Climate Action at MIT
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.