More stories

  • in

    A breakthrough on “loss and damage,” but also disappointment, at UN climate conference

    As the 2022 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, stretched into its final hours on Saturday, Nov. 19, it was uncertain what kind of agreement might emerge from two weeks of intensive international negotiations.

    In the end, COP27 produced mixed results: on the one hand, a historic agreement for wealthy countries to compensate low-income countries for “loss and damage,” but on the other, limited progress on new plans for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

    “We need to drastically reduce emissions now — and this is an issue this COP did not address,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement at the conclusion of COP27. “A fund for loss and damage is essential — but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map — or turns an entire African country to desert.”

    Throughout the two weeks of the conference, a delegation of MIT students, faculty, and staff was at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center to observe the negotiations, conduct and share research, participate in panel discussions, and forge new connections with researchers, policymakers, and advocates from around the world.

    Loss and damage

    A key issue coming in to COP27 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 27th time) was loss and damage: a term used by the U.N. to refer to harms caused by climate change — either through acute catastrophes like extreme weather events or slower-moving impacts like sea level rise — to which communities and countries are unable to adapt. 

    Ultimately, a deal on loss and damage proved to be COP27’s most prominent accomplishment. Negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement to “establish new funding arrangements for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” 

    “Providing financial assistance to developing countries so they can better respond to climate-related loss and damage is not only a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, who attended COP27 and participated in side events. “Future emissions growth will be squarely centered in the developing world, and offering support through different channels is key to building the trust needed for more robust global cooperation on mitigation.”

    Youssef Shaker, a graduate student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program and a research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative, attended the second week of the conference, where he followed the negotiations over loss and damage closely. 

    “While the creation of a fund is certainly an achievement,” Shaker said, “significant questions remain to be answered, such as the size of the funding available as well as which countries receive access to it.” A loss-and-damage fund that is not adequately funded, Shaker noted, “would not be an impactful outcome.” 

    The agreement on loss and damage created a new committee, made up of 24 country representatives, to “operationalize” the new funding arrangements, including identifying funding sources. The committee is tasked with delivering a set of recommendations at COP28, which will take place next year in Dubai.

    Advising the U.N. on net zero

    Though the decisions reached at COP27 did not include major new commitments on reducing emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, the transition to a clean global energy system was nevertheless a key topic of conversation throughout the conference.

    The Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET), an independent, international body of engineers and energy systems experts formed to provide advice to the U.N. on achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050, convened for the first time at COP27. Jessika Trancik, a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and a member of CEET, spoke on a U.N.-sponsored panel on solutions for the transition to clean energy.

    Trancik noted that the energy transition will look different in different regions of the world. “As engineers, we need to understand those local contexts and design solutions around those local contexts — that’s absolutely essential to support a rapid and equitable energy transition.”

    At the same time, Trancik noted that there is now a set of “low-cost, ready-to-scale tools” available to every region — tools that resulted from a globally competitive process of innovation, stimulated by public policies in different countries, that dramatically drove down the costs of technologies like solar energy and lithium-ion batteries. The key, Trancik said, is for regional transition strategies to “tap into global processes of innovation.”

    Reinventing climate adaptation

    Elfatih Eltahir, the H. M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate, traveled to COP27 to present plans for the Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet), one of the five projects selected in April 2022 as a flagship in MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative. CREWSnet focuses on climate adaptation, the term for adapting to climate impacts that are unavoidable.

    The aim of CREWSnet, Eltahir told the audience during a panel discussion, is “nothing short of reinventing the process of climate change adaptation,” so that it is proactive rather than reactive; community-led; data-driven and evidence-based; and so that it integrates different climate risks, from heat waves to sea level rise, rather than treating them individually.

    “However, it’s easy to talk about these changes,” said Eltahir. “The real challenge, which we are now just launching and engaging in, is to demonstrate that on the ground.” Eltahir said that early demonstrations will happen in a couple of key locations, including southwest Bangladesh, where multiple climate risks — rising sea levels, increasing soil salinity, and intensifying heat waves and cyclones — are combining to threaten the area’s agricultural production.

    Building on COP26

    Some members of MIT’s delegation attended COP27 to advance efforts that had been formally announced at last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

    At an official U.N. side event co-organized by MIT on Nov. 11, Greg Sixt, the director of the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance led by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, provided an update on the alliance’s work since its launch at COP26.

    Food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — and are increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. The FACT Alliance works to better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders to make food systems (which include food production, consumption, and waste) more sustainable and resilient. 

    Sixt told the audience that the FACT Alliance now counts over 20 research and stakeholder institutions around the world among its members, but also collaborates with other institutions in an “open network model” to advance work in key areas — such as a new research project exploring how climate scenarios could affect global food supply chains.

    Marcela Angel, research program director for the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), helped convene a meeting at COP27 of the Afro-InterAmerican Forum on Climate Change, which also launched at COP26. The forum works with Afro-descendant leaders across the Americas to address significant environmental issues, including climate risks and biodiversity loss. 

    At the event — convened with the Colombian government and the nonprofit Conservation International — ESI brought together leaders from six countries in the Americas and presented recent work that estimates that there are over 178 million individuals who identify as Afro-descendant living in the Americas, in lands of global environmental importance. 

    “There is a significant overlap between biodiversity hot spots, protected areas, and areas of high Afro-descendant presence,” said Angel. “But the role and climate contributions of these communities is understudied, and often made invisible.”    

    Limiting methane emissions

    Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas: When released into the atmosphere, it immediately traps about 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide does. More than 150 countries have now signed the Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP26, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

    Sergey Paltsev, the deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, gave the keynote address at a Nov. 17 event on methane, where he noted the importance of methane reductions from the oil and gas sector to meeting the 2030 goal.

    “The oil and gas sector is where methane emissions reductions could be achieved the fastest,” said Paltsev. “We also need to employ an integrated approach to address methane emissions in all sectors and all regions of the world because methane emissions reductions provide a near-term pathway to avoiding dangerous tipping points in the global climate system.”

    “Keep fighting relentlessly”

    Arina Khotimsky, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering and a co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, attended the first week of COP27. She reflected on the experience in a social media post after returning home. 

    “COP will always have its haters. Is there greenwashing? Of course! Is everyone who should have a say in this process in the room? Not even close,” wrote Khotimsky. “So what does it take for COP to matter? It takes everyone who attended to not only put ‘climate’ on front-page news for two weeks, but to return home and keep fighting relentlessly against climate change. I know that I will.” More

  • in

    MIT Policy Hackathon produces new solutions for technology policy challenges

    Almost three years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world. Many are still looking to uncover a “new normal.”

    “Instead of going back to normal, [there’s a new generation that] wants to build back something different, something better,” says Jorge Sandoval, a second-year graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program (TPP) at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS). “How do we communicate this mindset to others, that the world cannot be the same as before?”

    This was the inspiration behind “A New (Re)generation,” this year’s theme for the IDSS-student-run MIT Policy Hackathon, which Sandoval helped to organize as the event chair. The Policy Hackathon is a weekend-long, interdisciplinary competition that brings together participants from around the globe to explore potential solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges. 

    Unlike other competitions of its kind, Sandoval says MIT’s event emphasizes a humanistic approach. “The idea of our hackathon is to promote applications of technology that are humanistic or human-centered,” he says. “We take the opportunity to examine aspects of technology in the spaces where they tend to interact with society and people, an opportunity most technical competitions don’t offer because their primary focus is on the technology.”

    The competition started with 50 teams spread across four challenge categories. This year’s categories included Internet and Cybersecurity, Environmental Justice, Logistics, and Housing and City Planning. While some people come into the challenge with friends, Sandoval said most teams form organically during an online networking meeting hosted by MIT.

    “We encourage people to pair up with others outside of their country and to form teams of different diverse backgrounds and ages,” Sandoval says. “We try to give people who are often not invited to the decision-making table the opportunity to be a policymaker, bringing in those with backgrounds in not only law, policy, or politics, but also medicine, and people who have careers in engineering or experience working in nonprofits.”

    Once an in-person event, the Policy Hackathon has gone through its own regeneration process these past three years, according to Sandoval. After going entirely online during the pandemic’s height, last year they successfully hosted the first hybrid version of the event, which served as their model again this year.

    “The hybrid version of the event gives us the opportunity to allow people to connect in a way that is lost if it is only online, while also keeping the wide range of accessibility, allowing people to join from anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality or income, to provide their input,” Sandoval says.

    For Swetha Tadisina, an undergraduate computer science major at Lafayette College and participant in the internet and cybersecurity category, the hackathon was a unique opportunity to meet and work with people much more advanced in their careers. “I was surprised how such a diverse team that had never met before was able to work so efficiently and creatively,” Tadisina says.

    Erika Spangler, a public high school teacher from Massachusetts and member of the environmental justice category’s winning team, says that while each member of “Team Slime Mold” came to the table with a different set of skills, they managed to be in sync from the start — even working across the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference the four-person team faced when working with policy advocate Shruti Nandy from Calcutta, India.

    “We divided the project into data, policy, and research and trusted each other’s expertise,” Spangler says, “Despite having separate areas of focus, we made sure to have regular check-ins to problem-solve and cross-pollinate ideas.”

    During the 48-hour period, her team proposed the creation of an algorithm to identify high-quality brownfields that could be cleaned up and used as sites for building renewable energy. Their corresponding policy sought to mandate additional requirements for renewable energy businesses seeking tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act.

    “Their policy memo had the most in-depth technical assessment, including deep dives in a few key cities to show the impact of their proposed approach for site selection at a very granular level,” says Amanda Levin, director of policy analysis for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Levin acted as both a judge and challenge provider for the environmental justice category.

    “They also presented their policy recommendations in the memo in a well-thought-out way, clearly noting the relevant actor,” she adds. This clarity around what can be done, and who would be responsible for those actions, is highly valuable for those in policy.”

    Levin says the NRDC, one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the United States, provided five “challenge questions,” making it clear that teams did not need to address all of them. She notes that this gave teams significant leeway, bringing a wide variety of recommendations to the table. 

    “As a challenge partner, the work put together by all the teams is already being used to help inform discussions about the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act,” Levin says. “Being able to tap into the collective intelligence of the hackathon helped uncover new perspectives and policy solutions that can help make an impact in addressing the important policy challenges we face today.”

    While having partners with experience in data science and policy definitely helped, fellow Team Slime Mold member Sara Sheffels, a PhD candidate in MIT’s biomaterials program, says she was surprised how much her experiences outside of science and policy were relevant to the challenge: “My experience organizing MIT’s Graduate Student Union shaped my ideas about more meaningful community involvement in renewables projects on brownfields. It is not meaningful to merely educate people about the importance of renewables or ask them to sign off on a pre-planned project without addressing their other needs.”

    “I wanted to test my limits, gain exposure, and expand my world,” Tadisina adds. “The exposure, friendships, and experiences you gain in such a short period of time are incredible.”

    For Willy R. Vasquez, an electrical and computer engineering PhD student at the University of Texas, the hackathon is not to be missed. “If you’re interested in the intersection of tech, society, and policy, then this is a must-do experience.” More

  • in

    Machinery of the state

    In Mai Hassan’s studies of Kenya, she documented the emergence of a sprawling administrative network officially billed as encouraging economic development, overseeing the population, and bolstering democracy. But Hassan’s field interviews and archival research revealed a more sinister purpose for the hundreds of administrative and security offices dotting the nation: “They were there to do the presidents’ bidding, which often involved coercing their own countrymen.”

    This research served as a catalyst for Hassan, who joined MIT as an associate professor of political science in July, to investigate what she calls the “politicized management of bureaucracy and the state.” She set out to “understand the motivations, capacities, and roles of people administering state programs and social functions,” she says. “I realized the state is not a faceless being, but instead comprised of bureaucrats carrying out functions on behalf of the state and the regime that runs it.”

    Today, Hassan’s portfolio encompasses not just the bureaucratic state but democratization efforts in Kenya and elsewhere in the East Africa region, including her native Sudan. Her research highlights the difficulties of democratization. “I’m finding that the conditions under which people come together for overthrowing an autocratic regime really matter, because those conditions may actually impede a nation from achieving democracy,” she says.

    A coordinated bureaucracy

    Hassan’s academic engagement with the state’s administrative machinery began during graduate school at Harvard University, where she earned her master’s and doctorate in government. While working with a community trash and sanitation program in some Kenyan Maasai communities, Hassan recalls “shepherding myself from office to office, meeting different bureaucrats to obtain the same approvals but for different jurisdictions.” The Kenyan state had recently set up hundreds of new local administrative units, motivated by what it claimed was the need for greater efficiency. But to Hassan’s eyes, “the administrative network was not well organized, seemed costly to maintain, and seemed to hinder — not bolster — development,” she says. What then, she wondered, was “the political logic behind such state restructuring?”

    Hassan began researching this bureaucratic transformation of Kenya, speaking with administrators in communities large and small who were charged with handling the business of the state. These studies yielded a wealth of findings for her dissertation, and for multiple journals.

    But upon finishing this tranche of research, Hassan realized that it was insufficient simply to study the structure of the state. “Understanding the role of new administrative structures for politics, development, and governance fundamentally requires that we understand who the government has put in charge of them,” she says. Among her insights:

    “The president’s office knows a lot of these administrators, and thinks about their strengths, limitations, and fit within a community,” says Hassan. Some administrators served the purposes of the central government by setting up water irrigation projects or building a new school. But in other villages, the state chose administrators who could act “much more coercively, ignoring development needs, throwing youth who supported the opposition into jail, and spending resources exclusively on policing.”

    Hassan’s work showed that in communities characterized by strong political opposition, “the local administration was always more coercive, regardless of an elected or autocratic president,” she says. Notably, the tenures of such officials proved shorter than those of their peers. “Once administrators get to know a community — going to church and the market with residents — it’s hard to coerce them,” explains Hassan.

    These short tenures come with costs, she notes: “Spending significant time in a station is useful for development, because you know exactly whom to hire if you want to build a school or get something done efficiently.” Politicizing these assignments undermines efforts at delivery of services and, more broadly, economic improvement nationwide. “Regimes that are more invested in retaining power must devote resources to establishing and maintaining control, resources that could otherwise be used for development and the welfare of citizens,” she says.

    Hassan wove together her research covering three presidents over a 50-year period, in the book, “Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya” (2020, Cambridge University Press), named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2020.

    Sudanese roots

    The role of the state in fulfilling the needs of its citizens has long fascinated Hassan. Her grandfather, who had served as Sudan’s ambassador to the USSR, talked to her about the advantages of a centralized government “that allocated resources to reduce inequality,” she says.

    Politics often dominated the conversation in gatherings of Hassan’s family and friends. Her parents immigrated to northern Virginia when she was very young, and many relatives joined them, part of a steady flow of Sudanese fleeing political turmoil and oppression.

    “A lot of people had expected more from the Sudanese state after independence and didn’t get it,” she says. “People had hopes for what the government could and should do.”

    Hassan’s Sudanese roots and ongoing connection to the Sudanese community have shaped her academic interests and goals. At the University of Virginia, she gravitated toward history and economics classes. But it was her time at the Ralph Bunche Summer institute that perhaps proved most pivotal in her journey. This five-week intensive program is offered by the American Political Science Association to introduce underrepresented undergraduate students to doctoral studies. “It was really compelling in this program to think rigorously about all the political ideas I’d heard as I was growing up, and find ways to challenge some assertions empirically,” she says.

    Regime change and civil society

    At Harvard, Hassan first set out to focus on Sudan for her doctoral program. “There wasn’t much scholarship on the country, and what there was lacked rigor,” she says. “That was something that needed to change.” But she decided to postpone this goal after realizing that she might be vulnerable as a student conducting field research there. She landed instead in Kenya, where she honed her interviewing and data collection skills.

    Today, empowered by her prior work, she has returned to Sudan. “I felt that the popular uprising in Sudan and ousting of the Islamist regime in 2019 should be documented and analyzed,” she says. “It was incredible that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, acted collectively to uproot a dictator, in the face of brutal violence from the state.”But “democracy is still uncertain there,” says Hassan. The broad coalition behind regime change “doesn’t know how to govern because different people and different sectors of society have different ideas about what democratic Sudan should look like,” she says. “Overthrowing an autocratic regime and having civil society come together to figure out what’s going to replace it require different things, and it’s unclear if a movement that accomplishes the first is well-suited to do the second.”

    Hassan believes that in order to create lasting democratization, “you need the hard work of building organizations, developing ways in which members learn to compromise among themselves, and make decisions and rules for how to move forward.”

    Hassan is enjoying the fall semester and teaching courses on autocracy and authoritarian regimes. She is excited as well about developing her work on African efforts at democratic mobilization in a political science department she describes as “policy-forward.”

    Over time, she hopes to connect with Institute scholars in the hard sciences to think about other challenges these nations are facing, such as climate change. “It’s really hot in Sudan, and it may be one of the first countries to become completely uninhabitable,” she says. “I’d like to explore strategies for growing crops differently or managing the exceedingly scarce resource of water, and figure out what kind of political discussions will be necessary to implement any changes. It is really critical to think about these problems in an interdisciplinary way.” More

  • in

    3 Questions: Robert Stoner unpacks US climate and infrastructure laws

    This month, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) takes place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, bringing together governments, experts, journalists, industry, and civil society to discuss climate action to enable countries to collectively sharply limit anthropogenic climate change. As MIT Energy Initiative Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Stoner attends the conference, he takes a moment to speak about the climate and infrastructure laws enacted in the last year in the United States, and about the impact these laws can have in the global energy transition.

    Q: COP27 is now underway. Can you set the scene?

    A: There’s a lot of interest among vulnerable countries about compensation for the impacts climate change has had on them, or “loss and damage,” a topic that the United States refused to address last year at COP26, for fear of opening up a floodgate and leaving U.S. taxpayers exposed to unlimited liability for our past (and future) emissions. This is a crucial issue of fairness for developed countries — and, well, of acknowledging our common humanity. But in a sense, it’s also a sideshow, and addressing it won’t prevent a climate catastrophe — we really need to focus on mitigation. With the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the United States is now in a strong position to twist some arms. These laws are largely about subsidizing the deployment of low-carbon technologies — pretty much all of them. We’re going to do a lot in the United States in the next decade that will lead to dramatic cost reductions for these technologies and enable other countries with fewer resources to adopt them as well. It’s exactly the leadership role the United States has needed to assume. Now we have the opportunity to rally the rest of the world and get other countries to commit to more ambitious decarbonization goals, and to build practical programs that take advantage of the investable pathways we’re going to create for public and private actors.

    But that alone won’t get us there — money is still a huge problem, especially in emerging markets and developing countries. And I don’t think the institutions we rely on to help these countries fund infrastructure — energy and everything else — are adequately funded. Nor do these institutions have the right structures, incentives, and staffing to fund low-carbon development in these countries rapidly enough or on the necessary scale. I’m talking about the World Bank, for instance, but the other multilateral organizations have similar issues. I frankly don’t think the multilaterals can be reformed or sufficiently redirected on a short enough time frame. We definitely need new leadership for these organizations, and I think we probably need to quickly establish new multilaterals with new people, more money, and a clarity of purpose that is likely beyond what can be achieved incrementally. I don’t know if this is going to be an active public discussion at COP27, but I hope it takes place somewhere soon. Given the strong role our government plays in financing and selecting the leadership of these institutions, perhaps this is another opportunity for the United States to demonstrate courage and leadership.

    Q: What “investable pathways” are you talking about?

    A: Well, the pathways we’re implicitly trying to pursue with the Infrastructure Act and IRA are pretty clear, and I’ll come back to them. But first let me describe the landscape: There are three main sources of demand for energy in the economy — industry (meaning chemical production, fuel for electricity generation, cement production, materials and manufacturing, and so on), transportation (cars, trucks, ships, planes, and trains), and buildings (for heating and cooling, mostly). That’s about it, and these three sectors account for 75 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. So the pathways are all about how to decarbonize these three end-use sectors. There are a lot of technologies — some that exist, some that don’t — that will have to be brought to bear. And so it can be a little overwhelming to try to imagine how it will all transpire, but it’s pretty clear at a high level what our options are:

    First, generate a lot of low-carbon electricity and electrify as many industrial processes, vehicles, and building heating systems as we can.
    Second, develop and deploy at massive scale technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks, or the air, and put it somewhere that it can never escape from — in other words, carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.
    Third, for end uses like aviation that really need to use fuels because of their extraordinary energy density, develop low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.
    And fourth is energy efficiency across the board — but I don’t really count that as a separate pathway per se.
    So, by “investable pathways” I mean specific ways to pursue these options that will attract investors. What the Infrastructure Act and the IRA do is deploy carrots (in the form of subsidies) in a variety of ways to close the gap between what it costs to deploy technologies like CCS that aren’t yet at a commercial stage because they’re immature, and what energy markets will tolerate. A similar situation occurs for low-carbon production of hydrogen, one of the leading low-carbon fuel candidates. We can make it by splitting water with electricity (electrolysis), but that costs too much with present-day technology; or we can make it more cheaply by separating it from methane (which is what natural gas mainly is), but that creates CO2 that has to be transported and sequestered somewhere. And then we have to store the hydrogen until we’re ready to use it, and transport it by pipeline to the industrial facilities where it will be used. That requires infrastructure that doesn’t exist — pipelines, compression stations, big tanks! Come to think of it, the demand for all that hydrogen doesn’t exist either — at least not if industry has to pay what it actually costs.

    So, one very important thing these new acts do is subsidize production of hydrogen in various ways — and subsidize the creation of a CCS industry. The other thing they do is subsidize the deployment at enormous scale of low-carbon energy technologies. Some of them are already pretty cheap, like solar and wind, but they need to be supported by a lot of storage on the grid (which we don’t yet have) and by other sorts of grid infrastructure that, again, don’t exist. So, they now get subsidized, too, along with other carbon-free and low-carbon generation technologies — basically all of them. The idea is that by stimulating at-scale deployment of all these established and emerging technologies, and funding demonstrations of novel infrastructure — effectively lowering the cost of supply of low-carbon energy in the form of electricity and fuels — we will draw out the private sector to build out much more of the connective infrastructure and invest in new industrial processes, new home heating systems, and low-carbon transportation. This subsidized build-out will take place over a decade and then phase out as costs fall — hopefully, leaving the foundation for a thriving low-carbon energy economy in its wake, along with crucial technologies and knowledge that will benefit the whole world.

    Q: Is all of the federal investment in energy infrastructure in the United States relevant to the energy crisis in Europe right now?

    A: Not in a direct way — Europe is a near-term catastrophe with a long-term challenge that is in many ways more difficult than ours because Europe doesn’t have the level of primary energy resources like oil and gas that we have in abundance. Energy costs more in Europe, especially absent Russian pipelines. In a way, the narrowing of Europe’s options creates an impetus to invest in low-carbon technologies sooner than otherwise. The result either way will be expensive energy and quite a lot of economic suffering for years. The near-term challenge is to protect people from high energy prices. The big spikes in electricity prices we see now are driven by the natural gas market disruption, which will eventually dissipate as new sources of electricity come online (Sweden, for example, just announced a plan to develop new nuclear, and we’re seeing other countries like Germany soften their stance on nuclear) — and gas markets will sort themselves out. Meanwhile governments are trying to shield their people with electricity price caps and other subsidies, but that’s enormously burdensome.

    The EU recently announced gas price caps for imported gas to try to eliminate price-gouging by importers and reduce the subsidy burden. That may help to lower downstream prices, or it may make matters worse by reducing the flow of gas into the EU and fueling scarcity pricing, and ultimately adding to the subsidy burden. A lot people are quite reasonably suggesting that if electricity prices are subject to crazy behavior in gas markets, then why not disconnect from the grid and self-generate? Wouldn’t that also help reduce demand for gas overall and also reduce CO2 emissions? It would. But it’s expensive to put solar panels on your roof and batteries in your basement — so for those rich enough to do this, it would lead to higher average electricity costs that would live on far into the future, even when grid prices eventually come down.

    So, an interesting idea is taking hold, with considerable encouragement from national governments — the idea of “energy communities,” basically, towns or cities that encourage local firms and homeowners to install solar and batteries, and make some sort of business arrangement with the local utility to allow the community to disconnect from the national grid at times of high prices and self-supply — in other words, use the utility’s wires to sell locally generated power locally. It’s interesting to think about — it takes less battery storage to handle the intermittency of solar when you have a lot of generators and consumers, so forming a community helps lower costs, and with a good deal from the utility for using their wires, it might not be that much more expensive. And of course, when the national grid is working well and prices are normal, the community would reconnect and buy power cheaply, while selling back its self-generated power to the grid. There are also potentially important social benefits that might accrue in these energy communities, too. It’s not a dumb idea, and we’ll see some interesting experimentation in this area in the coming years — as usual, the Germans are enthusiastic! More

  • in

    Coordinating climate and air-quality policies to improve public health

    As America’s largest investment to fight climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act positions the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But as it edges the United States closer to achieving its international climate commitment, the legislation is also expected to yield significant — and more immediate — improvements in the nation’s health. If successful in accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives, the IRA will sharply reduce atmospheric concentrations of fine particulates known to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cause premature deaths, along with other air pollutants that degrade human health. One recent study shows that eliminating air pollution from fossil fuels in the contiguous United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and avoid more than $600 billion in health costs each year.

    While national climate policies such as those advanced by the IRA can simultaneously help mitigate climate change and improve air quality, their results may vary widely when it comes to improving public health. That’s because the potential health benefits associated with air quality improvements are much greater in some regions and economic sectors than in others. Those benefits can be maximized, however, through a prudent combination of climate and air-quality policies.

    Several past studies have evaluated the likely health impacts of various policy combinations, but their usefulness has been limited due to a reliance on a small set of standard policy scenarios. More versatile tools are needed to model a wide range of climate and air-quality policy combinations and assess their collective effects on air quality and human health. Now researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and MIT Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) have developed a publicly available, flexible scenario tool that does just that.

    In a study published in the journal Geoscientific Model Development, the MIT team introduces its Tool for Air Pollution Scenarios (TAPS), which can be used to estimate the likely air-quality and health outcomes of a wide range of climate and air-quality policies at the regional, sectoral, and fuel-based level. 

    “This tool can help integrate the siloed sustainability issues of air pollution and climate action,” says the study’s lead author William Atkinson, who recently served as a Biogen Graduate Fellow and research assistant at the IDSS Technology and Policy Program’s (TPP) Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. “Climate action does not guarantee a clean air future, and vice versa — but the issues have similar sources that imply shared solutions if done right.”

    The study’s initial application of TAPS shows that with current air-quality policies and near-term Paris Agreement climate pledges alone, short-term pollution reductions give way to long-term increases — given the expected growth of emissions-intensive industrial and agricultural processes in developing regions. More ambitious climate and air-quality policies could be complementary, each reducing different pollutants substantially to give tremendous near- and long-term health benefits worldwide.

    “The significance of this work is that we can more confidently identify the long-term emission reduction strategies that also support air quality improvements,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, a co-author of the study. “This is a win-win for setting climate targets that are also healthy targets.”

    TAPS projects air quality and health outcomes based on three integrated components: a recent global inventory of detailed emissions resulting from human activities (e.g., fossil fuel combustion, land-use change, industrial processes); multiple scenarios of emissions-generating human activities between now and the year 2100, produced by the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis model; and emissions intensity (emissions per unit of activity) scenarios based on recent data from the Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model.

    “We see the climate crisis as a health crisis, and believe that evidence-based approaches are key to making the most of this historic investment in the future, particularly for vulnerable communities,” says Johanna Jobin, global head of corporate reputation and responsibility at Biogen. “The scientific community has spoken with unanimity and alarm that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits. We’re proud of our collaboration with the MIT Joint Program to develop this tool that can be used to bridge research-to-policy gaps, support policy decisions to promote health among vulnerable communities, and train the next generation of scientists and leaders for far-reaching impact.”

    The tool can inform decision-makers about a wide range of climate and air-quality policies. Policy scenarios can be applied to specific regions, sectors, or fuels to investigate policy combinations at a more granular level, or to target short-term actions with high-impact benefits.

    TAPS could be further developed to account for additional emissions sources and trends.

    “Our new tool could be used to examine a large range of both climate and air quality scenarios. As the framework is expanded, we can add detail for specific regions, as well as additional pollutants such as air toxics,” says study supervising co-author Noelle Selin, professor at IDSS and the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of TPP.    

    This research was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program; Biogen; TPP’s Leading Technology and Policy Initiative; and TPP’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. More

  • in

    MIT accelerates efforts on path to carbon reduction goals

    Under its “Fast Forward” climate action plan, which was announced in May 2021, MIT has set a goal of eliminating direct emissions from its campus by 2050. An important near-term milestone will be achieving net-zero emissions by 2026. Many other colleges and universities have set similar targets. What does it take to achieve such a dramatic reduction?

    Since 2014, when MIT launched a five-year plan for action on climate change, net campus emissions have been cut by 20 percent. To meet the 2026 target, and ultimately achieve zero direct emissions by 2050, the Institute is making its campus buildings dramatically more energy efficient, transitioning to electric vehicles (EVs), and enabling large-scale renewable energy projects, among other strategies.

    “This is an ‘all-in’ moment for MIT, and we’re taking comprehensive steps to address our carbon footprint,” says Glen Shor, executive vice president and treasurer. “Reducing our emissions to zero will be challenging, but it’s the right aspiration.”

    “As an energy-intensive campus in an urban setting, our ability to achieve this goal will, in part, depend on the capacity of the local power grid to support the electrification of buildings and transportation, and how ‘green’ that grid electricity will become over time,” says Joe Higgins, MIT’s vice president for campus services and stewardship. “It will also require breakthrough technology improvements and new public policies to drive their adoption. Many of those tech breakthroughs are being developed by our own faculty, and our teams are planning scenarios in anticipation of their arrival.”

    Working toward an energy-efficient campus

    The on-campus reductions have come primarily from a major upgrade to MIT’s Central Utilities Plant, which provides electricity, heating, and cooling for about 80 percent of all Institute buildings. The upgraded plant, which uses advanced cogeneration technology, became fully operational at the end of 2021 and is meeting campus energy needs at greater efficiency and lower carbon intensity (on average 15 to 25 percent cleaner) compared to the regional electricity grid. Carbon reductions from the increased efficiency provided by the enhanced plant are projected to counter the added greenhouse gas emissions caused by recently completed and planned construction and operation of new buildings on campus, especially energy-intensive laboratory buildings.

    Energy from the plant is delivered to campus buildings through MIT’s district energy system, a network of underground pipes and power lines providing electricity, heating, and air conditioning. With this adaptable system, MIT can introduce new technologies as they become available to increase the system’s energy efficiency. The system enables MIT to export power when the regional grid is under stress and to import electricity from the power grid as it becomes cleaner, likely over the next decade as the availability of offshore wind and renewable resources increases. “At the same time, we are reviewing additional technology options such as industrial-scale heat pumps, thermal batteries, geothermal exchange, microreactors, bio-based fuels, and green hydrogen produced from renewable energy,” Higgins says.

    Along with upgrades to the plant, MIT is gradually converting existing steam-based heating systems into more efficient hot-water systems. This long-term project to lower campus emissions requires replacing the vast network of existing steam pipes and infrastructure, and will be phased in as systems need to be replaced. Currently MIT has four buildings that are on a hot-water system, with five more buildings transitioning to hot water by the fall of 2022.  

    Minimizing emissions by implementing meaningful building efficiency standards has been an ongoing strategy in MIT’s climate mitigation efforts. In 2016, MIT made a commitment that all new campus construction and major renovation projects must earn at least Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. To date, 24 spaces and buildings at MIT have earned a LEED designation, a performance-based rating system of a building’s environmental attributes associated with its design, construction, operations, and management.

    Current efficiency efforts focus on reducing energy in the 20 buildings that account for more than 50 percent of MIT’s energy usage. One such project under construction aims to improve energy efficiency in Building 46, which houses the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and is the biggest energy user on the campus because of its large size and high concentration of lab spaces. Interventions include optimizing ventilation systems that will significantly reduce energy use while improving occupant comfort, and working with labs to implement programs such as fume hood hibernation and equipment adjustments. For example, raising ultralow freezer set points by 10 degrees can reduce their energy consumption by as much as 40 percent. Together, these measures are projected to yield a 35 percent reduction in emissions for Building 46, which would contribute to reducing campus-level emissions by 2 percent.

    Over the past decade, in addition to whole building intervention programs, the campus has taken targeted measures in over 100 campus buildings to add building insulation, replace old, inefficient windows, transition to energy-efficient lighting and mechanical systems, optimize lab ventilation systems, and install solar panels on solar-ready rooftops on campus — and will increase the capacity of renewable energy installations on campus by a minimum of 400 percent by 2026. These smaller scale contributions to overall emissions reductions are essential steps in a comprehensive campus effort.

    Electrification of buildings and vehicles

    With an eye to designing for “the next energy era,” says Higgins, MIT is looking to large-scale electrification of its buildings and district energy systems to reduce building use-associated emissions. Currently under renovation, the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse — which will house the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) and the newly established MIT Morningside Academy for Design — will be the first building on campus to undergo this transformation by using electric heat pumps as its main heating and supplemental cooling source. The project team, consisting of campus engineering and construction teams as well as the designers, is working with SA+P faculty to design this innovative electrification project. The solution will move excess heat from the district energy infrastructure and nearby facilities to supply the heat pump system, creating a solution that uses less energy — resulting in fewer carbon emissions. 

    Next to building energy use, emissions from on-campus vehicles are a key target for reduction; one of the goals in the “Fast Forward” plan is the electrification of on-campus vehicles. This includes the expansion of electric vehicle charging stations, and work has begun on the promised 200 percent expansion of the number of stations on campus, from 120 to 360. Sites are being evaluated to make sure that all members of the MIT community have easy access to these facilities.

    The electrification also includes working toward replacing existing MIT-owned vehicles, from shuttle buses and vans to pickup trucks and passenger cars, as well as grounds maintenance equipment. Shu Yang Zhang, a junior in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is part of an Office of Sustainability student research team that carried out an evaluation of the options available for each type of vehicle and compared both their lifecycle costs and emissions.

    Zhang says the team examined “the specifics of the vehicles that we own, looking at key measures such as fuel economy and cargo capacity,” and determined what alternatives exist in each category. The team carried out a study of the costs for replacing existing vehicles with EVs on the market now, versus buying new gas vehicles or leaving the existing ones in place. They produced a set of specific recommendations about fleet vehicle replacement and charging infrastructure installation on campus that supports both commuters and an MIT EV fleet in the future. According to their estimates, Zhang says, “the costs should be not drastically different” in the long run for the new electric vehicles.

    Strength in numbers

    While a panoply of measures has contributed to the successful offsetting of emissions so far, the biggest single contributor was MIT’s creation of an innovative, collaborative power purchase agreement (PPA) that enabled the construction of a large solar farm in North Carolina, which in turn contributed to the early retirement of a large coal-fired power plant in that region. MIT is committed to buying 73 percent of the power generated by the new facility, which is equivalent to approximately 40 percent of the Institute’s electricity use.

    That PPA, which was a collaboration between three institutions, provided a template that has already been emulated by other institutions, in many cases enabling smaller organizations to take part in such a plan and achieve greater offsets of their carbon emissions than might have been possible acting on their own. Now, MIT is actively pursuing new, larger variations on that plan, which may include a wider variety of organizational participants, perhaps including local governments as well as institutions and nonprofits. The hope is that, as was the case with the original PPA, such collaborations could provide a model that other institutions and organizations may adopt as well.

    Strategic portfolio agreements like the PPA will help achieve net zero emissions on campus while accelerating the decarbonization of regional electricity grids — a transformation critical to achieving net zero emissions, alongside all the work that continues to reduce the direct emissions from the campus itself.

    “PPAs play an important role in MIT’s net zero strategy and have an immediate and significant impact in decarbonization of regional power grids by enabling renewable energy projects,” says Paul L. Joskow, the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics. “Many well-known U.S. companies and organizations that are seeking to enable and purchase CO2-free electricity have turned to long-term PPAs selected through a competitive procurement process to help to meet their voluntary internal decarbonization commitments. While there are still challenges regarding organizational procurements — including proper carbon emissions mitigation accounting, optimal contract design, and efficient integration into wholesale electricity markets — we are optimistic that MIT’s efforts and partnerships will contribute to resolving some of these issues.”

    Addressing indirect sources of emissions

    MIT’s examination of emissions is not limited to the campus itself but also the indirect sources associated with the Institute’s operations, research, and education. Of these indirect emissions, the three major ones are business travel, purchased goods and services, and construction of buildings, which are collectively larger than the total direct emissions from campus.

    The strategic sourcing team in the Office of the Vice President for Finance has been working to develop opportunities and guidelines for making it easier to purchase sustainable products, for everything from office paper to electronics to lab equipment. Jeremy Gregory, executive director of MIT’s Climate and Sustainability Consortium, notes that MIT’s characteristic independent spirit resists placing limits on what products researchers can buy, but, he says, “we have opportunities to centralize some of our efforts and empower our community to choose low-impact alternatives when making procurement decisions.”

    The path forward

    The process of identifying and implementing MIT’s carbon reductions will be supported, in part, by the Carbon Footprint Working Group, which was launched by the Climate Nucleus, a new body MIT created to manage the implementation of the “Fast Forward” climate plan. The nucleus includes a broad representation from MIT’s departments, labs, and centers that are working on climate change issues. “We’ve created this internal structure in an effort to integrate operational expertise with faculty and student research innovations,” says Director of Sustainability Julie Newman.

    Whatever measures end up being adopted to reduce energy and associated emissions, their results will be made available continuously to members of the MIT community in real-time, through a campus data gateway, Newman says — a degree of transparency that is exceptional in higher education. “If you’re interested in supporting all these efforts and following this,” she says, “you can track the progress via Energize MIT,” a set of online visualizations that display various measures of MIT’s energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions over time. More

  • in

    3Q: How MIT is working to reduce carbon emissions on our campus

    Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, launched in May 2021, charges MIT to eliminate its direct carbon emissions by 2050. Setting an interim goal of net zero emissions by 2026 is an important step to getting there. Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship, speaks here about the coordinated, multi-team effort underway to address the Institute’s carbon-reduction goals, the challenges and opportunities in getting there, and creating a blueprint for a carbon-free campus in 2050.

    Q: The Fast Forward plan laid out specific goals for MIT to address its own carbon footprint. What has been the strategy to tackle these priorities?

    A: The launch of the Fast Forward Climate Action Plan empowered teams at MIT to expand the scope of our carbon reduction tasks beyond the work we’ve been doing to date. The on-campus activities called for in the plan range from substantially expanding our electric vehicle infrastructure on campus, to increasing our rooftop solar installations, to setting impact goals for food, water, and waste systems. Another strategy utilizes artificial intelligence to further reduce energy consumption and emissions from our buildings. When fully implemented, these systems will adjust a building’s temperature setpoints throughout the day while maintaining occupant comfort, and will use occupancy data, weather forecasts, and carbon intensity projections from the grid to make more efficient use of energy. 

    We have tremendous momentum right now thanks to the progress made over the past decade by our teams — which include planners, designers, engineers, construction managers, and sustainability and operations experts. Since 2014, our efforts to advance energy efficiency and incorporate renewable energy have reduced net emissions on campus by 20% (from a 2014 baseline) despite significant campus growth. One of our current goals is to further reduce energy use in high-intensity research buildings — 20 of our campus buildings consume more than 50% of our energy. To reduce energy usage in these buildings we have major energy retrofit projects in design or in planning for buildings 32, 46, 68, 76, E14, and E25, and we expect this work will reduce overall MIT emissions by an additional 10 to 15%.

    Q: The Fast Forward plan acknowledges the challenges we face in our efforts to reach our campus emission reduction goals, in part due to the current state of New England’s electrical grid. How does MIT’s district energy system factor into our approach? 

    A: MIT’s district energy system is a network of underground pipes and power lines that moves energy from the Central Utilities Plant (CUP) around to the vast majority of Institute buildings to provide electricity, heating, and air conditioning. Using a closed-loop, central-source system like this enables MIT to operate more efficiently by using less energy to heat and cool its buildings and labs, and by maintaining better load control to accommodate seasonal variations in peak demand.

    When the new MIT campus was built in Cambridge in 1916, it included a centralized state-of-the-art steam and electrical power plant that would service the campus buildings. This central district energy approach allowed MIT to avoid having individual furnaces in each building and to easily incorporate progressively cleaner fuel sources campus-wide over the years. After starting with coal as a primary energy source, MIT transitioned to fuel oil, then to natural gas, and then to cogeneration in 1995 — and each step has made the campus more energy efficient. Our continuous investment in a centralized infrastructure has facilitated our ability to improve energy efficiency while adding capacity; as new technologies become available, we can implement them across the entire campus. Our district energy system is very adaptable to seasonal variations in demand for cooling, heating and electricity, and builds upon decades of centralized investments in energy-efficient infrastructure.

    This past year, MIT completed a major upgrade of the district energy system whereby the majority of buildings on campus now benefit from the most advanced cogeneration technology for combined heating, cooling, and power delivery. This system generates electrical power that produces 15 to 25% less carbon than the current New England grid. We also have the ability to export power during times when the grid is most stressed, which contributes to the resiliency of local energy systems. On the flip side, any time the grid is a cleaner option, MIT is able to import a higher amount of electricity from the utility by distributing this energy through our centralized system. In fact, it’s important to note that we have the ability to import 100% of our electrical energy from the grid as it becomes cleaner. We anticipate that this will happen as the next major wave of technology innovation unfolds and the abundance of offshore wind and other renewable resources increases as anticipated by the end of this decade. As the grid gets greener, our adaptable district energy system will bring us closer to meeting our decarbonization goals.

    MIT’s ability to adapt its system and use new technologies is crucial right now as we work in collaboration with faculty, students, industry experts, peer institutions, and the cities of Cambridge and Boston to evaluate various strategies, opportunities, and constraints. In terms of evolving into a next-generation district energy system, we are reviewing options such as electric steam boilers and industrial-scale heat pumps, thermal batteries, geothermal exchange, micro-reactors, bio-based fuels, and green hydrogen produced from renewable energy. We are preparing to incorporate the most beneficial technologies into a blueprint that will get us to our 2050 goal.

    Q: What is MIT doing in the near term to reach the carbon-reduction goals of the climate action plan?

    A: In the near term, we are exploring several options, including enabling large-scale renewable energy projects and investing in verified carbon offset projects that reduce, avoid, or sequester carbon. In 2016, MIT joined a power purchase agreement (PPA) partnership that enabled the construction of a 650-acre solar farm in North Carolina and resulted in the early retirement of a nearby coal plant. We’ve documented a huge emissions savings from this, and we’re exploring how to do something similar on a much larger scale with a broader group of partners. As we seek out collaborative opportunities that enable the development of new renewable energy sources, we hope to provide a model for other institutions and organizations, as the original PPA did. Because PPAs accelerate the de-carbonization of regional electricity grids, they can have an enormous and far-reaching impact. We see these partnerships as an important component of achieving net zero emissions on campus as well as accelerating the de-carbonization of regional power grids — a transformation that must take place to reach zero emissions by 2050.

    Other near-term initiatives include enabling community solar power projects in Massachusetts to support the state’s renewable energy goals and provide opportunities for more property owners (municipalities, businesses, homeowners, etc.) to purchase affordable renewable energy. MIT is engaged with three of these projects; one of them is in operation today in Middleton, and the two others are scheduled to be built soon on Cape Cod.

    We’re joining the commonwealth and its cities, its organizations and utility providers on an unprecedented journey — the global transition to a clean energy system. Along the way, everything is going to change as technologies and the grid continue to evolve. Our focus is on both the near term and the future, as we plan a path into the next energy era. More

  • in

    Stranded assets could exact steep costs on fossil energy producers and investors

    A 2021 study in the journal Nature found that in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, most of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves must remain untapped. According to the study, 90 percent of coal and nearly 60 percent of oil and natural gas must be kept in the ground in order to maintain a 50 percent chance that global warming will not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

    As the world transitions away from greenhouse-gas-emitting activities to keep global warming well below 2 C (and ideally 1.5 C) in alignment with the Paris Agreement on climate change, fossil fuel companies and their investors face growing financial risks (known as transition risks), including the prospect of ending up with massive stranded assets. This ongoing transition is likely to significantly scale back fossil fuel extraction and coal-fired power plant operations, exacting steep costs — most notably asset value losses — on fossil-energy producers and shareholders.

    Now, a new study in the journal Climate Change Economics led by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change estimates the current global asset value of untapped fossil fuels through 2050 under four increasingly ambitious climate-policy scenarios. The least-ambitious scenario (“Paris Forever”) assumes that initial Paris Agreement greenhouse gas emissions-reduction pledges are upheld in perpetuity; the most stringent scenario (“Net Zero 2050”) adds coordinated international policy instruments aimed at achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050.

    Powered by the MIT Joint Program’s model of the world economy with detailed representation of the energy sector and energy industry assets over time, the study finds that the global net present value of untapped fossil fuel output through 2050 relative to a reference “No Policy” scenario ranges from $21.5 trillion (Paris Forever) to $30.6 trillion (Net Zero 2050). The estimated global net present value of stranded assets in coal power generation through 2050 ranges from $1.3 to $2.3 trillion.

    “The more stringent the climate policy, the greater the volume of untapped fossil fuels, and hence the higher the potential asset value loss for fossil-fuel owners and investors,” says Henry Chen, a research scientist at the MIT Joint Program and the study’s lead author.

    The global economy-wide analysis presented in the study provides a more fine-grained assessment of stranded assets than those performed in previous studies. Firms and financial institutions may combine the MIT analysis with details on their own investment portfolios to assess their exposure to climate-related transition risk. More