.”

    Magnanti, a leading expert in operations research, pointed out that the 4M method can be applied to systems from physics to biomedical research. He outlined how it might be used to analyze transportations-related systems such as supply chains and warehouse movements.

    In all cases, he noted, applying the 4M concept to a system is an iterative process: Making changes to a system will likely produce new flows — of traffic and goods — and thus be subject to a new set of measurements.

    “One thing to notice here, once you manipulate the system, it changes the data,” Magnanti observed. “You’re doing this so you can hopefully improve operations, but it creates new data. So, you want to measure that new data again, you want to mine it, you want to model it again, and then manipulate it. … This is a continuing loop that we use in these systems.”

    Magnanti’s talk, “Understanding and Improving Transportation Systems,” was delivered online to a public audience of about 175 people. It was the 12th and final event of the MIT Mobility Forum in the fall 2021 semester. The event series is organized by the MIT Mobility Initiative, an Institute-wide effort to research and accelerate the evolution of transportation, at a time when decarbonization in the sector is critical.

    Other MIT Mobility Forum talks have focused on topics such as zero-environmental-impact aviation, measuring pedestrian flows in cities, autonomous vehicles, the impact of high-speed rail and subways on cities, values and equity in mobility design, and more.

    Overall, the forum “offers an opportunity to showcase the groundbreaking transportation research occurring across the Institute,” says Jinhua Zhao, an associate professor of transportation and city planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and director of the MIT Mobility Initiative.

    The initiative has held 39 such talks since it launched in 2020, and the series will continue again in the spring semester of 2022.

    One of the principal features of the forum, like the MIT Mobility Initiative in general, is that it “facilitates cross-disciplinary exchanges both within MIT and without,” Zhao says. Faculty and students from every school at MIT have participated in the forum, lending intellectual and methodological diversity to a broad field.

    For his part, Magnanti, who is both an engineer and operations researcher by training, embraced that interdisciplinary approach in his remarks, fielding a variety of audience questions after his talk, about research methods and other issues. Magnanti, who served from 2009 to 2017 as the founding president of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (with which MIT has had research collaborations), noted that the setting can heavily influence transportation research and progress.

    In Singapore, he noted, “They measure everything. They measure how people access the subway … and they use their data.” Of course, Singapore’s status as a city-state of modest size, among other factors, makes comprehensive transportation planning more feasible there. Still, Magnanti also noted that the infrastructure bill recently passed by the U.S. federal government is “going to provide lots of opportunities” for transportation improvements.

    And in general, Magnanti added, one of the best things academic leaders and research communities can do is to “continue to create a sense of excitement. Even when things are tough, the problems are going to be interesting.” More

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    Q&A: Can the world change course on climate?

    In this ongoing series on climate issues, MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields share perspectives that are significant for solving climate change and mitigating its myriad social and ecological impacts. Nazli Choucri is a professor of political science and an expert on climate issues, who also focuses on international relations and cyberpolitics. She is the architect and director of the Global System for Sustainable Development, an evolving knowledge networking system centered on sustainability problems and solution strategies. The author and/or editor of 12 books, she is also the founding editor of the MIT Press book series “Global Environmental Accord: Strategies for Sustainability and Institutional Innovation.” Q: The impacts of climate change — including storms, floods, wildfires, and droughts — have the potential to destabilize nations, yet they are not constrained by borders. What international developments most concern you in terms of addressing climate change and its myriad ecological and social impacts?

    A: Climate change is a global issue. By definition, and a long history of practice, countries focus on their own priorities and challenges. Over time, we have seen the gradual development of norms reflecting shared interests, and the institutional arrangements to support and pursue the global good. What concerns me most is that general responses to the climate crisis are being framed in broad terms; the overall pace of change remains perilously slow; and uncertainty remains about operational action and implementation of stated intent. We have just seen the completion of the 26th meeting of states devoted to climate change, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). In some ways this is positive. Yet, past commitments remain unfulfilled, creating added stress in an already stressful political situation. Industrial countries are uneven in their recognition of, and responses to, climate change. This may signal uncertainty about whether climate matters are sufficiently compelling to call for immediate action. Alternatively, the push for changing course may seem too costly at a time when other imperatives — such as employment, economic growth, or protecting borders — inevitably dominate discourse and decisions. Whatever the cause, the result has been an unwillingness to take strong action. Unfortunately, climate change remains within the domain of “low politics,” although there are signs the issue is making a slow but steady shift to “high politics” — those issues deemed vital to the existence of the state. This means that short-term priorities, such as those noted above, continue to shape national politics and international positions and, by extension, to obscure the existential threat revealed by scientific evidence. As for developing countries, these are overwhelmed by internal challenges, and managing the difficulties of daily life always takes priority over other challenges, however compelling. Long-term thinking is a luxury, but daily bread is a necessity. Non-state actors — including registered nongovernmental organizations, climate organizations, sustainability support groups, activists of various sorts, and in some cases much of civil society — have been left with a large share of the responsibility for educating and convincing diverse constituencies of the consequences of inaction on climate change. But many of these institutions carry their own burdens and struggle to manage current pressures. The international community, through its formal and informal institutions, continues to articulate the perils of climate change and to search for a powerful consensus that can prove effective both in form and in function. The general contours are agreed upon — more or less. But leadership of, for, and by the global collective is elusive and difficult to shape. Most concerning of all is the clear reluctance to address head-on the challenge of planning for changes that we know will occur. The reality that we are all being affected — in different ways and to different degrees — has yet to be sufficiently appreciated by everyone, everywhere. Yet, in many parts of the world, major shifts in climate will create pressures on human settlements, spur forced migrations, or generate social dislocations. Some small island states, for example, may not survive a sea-level surge. Everywhere there is a need to cut emissions, and this means adaptation and/or major changes in economic activity and in lifestyle.The discourse and debate at COP26 reflect all of such persistent features in the international system. So far, the largest achievements center on the common consensus that more must be done to prevent the rise in temperature from creating a global catastrophe. This is not enough, however. Differences remain, and countries have yet to specify what cuts in emissions they are willing to make.Echoes of who is responsible for what remains strong. The thorny matter of the unfulfilled pledge of $100 billion once promised by rich countries to help countries to reduce their emissions remained unresolved. At the same time, however, some important agreements were reached. The United States and China announced they would make greater efforts to cut methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. More than 100 countries agreed to end deforestation. India joined the countries committed to attain zero emissions by 2070. And on matters of finance, countries agreed to a two-year plan to determine how to meet the needs of the most-vulnerable countries. Q: In what ways do you think the tools and insights from political science can advance efforts to address climate change and its impacts?A: I prefer to take a multidisciplinary view of the issues at hand, rather than focus on the tools of political science alone. Disciplinary perspectives can create siloed views and positions that undermine any overall drive toward consensus. The scientific evidence is pointing to, even anticipating, pervasive changes that transcend known and established parameters of social order all across the globe.That said, political science provides important insight, even guidance, for addressing the impacts of climate change in some notable ways. One is understanding the extent to which our formal institutions enable discussion, debate, and decisions about the directions we can take collectively to adapt, adjust, or even depart from the established practices of managing social order.If we consider politics as the allocation of values in terms of who gets what, when, and how, then it becomes clear that the current allocation requires a change in course. Coordination and cooperation across the jurisdictions of sovereign states is foundational for any response to climate change impacts.We have already recognized, and to some extent, developed targets for reducing carbon emissions — a central impact from traditional forms of energy use — and are making notable efforts to shift toward alternatives. This move is an easy one compared to all the work that needs to be done to address climate change. But, in taking this step we have learned quite a bit that might help in creating a necessary consensus for cross-jurisdiction coordination and response.Respecting individuals and protecting life is increasingly recognized as a global value — at least in principle. As we work to change course, new norms will be developed, and political science provides important perspectives on how to establish such norms. We will be faced with demands for institutional design, and these will need to embody our guiding values. For example, having learned to recognize the burdens of inequity, we can establish the value of equity as foundational for our social order both now and as we recognize and address the impacts of climate change.

    Q: You teach a class on “Sustainability Development: Theory and Practice.” Broadly speaking, what are goals of this class? What lessons do you hope students will carry with them into the future?A: The goal of 17.181, my class on sustainability, is to frame as clearly as possible the concept of sustainable development (sustainability) with attention to conceptual, empirical, institutional, and policy issues.The course centers on human activities. Individuals are embedded in complex interactive systems: the social system, the natural environment, and the constructed cyber domain — each with distinct temporal, special, and dynamic features. Sustainability issues intersect with, but cannot be folded into, the impacts of climate change. Sustainability places human beings in social systems at the core of what must be done to respect the imperatives of a highly complex natural environment.We consider sustainability an evolving knowledge domain with attendant policy implications. It is driven by events on the ground, not by revolution in academic or theoretical concerns per se. Overall, sustainable development refers to the process of meeting the needs of current and future generations, without undermining the resilience of the life-supporting properties, the integrity of social systems, or the supports of the human-constructed cyberspace.More specifically, we differentiate among four fundamental dimensions and their necessary conditions:

    (a) ecological systems — exhibiting balance and resilience;(b) economic production and consumption — with equity and efficiency;(c) governance and politics — with participation and responsiveness; and(d) institutional performance — demonstrating adaptation and incorporating feedback.The core proposition is this: If all conditions hold, then the system is (or can be) sustainable. Then, we must examine the critical drivers — people, resources, technology, and their interactions — followed by a review and assessment of evolving policy responses. Then we ask: What are new opportunities?I would like students to carry forward these ideas and issues: what has been deemed “normal” in modern Western societies and in developing societies seeking to emulate the Western model is damaging humans in many ways — all well-known. Yet only recently have alternatives begun to be considered to the traditional economic growth model based on industrialization and high levels of energy use. To make changes, we must first understand the underlying incentives, realities, and choices that shape a whole set of dysfunctional behaviors and outcomes. We then need to delve deep into the driving sources and consequences, and to consider the many ways in which our known “normal” can be adjusted — in theory and in practice. Q: In confronting an issue as formidable as global climate change, what gives you hope?  A: I see a few hopeful signs; among them:The scientific evidence is clear and compelling. We are no longer discussing whether there is climate change, or if we will face major challenges of unprecedented proportions, or even how to bring about an international consensus on the salience of such threats.Climate change has been recognized as a global phenomenon. Imperatives for cooperation are necessary. No one can go it alone. Major efforts have and are being made in world politics to forge action agendas with specific targets.The issue appears to be on the verge of becoming one of “high politics” in the United States.Younger generations are more sensitive to the reality that we are altering the life-supporting properties of our planet. They are generally more educated, skilled, and open to addressing such challenges than their elders.However disappointing the results of COP26 might seem, the global community is moving in the right direction.None of the above points, individually or jointly, translates into an effective response to the known impacts of climate change — let alone the unknown. But, this is what gives me hope.

    Interview prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial, design, and series director: Emily HiestandSenior writer: Kathryn O’Neill More

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    Q&A: More-sustainable concrete with machine learning

    As a building material, concrete withstands the test of time. Its use dates back to early civilizations, and today it is the most popular composite choice in the world. However, it’s not without its faults. Production of its key ingredient, cement, contributes 8-9 percent of the global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and 2-3 percent of energy consumption, which is only projected to increase in the coming years. With aging United States infrastructure, the federal government recently passed a milestone bill to revitalize and upgrade it, along with a push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible, putting concrete in the crosshairs for modernization, too.

    Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and Jie Chen, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research scientist and manager, think artificial intelligence can help meet this need by designing and formulating new, more sustainable concrete mixtures, with lower costs and carbon dioxide emissions, while improving material performance and reusing manufacturing byproducts in the material itself. Olivetti’s research improves environmental and economic sustainability of materials, and Chen develops and optimizes machine learning and computational techniques, which he can apply to materials reformulation. Olivetti and Chen, along with their collaborators, have recently teamed up for an MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab project to make concrete more sustainable for the benefit of society, the climate, and the economy.

    Q: What applications does concrete have, and what properties make it a preferred building material?

    Olivetti: Concrete is the dominant building material globally with an annual consumption of 30 billion metric tons. That is over 20 times the next most produced material, steel, and the scale of its use leads to considerable environmental impact, approximately 5-8 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It can be made locally, has a broad range of structural applications, and is cost-effective. Concrete is a mixture of fine and coarse aggregate, water, cement binder (the glue), and other additives.

    Q: Why isn’t it sustainable, and what research problems are you trying to tackle with this project?

    Olivetti: The community is working on several ways to reduce the impact of this material, including alternative fuels use for heating the cement mixture, increasing energy and materials efficiency and carbon sequestration at production facilities, but one important opportunity is to develop an alternative to the cement binder.

    While cement is 10 percent of the concrete mass, it accounts for 80 percent of the GHG footprint. This impact is derived from the fuel burned to heat and run the chemical reaction required in manufacturing, but also the chemical reaction itself releases CO2 from the calcination of limestone. Therefore, partially replacing the input ingredients to cement (traditionally ordinary Portland cement or OPC) with alternative materials from waste and byproducts can reduce the GHG footprint. But use of these alternatives is not inherently more sustainable because wastes might have to travel long distances, which adds to fuel emissions and cost, or might require pretreatment processes. The optimal way to make use of these alternate materials will be situation-dependent. But because of the vast scale, we also need solutions that account for the huge volumes of concrete needed. This project is trying to develop novel concrete mixtures that will decrease the GHG impact of the cement and concrete, moving away from the trial-and-error processes towards those that are more predictive.

    Chen: If we want to fight climate change and make our environment better, are there alternative ingredients or a reformulation we could use so that less greenhouse gas is emitted? We hope that through this project using machine learning we’ll be able to find a good answer.

    Q: Why is this problem important to address now, at this point in history?

    Olivetti: There is urgent need to address greenhouse gas emissions as aggressively as possible, and the road to doing so isn’t necessarily straightforward for all areas of industry. For transportation and electricity generation, there are paths that have been identified to decarbonize those sectors. We need to move much more aggressively to achieve those in the time needed; further, the technological approaches to achieve that are more clear. However, for tough-to-decarbonize sectors, such as industrial materials production, the pathways to decarbonization are not as mapped out.

    Q: How are you planning to address this problem to produce better concrete?

    Olivetti: The goal is to predict mixtures that will both meet performance criteria, such as strength and durability, with those that also balance economic and environmental impact. A key to this is to use industrial wastes in blended cements and concretes. To do this, we need to understand the glass and mineral reactivity of constituent materials. This reactivity not only determines the limit of the possible use in cement systems but also controls concrete processing, and the development of strength and pore structure, which ultimately control concrete durability and life-cycle CO2 emissions.

    Chen: We investigate using waste materials to replace part of the cement component. This is something that we’ve hypothesized would be more sustainable and economic — actually waste materials are common, and they cost less. Because of the reduction in the use of cement, the final concrete product would be responsible for much less carbon dioxide production. Figuring out the right concrete mixture proportion that makes endurable concretes while achieving other goals is a very challenging problem. Machine learning is giving us an opportunity to explore the advancement of predictive modeling, uncertainty quantification, and optimization to solve the issue. What we are doing is exploring options using deep learning as well as multi-objective optimization techniques to find an answer. These efforts are now more feasible to carry out, and they will produce results with reliability estimates that we need to understand what makes a good concrete.

    Q: What kinds of AI and computational techniques are you employing for this?

    Olivetti: We use AI techniques to collect data on individual concrete ingredients, mix proportions, and concrete performance from the literature through natural language processing. We also add data obtained from industry and/or high throughput atomistic modeling and experiments to optimize the design of concrete mixtures. Then we use this information to develop insight into the reactivity of possible waste and byproduct materials as alternatives to cement materials for low-CO2 concrete. By incorporating generic information on concrete ingredients, the resulting concrete performance predictors are expected to be more reliable and transformative than existing AI models.

    Chen: The final objective is to figure out what constituents, and how much of each, to put into the recipe for producing the concrete that optimizes the various factors: strength, cost, environmental impact, performance, etc. For each of the objectives, we need certain models: We need a model to predict the performance of the concrete (like, how long does it last and how much weight does it sustain?), a model to estimate the cost, and a model to estimate how much carbon dioxide is generated. We will need to build these models by using data from literature, from industry, and from lab experiments.

    We are exploring Gaussian process models to predict the concrete strength, going forward into days and weeks. This model can give us an uncertainty estimate of the prediction as well. Such a model needs specification of parameters, for which we will use another model to calculate. At the same time, we also explore neural network models because we can inject domain knowledge from human experience into them. Some models are as simple as multi-layer perceptions, while some are more complex, like graph neural networks. The goal here is that we want to have a model that is not only accurate but also robust — the input data is noisy, and the model must embrace the noise, so that its prediction is still accurate and reliable for the multi-objective optimization.

    Once we have built models that we are confident with, we will inject their predictions and uncertainty estimates into the optimization of multiple objectives, under constraints and under uncertainties.

    Q: How do you balance cost-benefit trade-offs?

    Chen: The multiple objectives we consider are not necessarily consistent, and sometimes they are at odds with each other. The goal is to identify scenarios where the values for our objectives cannot be further pushed simultaneously without compromising one or a few. For example, if you want to further reduce the cost, you probably have to suffer the performance or suffer the environmental impact. Eventually, we will give the results to policymakers and they will look into the results and weigh the options. For example, they may be able to tolerate a slightly higher cost under a significant reduction in greenhouse gas. Alternatively, if the cost varies little but the concrete performance changes drastically, say, doubles or triples, then this is definitely a favorable outcome.

    Q: What kinds of challenges do you face in this work?

    Chen: The data we get either from industry or from literature are very noisy; the concrete measurements can vary a lot, depending on where and when they are taken. There are also substantial missing data when we integrate them from different sources, so, we need to spend a lot of effort to organize and make the data usable for building and training machine learning models. We also explore imputation techniques that substitute missing features, as well as models that tolerate missing features, in our predictive modeling and uncertainty estimate.

    Q: What do you hope to achieve through this work?

    Chen: In the end, we are suggesting either one or a few concrete recipes, or a continuum of recipes, to manufacturers and policymakers. We hope that this will provide invaluable information for both the construction industry and for the effort of protecting our beloved Earth.

    Olivetti: We’d like to develop a robust way to design cements that make use of waste materials to lower their CO2 footprint. Nobody is trying to make waste, so we can’t rely on one stream as a feedstock if we want this to be massively scalable. We have to be flexible and robust to shift with feedstocks changes, and for that we need improved understanding. Our approach to develop local, dynamic, and flexible alternatives is to learn what makes these wastes reactive, so we know how to optimize their use and do so as broadly as possible. We do that through predictive model development through software we have developed in my group to automatically extract data from literature on over 5 million texts and patents on various topics. We link this to the creative capabilities of our IBM collaborators to design methods that predict the final impact of new cements. If we are successful, we can lower the emissions of this ubiquitous material and play our part in achieving carbon emissions mitigation goals.

    Other researchers involved with this project include Stefanie Jegelka, the X-Window Consortium Career Development Associate Professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Richard Goodwin, IBM principal researcher; Soumya Ghosh, MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab research staff member; and Kristen Severson, former research staff member. Collaborators included Nghia Hoang, former research staff member with MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and IBM Research; and Jeremy Gregory, research scientist in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and executive director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub.

    This research is supported by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    Timber or steel? Study helps builders reduce carbon footprint of truss structures

    Buildings are a big contributor to global warming, not just in their ongoing operations but in the materials used in their construction. Truss structures — those crisscross arrays of diagonal struts used throughout modern construction, in everything from antenna towers to support beams for large buildings — are typically made of steel or wood or a combination of both. But little quantitative research has been done on how to pick the right materials to minimize these structures’ contribution global warming.

    The “embodied carbon” in a construction material includes the fuel used in the material’s production (for mining and smelting steel, for example, or for felling and processing trees) and in transporting the materials to a site. It also includes the equipment used for the construction itself.

    Now, researchers at MIT have done a detailed analysis and created a set of computational tools to enable architects and engineers to design truss structures in a way that can minimize their embodied carbon while maintaining all needed properties for a given building application. While in general wood produces a much lower carbon footprint, using steel in places where its properties can provide maximum benefit can provide an optimized result, they say.

    The analysis is described in a paper published today in the journal Engineering Structures, by graduate student Ernest Ching and MIT assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Josephine Carstensen.

    “Construction is a huge greenhouse gas emitter that has kind of been flying under the radar for the past decades,” says Carstensen. But in recent years building designers “are starting to be more focused on how to not just reduce the operating energy associated with building use, but also the important carbon associated with the structure itself.” And that’s where this new analysis comes in.

    The two main options in reducing the carbon emissions associated with truss structures, she says, are substituting materials or changing the structure. However, there has been “surprisingly little work” on tools to help designers figure out emissions-minimizing strategies for a given situation, she says.

    The new system makes use of a technique called topology optimization, which allows for the input of basic parameters, such as the amount of load to be supported and the dimensions of the structure, and can be used to produce designs optimized for different characteristics, such as weight, cost, or, in this case, global warming impact.

    Wood performs very well under forces of compression, but not as well as steel when it comes to tension — that is, a tendency to pull the structure apart. Carstensen says that in general, wood is far better than steel in terms of embedded carbon, so “especially if you have a structure that doesn’t have any tension, then you should definitely only use timber” in order to minimize emissions. One tradeoff is that “the weight of the structure is going to be bigger than it would be with steel,” she says.

    The tools they developed, which were the basis for Ching’s master’s thesis, can be applied at different stages, either in the early planning phase of a structure, or later on in the final stages of a design.

    As an exercise, the team developed a proposal for reengineering several trusses using these optimization tools, and demonstrated that a significant savings in embodied greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved with no loss of performance. While they have shown improvements of at least 10 percent can be achieved, she says those estimates are “not exactly apples to apples” and likely savings could actually be two to three times that.

    “It’s about choosing materials more smartly,” she says, for the specifics of a given application. Often in existing buildings “you will have timber where there’s compression, and where that makes sense, and then it will have really skinny steel members, in tension, where that makes sense. And that’s also what we see in our design solutions that are suggested, but perhaps we can see it even more clearly.” The tools are not ready for commercial use though, she says, because they haven’t yet added a user interface.

    Carstensen sees a trend to increasing use of timber in large construction, which represents an important potential for reducing the world’s overall carbon emissions. “There’s a big interest in the construction industry in mass timber structures, and this speaks right into that area. So, the hope is that this would make inroads into the construction business and actually make a dent in that very large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.” More

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    At UN climate change conference, trying to “keep 1.5 alive”

    After a one-year delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, negotiators from nearly 200 countries met this month in Glasgow, Scotland, at COP26, the United Nations climate change conference, to hammer out a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate impacts. A delegation of approximately 20 faculty, staff, and students from MIT was on hand to observe the negotiations, share and conduct research, and launch new initiatives.

    On Saturday, Nov. 13, following two weeks of negotiations in the cavernous Scottish Events Campus, countries’ representatives agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact. The pact reaffirms the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement “to pursue efforts” to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and recognizes that achieving this goal requires “reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century.”

    “On issues like the need to reach net-zero emissions, reduce methane pollution, move beyond coal power, and tighten carbon accounting rules, the Glasgow pact represents some meaningful progress, but we still have so much work to do,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who led the Institute’s delegation to COP26. “Glasgow showed, once again, what a wicked complex problem climate change is, technically, economically, and politically. But it also underscored the determination of a global community of people committed to addressing it.”

    An “ambition gap”

    Both within the conference venue and at protests that spilled through the streets of Glasgow, one rallying cry was “keep 1.5 alive.” Alok Sharma, who was appointed by the UK government to preside over COP26, said in announcing the Glasgow pact: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

    In remarks delivered during the first week of the conference, Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, presented findings from the latest MIT Global Change Outlook, which showed a wide gap between countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — the UN’s term for greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledges — and the reductions needed to put the world on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and, now, the Glasgow pact.

    Pointing to this ambition gap, Paltsev called on all countries to do more, faster, to cut emissions. “We could dramatically reduce overall climate risk through more ambitious policy measures and investments,” says Paltsev. “We need to employ an integrated approach of moving to zero emissions in energy and industry, together with sustainable development and nature-based solutions, simultaneously improving human well-being and providing biodiversity benefits.”

    Finalizing the Paris rulebook

    A key outcome of COP26 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 26th time) was the development of a set of rules to implement Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which provides a mechanism for countries to receive credit for emissions reductions that they finance outside their borders, and to cooperate by buying and selling emissions reductions on international carbon markets.

    An agreement on this part of the Paris “rulebook” had eluded negotiators in the years since the Paris climate conference, in part because negotiators were concerned about how to prevent double-counting, wherein both buyers and sellers would claim credit for the emissions reductions.

    Michael Mehling, the deputy director of MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) and an expert on international carbon markets, drew on a recent CEEPR working paper to describe critical negotiation issues under Article 6 during an event at the conference on Nov. 10 with climate negotiators and private sector representatives.

    He cited research that finds that Article 6, by leveraging the cost-efficiency of global carbon markets, could cut in half the cost that countries would incur to achieve their nationally determined contributions. “Which, seen from another angle, means you could double the ambition of these NDCs at no additional cost,” Mehling noted in his talk, adding that, given the persistent ambition gap, “any such opportunity is bitterly needed.”

    Andreas Haupt, a graduate student in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, joined MIT’s COP26 delegation to follow Article 6 negotiations. Haupt described the final days of negotiations over Article 6 as a “roller coaster.” Once negotiators reached an agreement, he says, “I felt relieved, but also unsure how strong of an effect the new rules, with all their weaknesses, will have. I am curious and hopeful regarding what will happen in the next year until the next large-scale negotiations in 2022.”

    Nature-based climate solutions

    World leaders also announced new agreements on the sidelines of the formal UN negotiations. One such agreement, a declaration on forests signed by more than 100 countries, commits to “working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”

    A team from MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), which has been working with policymakers and other stakeholders on strategies to protect tropical forests and advance other nature-based climate solutions in Latin America, was at COP26 to discuss their work and make plans for expanding it.

    Marcela Angel, a research associate at ESI, moderated a panel discussion featuring John Fernández, professor of architecture and ESI’s director, focused on protecting and enhancing natural carbon sinks, particularly tropical forests such as the Amazon that are at risk of deforestation, forest degradation, and biodiversity loss.

    “Deforestation and associated land use change remain one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in most Amazonian countries, such as Brazil, Peru, and Colombia,” says Angel. “Our aim is to support these countries, whose nationally determined contributions depend on the effectiveness of policies to prevent deforestation and promote conservation, with an approach based on the integration of targeted technology breakthroughs, deep community engagement, and innovative bioeconomic opportunities for local communities that depend on forests for their livelihoods.”

    Energy access and renewable energy

    Worldwide, an estimated 800 million people lack access to electricity, and billions more have only limited or erratic electrical service. Providing universal access to energy is one of the UN’s sustainable development goals, creating a dual challenge: how to boost energy access without driving up greenhouse gas emissions.

    Rob Stoner, deputy director for science and technology of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), and Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga, a visiting professor at the Sloan School of Management, attended COP26 to share their work as members of the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty, a collaboration between MITEI and the Rockefeller Foundation. It brings together global energy leaders from industry, the development finance community, academia, and civil society to identify ways to overcome barriers to investment in the energy sectors of countries with low energy access.

    The commission’s work helped to motivate the formation, announced at COP26 on Nov. 2, of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, a multibillion-dollar commitment by the Rockefeller and IKEA foundations and Bezos Earth Fund to support access to renewable energy around the world.

    Another MITEI member of the COP26 delegation, Martha Broad, the initiative’s executive director, spoke about MIT research to inform the U.S. goal of scaling offshore wind energy capacity from approximately 30 megawatts today to 30 gigawatts by 2030, including significant new capacity off the coast of New England.

    Broad described research, funded by MITEI member companies, on a coating that can be applied to the blades of wind turbines to prevent icing that would require the turbines’ shutdown; the use of machine learning to inform preventative turbine maintenance; and methodologies for incorporating the effects of climate change into projections of future wind conditions to guide wind farm siting decisions today. She also spoke broadly about the need for public and private support to scale promising innovations.

    “Clearly, both the public sector and the private sector have a role to play in getting these technologies to the point where we can use them in New England, and also where we can deploy them affordably for the developing world,” Broad said at an event sponsored by America Is All In, a coalition of nonprofit and business organizations.

    Food and climate alliance

    Food systems around the world are increasingly at risk from the impacts of climate change. At the same time, these systems, which include all activities from food production to consumption and food waste, are responsible for about one-third of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions warming the planet.

    At COP26, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab announced the launch of a new alliance to drive research-based innovation that will make food systems more resilient and sustainable, called the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance. With 16 member institutions, the FACT Alliance will better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders around the world.

    Looking ahead

    By the end of 2022, the Glasgow pact asks countries to revisit their nationally determined contributions and strengthen them to bring them in line with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. The pact also “notes with deep regret” the failure of wealthier countries to collectively provide poorer countries $100 billion per year in climate financing that they pledged in 2009 to begin in 2020.

    These and other issues will be on the agenda for COP27, to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, next year.

    “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is broadly accepted as a critical goal to avoiding worsening climate consequences, but it’s clear that current national commitments will not get us there,” says ESI’s Fernández. “We will need stronger emissions reductions pledges, especially from the largest greenhouse gas emitters. At the same time, expanding creativity, innovation, and determination from every sector of society, including research universities, to get on with real-world solutions is essential. At Glasgow, MIT was front and center in energy systems, cities, nature-based solutions, and more. The year 2030 is right around the corner so we can’t afford to let up for one minute.” More

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    MIT makes strides on climate action plan

    Two recent online events related to MIT’s ambitious new climate action plan highlighted several areas of progress, including uses of the campus as a real-life testbed for climate impact research, the creation of new planning bodies with opportunities for input from all parts of the MIT community, and a variety of moves toward reducing the Institute’s own carbon footprint in ways that may also provide a useful model for others.

    On Monday, MIT’s Office of Sustainability held its seventh annual “Sustainability Connect” event, bringing together students, faculty, staff, and alumni to learn about and share ideas for addressing climate change. This year’s virtual event emphasized the work toward carrying out the climate plan, titled “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which was announced in May. An earlier event, the “MIT Climate Tune-in” on Nov. 3, provided an overview of the many areas of MIT’s work to tackle climate change and featured a video message from Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who was attending the COP26 international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, as part of an 18-member team from MIT.

    Zuber pointed out some significant progress that was made at the conference, including a broad agreement by over 100 nations to end deforestation by the end of the decade; she also noted that the U.S. and E.U. are leading a global coalition of countries committed to curbing methane emissions by 30 percent from 2020 levels by decade’s end. “It’s easy to be pessimistic,” she said, “but being here in Glasgow, I’m actually cautiously optimistic, seeing the thousands and thousands of people here who are working toward meaningful climate action. And I know that same spirit exists on our own campus also.”

    As for MIT’s own climate plan, Zuber emphasized three points: “We’re committed to action; second of all, we’re committed to moving fast; and third, we’ve organized ourselves better for success.” That organization includes the creation of the MIT Climate Steering Committee, to oversee and coordinate MIT’s strategies on climate change; the Climate Nucleus, to oversee the management and implementation of the new plan; and three working groups that are forming now, to involve all parts of the MIT community.

    The “Fast Forward” plan calls for reducing the campus’s net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2026 and eliminating all such emissions, including indirect ones, by 2050. At Monday’s event, Director of Sustainability Julie Newman pointed out that the climate plan includes no less than 14 specific commitments related to the campus itself. These can be grouped into five broad areas, she said: mitigation, resiliency, electric vehicle infrastructure, investment portfolio sustainability, and climate leadership. “Each of these commitments has due dates, and they range from the tactical to the strategic,” she said. “We’re in the midst of activating our internal teams” to address these commitments, she added, noting that there are 30 teams that involve 75 faculty and researcher members, plus up to eight student positions.

    One specific project that is well underway involves preparing a detailed map of the flood risks to the campus as sea levels rise and storm surges increase. While previous attempts to map out the campus flooding risks had treated buildings essentially as uniform blocks, the new project has already mapped out in detail the location, elevation, and condition of every access point — doors, windows, and drains — in every building in the main campus, and now plans to extend the work to the residence buildings and outlying parts of campus. The project’s methods for identifying and quantifying the risks to specific parts of the campus, Newman said, represents “part of our mission for leveraging the campus as a test bed” by creating a map that is “true to the nature of the topography and the infrastructure,” in order to be prepared for the effects of climate change.

    Also speaking at the Sustainability Connect event, Vice President for Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins outlined a variety of measures that are underway to cut the carbon footprint of the campus as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Part of that, he explained, involves using the campus as a testbed for the development of the equivalent of a “smart thermostat” system for campus buildings. While such products exist commercially for homeowners, there is no such system yet for large institutional or commercial buildings.

    There is a team actively developing such a pilot program in some MIT buildings, he said, focusing on some large lab buildings that have especially high energy usage. They are examining the use of artificial intelligence to reduce energy consumption, he noted. By adding systems to monitor energy use, temperatures, occupancy, and so on, and to control heating, lighting and air conditioning systems, Higgins said at least a 3 to 5 percent reduction in energy use can be realized. “It may be well beyond that,” he added. “There’s a huge opportunity here.”

    Higgins also outlined the ongoing plan to convert the existing steam distribution system for campus heating into a hot water system. Though the massive undertaking may take decades to complete, he said that project alone may reduce campus carbon emissions by 10 percent. Other efforts include the installation of an additional 400 kilowatts of rooftop solar installations.

    Jeremy Gregory, executive director of MIT’s climate and sustainability consortium, described efforts to deal with the most far-reaching areas of greenhouse gas emission, the so-called Scope 3 emissions. He explained that Scope 1 is the direct emissions from the campus itself, from buildings and vehicles; Scope 2 includes indirect emissions from the generation of electricity; and Scope 3 is “everything else.” That includes employee travel, buildings that MIT leases from others and to others, and all goods and services, he added, “so it includes a lot of different categories of emissions.” Gregory said his team, including several student fellows, is actively investigating and quantifying these Scope 3 emissions at MIT, along with potential methods of reducing them.

    Professor Noelle Selin, who was recently named as co-chair of the new Climate Nucleus along with Professor Anne White, outlined their plans for the coming year, including the setting up of the three working groups.

    Selin said the nucleus consists of representatives of departments, labs, centers, and institutes that have significant responsibilities under the climate plan. That body will make recommendations to the steering committee, which includes the deans of all five of MIT’s schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, “about how to amplify MIT’s impact in the climate sphere. We have an implementation role, but we also have an accelerator pedal that can really make MIT’s climate impact more ambitious, and really push the buttons and make sure that the Institute’s commitments are actually borne out in reality.”

    The MIT Climate Tune-In also featured Selin and White, as well as a presentation on MIT’s expanded educational offerings on climate and sustainability, from Sarah Meyers, ESI’s education program manager; students Derek Allmond and Natalie Northrup; and postdoc Peter Godart. Professor Dennis Whyte also spoke about MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ recent historical advance toward commercial fusion energy. Organizers said that the Climate Tune-In event is the first of what they hope will be many opportunities to hear updates on the wide range of work happening across campus to implement the Fast Forward plan, and to spark conversations within the MIT community. More

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    Scientists project increased risk to water supplies in South Africa this century

    In 2018, Cape Town, South Africa’s second most populous city, came very close to running out of water as the multi-year “Day Zero” drought depleted its reservoirs. Since then, researchers from Stanford University determined that climate change had made this extreme drought five to six times more likely, and warned that a lot more Day Zero events could occur in regions with similar climates in the future. A better understanding of likely surface air temperature and precipitation trends in South Africa and other dry, populated areas around the world in the coming decades could empower decision-makers to pursue science-based climate mitigation and adaptation measures designed to reduce the risk of future Day Zero events.    

    Toward that end, researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, International Food Policy Research Institute, and CGIAR have produced modeled projections of 21st-century changes in seasonal surface air temperature and precipitation for South Africa that systematically and comprehensively account for uncertainties in how Earth and socioeconomic systems behave and co-evolve. Presented in a study in the journal Climatic Change, these projections show how temperature and precipitation over three sub-national regions — western, central, and eastern South Africa — are likely to change under a wide range of global climate mitigation policy scenarios.

    In a business-as-usual global climate policy scenario in which no emissions or climate targets are set or met, the projections show that for all three regions, there’s a greater-than 50 percent likelihood that mid-century temperatures will increase threefold over the current climate’s range of variability. But the risk of these mid-century temperature increases is effectively eliminated through more aggressive climate targets.

    The business-as-usual projections indicate that the risk of decreased precipitation levels in western and central South Africa is three to four times higher than the risk of increased precipitation levels. Under a global climate mitigation policy designed to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, the risk of precipitation changes within South Africa toward the end of the century (2065-74) is similar to the risk during the 2030s in the business-as-usual scenario.

    Rising risks of substantially reduced precipitation levels throughout this century under a business-as-usual scenario suggest increased reliance and stress on the widespread water-efficiency measures established in the aftermath of the Day Zero drought. But a 1.5 C global climate mitigation policy would delay these risks by 30 years, giving South Africa ample lead time to prepare for and adapt to them.

    “Our analysis provides risk-based evidence on the benefits of climate mitigation policies as well as unavoidable climate impacts that will need to be addressed through adaptive measures,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, the lead author of the study. “Global action to limit human-induced warming could give South Africa enough time to secure sufficient water supplies to sustain its population. Otherwise, anticipated climate shifts by the middle of the next decade may well make Day-Zero situations more common.”

    This study is part of an ongoing effort to assess the risks that climate change poses for South Africa’s agricultural, economic, energy and infrastructure sectors. More