MIT announces five-year plan for action on climate change

Hundreds of millions sought for low-carbon research; advocacy for carbon pricing; a call to the alumni and beyond.


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MIT is launching a multifaceted five-year plan aimed at fighting climate change, representing a new phase in the Institute’s commitment to an issue that, the plan says, “demands society’s urgent attention.”

Citing “overwhelming” scientific evidence, “A Plan for Action on Climate Change” underscores the “risk of catastrophic outcomes” due to climate change and emphasizes that “the world needs an aggressive but pragmatic transition plan to achieve a zero-carbon global energy system.”

To that end, MIT has developed a five-year plan to enhance its efforts in five areas of climate action, whose elements have consensus support within the MIT community:

  • research to further understand climate change and advance solutions to mitigate and adapt to it;
  • the acceleration of low-carbon energy technology via eight new research centers;
  • the development of enhanced educational programs on climate change;
  • new tools to share climate information globally; and
  • measures to reduce carbon use on the MIT campus.

The plan calls for MIT to convene academia, industry, and government in pursuit of three overlapping stages of progress.

“The first step,” according to the plan, “is to imagine the future as informed by research: e.g., What is the optimal mix of energy sources in 15, 25 and 35 years, in order to meet emissions targets and eventually reach a zero-carbon global energy system? And how can societies across the globe best adapt to damaging climate impacts in the meantime?”

“Next,” the plan continues, “it will be vital to establish the policy and economic incentives to achieve that future. Finally, clear technological goals and aligned incentives will focus and accelerate the research and development required to achieve success. All three phases need to be continuously refreshed: Research and development should continuously inform timelines and targets. The success of this strategy depends on the best efforts of all three sectors.”

The plan specifically asserts the need for a price on carbon in order to align the incentives of industry with the imperatives of climate science.

The plan also announces that MIT will not divest from the fossil fuel industry. This decision and the overall plan emerged from more than a year of broad consultation with the MIT community, including extensive public discussion led by the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation, and engagement with the student-led group Fossil Free MIT. This group originally petitioned MIT to divest from 200 companies and more recently has asked for “reinvestment in campus sustainability, and a reinvention of the approach that MIT takes toward climate change.”

In his announcement letter today to the MIT community, President L. Rafael Reif said the plan would not have taken the shape it did without Fossil Free MIT’s “willingness to work with us toward the shared goal of meaningful climate action.” He encouraged the group’s members to join in the work ahead.

A call to service, on campus and beyond

In his letter, Reif called upon all members of the MIT community to take action. “There is room and reason for each of us to be part of the solution,” he wrote. “I urge everyone to join us in rising to this historic challenge.”

Alumni are being called upon to imagine how they can help MIT execute the plan. A competition announced in the plan has been created in order to elicit the most effective ways for the MIT alumni community to take personal and combined action.

“MIT’s 130,000 alumni represent an exceptional untapped resource for driving substantive progress on climate change,” the plan says, “and we are certain that our graduates will know better than we do how to make the most of their strength, from their technical expertise to their professional and community networks.”

The competition will be hosted by the MIT Climate CoLab, a digital community that engages nearly 50,000 people from over 170 countries to crowdsource climate priorities and novel solutions. The plan calls for the Climate CoLab to expand its overall capacity, so that MIT can serve as a vital hub of crowdsourced solutions to climate change.

A year and more in the making

The plan is the result of an MIT-wide initiative on climate launched in May 2014, and led by Provost Martin Schmidt; Vice President for Research Maria Zuber; MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) Director Robert Armstrong; and Susan Solomon, founding director of MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative.

In September 2014, the initiative appointed the Committee on the MIT Climate Change Conversation, chaired by Roman Stocker, then associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, to lead public discussion of MIT’s options for addressing climate change.

The plan credits members of the committee, as well as members of Fossil Free MIT, for having “brought climate change to the top of MIT’s institutional agenda by urging that MIT assume a role of public leadership.”

“Today’s plan is truly MIT’s plan,” Zuber says. “There is a hunger across the Institute to apply MIT’s strengths to the problem. With a firm theory of the case for how to bring cohesion to our work in science, engineering, and policy, we are now poised to set forth on five years of critical work. Today is an important beginning.”

In his letter to the MIT community, Reif wrote that MIT will rely on Zuber to lead MIT’s research, outreach, and convening efforts.

“President Reif and Vice President for Research Zuber have led us to a very important day in the Institute’s history,” says Diana Chapman Walsh, a member of the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation (MIT’s board of trustees) and former president of Wellesley College. “The world is calling for leadership at a time of urgency and uncertainty. Today, MIT is deepening its commitment to meaningful action.”

Intensifying MIT’s impact

The plan outlines five areas for “direct action”:

  1. An improved understanding of climate change, and practical solutions to mitigate and adapt to it. As part of its Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), now led by Professor John E. Fernandez, who was named as ESI’s second director earlier this week, MIT is providing $5 million to back further research on a series of cross-disciplinary projects and will seek outside support for promising new work.
  1. Accelerating progress on low-carbon technologies. Building on decades of faculty research, the MIT Energy Initiative is planning to launch eight new low-carbon energy centers, in cooperation with corporate partners, each focused on the advancement of a specific type of technology. Each center will seek about $8 million in annual funding, or more than $300 million in total over the five-year period — which the plan says represents “far and away the greatest opportunity for MIT to make a difference on climate change.” The eight centers will be in the areas of solar energy; energy storage; materials; carbon capture, use, and sequestration; nuclear energy; nuclear fusion; energy bioscience; and the electrical grid.
  1. In addition, MIT plans additional research intended to help transform at least four major types of energy-related systems. These projects will concern the future of the utility industry, ground transportation, air transportation, and cities. And MIT is commissioning a multidisciplinary report to envision the pathway to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon future.
  1. Education. MIT plans to create an Environment and Sustainability degree option; develop an online Climate Change and Sustainability credential; and, in a joint effort between MIT’s School of Engineering and School of Architecture and Planning, find ways to insert principles of “benign and sustainable design” throughout MIT’s engineering and design instruction.
  1. Additional knowledge-sharing tools. MIT will expand its range of short courses and seminars for executives (including through online tools); create a new web portal on climate change; expand its Climate CoLab crowdsourcing tool (as noted above); and continue to focus on climate issues through Solve.
  1. Reducing emissions on the MIT campus, and using the campus as a “test bed” for climate action. MIT plans to reduce campus emission by at least 32 percent by 2030 (the amount set as a goal by the federal government); eliminate the use of fuel oil on campus by 2019; enact “carbon shadow pricing,” to explore the effects of assigning a self-imposed cost to campus carbon emissions; pursue more carbon-efficient technologies as it renews its stock of campus buildings and systems; and build an open data platform on campus energy use.

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who earned a PhD from MIT in 1949 and served on the economics faculty in the 1950s, has urged the MIT community to take action on climate change and endorses today’s plan, calling it “a terrific document. It is inspirational that MIT is working on the subject with such energy and impact.” Shultz chairs the External Advisory Board of the MIT Energy Initiative.

Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative, says, “The plan recognizes the central role that climate change will have in driving transformation of the global energy system. The eight low-carbon energy centers leverage MIT’s strengths in working across disciplines and in deeply engaging with industry to tackle society’s greatest challenges.”

Investment questions

The plan announces that in the interest of fighting climate change, MIT will not divest from companies in the fossil fuel sector.

“We believe that divestment — a dramatic public disengagement — is incompatible with the strategy of engagement with industry to solve problems that is at the heart of today’s plan. Combatting climate change will require intense collaboration across the research community, industry and government,” the plan states.

Divestment has been a principal aim of Fossil Free MIT, which had gathered 3,400 signatures from members of the MIT community, asking for divestment from 200 companies in the fossil-fuel industry. MIT hosted a public debate on the issue in April, in which MIT faculty, professors from other institutions, and investment executives addressed the potential merits and drawbacks of divestment.

The plan states that MIT is “not naïve about the pernicious role of some segments of the fossil fuel industry in creating the current policy deadlock. We deplore the practice of ‘disinformation,’ through which some industry players and related groups have actively obstructed clear public understanding of the problem of climate change.”

MIT’s position, the plan states, is that “well-crafted policies can harness the creative forces of industry to serve the common good.” Further, it argues “that growing awareness of climate change may be generating a tipping point in that policy dynamic now. Witness the fact that in Paris last Friday, October 16, the CEOs of ten of the world’s largest oil and gas companies declared that their ‘shared ambition is for a 2°C future,’ and called for ‘an effective climate change agreement’ at next month’s 21st session of the United Nations Conference of Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change (COP21).”

“Six of those companies — BP, Eni, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Statoil, and Total — are members of MITEI,” the plan continues. “We believe we have greater power to build on such momentum not by distancing ourselves from fossil fuel companies, but by bringing them closer to us.”

Ultimately, the plan states, massive changes are needed in the production, distribution, and consumption of energy to avert a potential climate catastrophe: “To solve this global problem, humanity must reorder the global energy status quo.”

Robert Millard, chairman of the MIT Corporation, calls the plan “bold, respectful, complete, honest, and well-reasoned. It therefore reflects,” he says, “the highest aspirations of MIT.”


Topics: President L. Rafael Reif, Climate change, Sustainability, Administration, MIT Energy Initiative, Climate CoLab, Crowdsourcing, ESI, Community, Global, Environment, Energy, Alternative energy, Oil and gas, Technology and society, Nuclear science and engineering, Urban studies and planning, online learning

Comments

Great! It is time to start a meaningful transition towards a sustainable energy future that includes rapidly increasing renewable and low-carbon supplies and more efficient end-use options

Great! It is time to start a meaningful transition towards a sustainable
energy future that includes rapidly increasing renewable and low-carbon
energy supplies and more efficient end-use options - economically competitive technologies will be key

This is excellent. Especially excited to see the first mention of the Mobility of the Future effort.

In the Plan For Action there is a tiny mention of the elephant in the room. The need to address policies for
supplying water and food for the world’s growing population.

The underlying root problem in my opinion is the continuing growth of the human population. In some few nations where there has been a decline in population it has been labelled as a problem because it impacts economic growth. When we recognize that economic growth is not good and population growth is decidedly bad we will be poised to begin discussing the problem for real.

Change the global energy status. OK. But since you believe people are the cause of the problem, you have turned a blind eye to population increase.
The problem is : THERE ARE TOO MANY PEOPLE; AND WHAT IS YOUR SOLUTION WHEN THE POPULATION DOUBLES IN A FEW YEARS? Some more windmills?
Go join Don Quiote.

Sad news. Divestment is a tangible means of opposing the business practice of dredging up oil and gas; it doesn't preclude working with companies in their transition to a business model that mitigates climate change. To me, President Reif and the action plan shirk the responsibility of engaging in more innovative ways. - MIT Alum '15

All the carbon-minimizing technology is well and good however the most important factor is the global population or rather 'overpopulation' of 8.5 billion, adding another 100 million humans per yer, puts the world's population by 2050 to upwards of 12 billion human beings. And all that carbon produced by 12 billion humans in another 35 years will not be the only crisis this world faces due to such a massive overpopulation of humans breeding like out of control vermin, to paraphrase even Pope Francis on this most important and most dangerous issue.

You missed Step One...convince the skeptics of the validity of your conclusions. The non-believers are not bad people, they just do not understand the basis for your conclusions. To some the names of scientists and MIT itself are not convincing enough to get them to commit. They see MIT getting years of funding as self serving and therefore mistrust the conclusions. Let's begin with the masses and the goals will be achievable.

I'm highly skeptical about MIT's unwillingness to divest from fossil fuels. The argument that you want to work with these companies instead of pushing them away doesn't hold. The money obtained from the stock in those companies could go to green energy. If we were to invest in green energy in anywhere near the scale of the investment in fossil fuels, I'm sure we'd quickly come up with a plethora of solutions. This work would also fuel smaller businesses and help the economy as a whole. Another reason I believe divestment is important is because it sends a strong message in a country where there is still a major portion of the population that doesn't even consider global climate change to be true. - '14 Alumni

I am incredibly disappointed that MIT did not have the courage to divest. What terrible kowtowing.

Donald Olson, certainly I agree with you that there are skeptics; Franklin Beenz, R Jones, and Robert Randall, certainly I agree that overpopulation is “the elephant in the room”; and Alison T, certainly I agree that divestment would have been a symbolic act, even if having essentially zero impact on solving the many problems associated with climate change. But meanwhile, the question that needed to be addressed was: What’s the best action for MIT to take? In my opinion, the Plan for Action is brilliant, establishing a framework for a program that MIT can almost certainly do better than could any other organization in the world and that quite likely will be MIT’s greatest contribution to the world to date. My congratulations to those who put the plan together and my best wishes for its successful implementation.

Only new ideas in science can help us.

Hello there. I'm from Indonesia. Well, that's a great idea of MIT, I hope it would give great impact for reducing carbon-emission.

I just wanna tell you story, in case one of you are willing to see the big picture.

Too many illegal mining happen in my country. Even recently, activist been killed brutally (google "Salim Kancil"). A lot of efforts done with no good result.

I want give you one example based on true story.
I've been participating in fighting against illegal mining in Bangka Island-North Sulawesi (although I'm not living in there, I live in Java Island). So many activists working in this cause, activist members are domestic resident and people from abroad, individual, group, and even international non-profit organization such as Greenpeace. We brought this case to the National Supreme Court, we even won the trial and the judge decided the mining in Island should be stopped.

But, in reality the mining is still ongoing although we won the law. And it destroyed various coral species and sea habitat on its site.

That's one example of dozen problems we have. Maybe, some of you already read on the news about "Indonesia fume disaster" recently, trigerred by illegal forest burning in Indonesia.

That's why I registered on MIT Climate CoLab, join the community and just sit and grab my popcorn, in case of I could find someone submitting proposal about how to prevent and solve this kind of problem. Because I'm running out of idea and I'm too sceptical right now.

Having recently joined and participated in MIT's Climate CoLab activities and having read and understood the announced 5-year action plan for climate change I concur with the approach towards solving this gigantic problem. I think and I strongly believe that since we already the problem and it's cause, then the problem is about 50% solved. Imagine, we were not even aware of climate change, it's cause and it's likely impact on everything that exist. We would simply be sitting ducks, awaiting to face the consequences without an iota of an idea of what is happening.

My previous participation in Ozone-Saving projects give me great courage, determination and motivation to believe that climate change challenges will be sufficiently addressed provided clear, focused and neutral leadership is in place. This leadership has emerged from MIT. MIT is pointing the way, playing a pivotal role and it's all inclusive. I am elated to note that MIT recognizes the critical need to involve everyone irrespective of their previous or current role and magnitude in contributing to the Climate Change.

In my community, there is a saying that goes "if someone alerts you of a broken bridge ahead of you and you proceed without taking heed of the advice and suffer, whom do you blame? What caused the bridge to break? Yourself? Or who?

Since we are now aware of climate change we need to roll our sleeves and work to find sustainable solutions without any blame apportionment!

I read the executive summary and the anticipated impact is disappointing... Reduce MIT own emissions, educate leaders through online courses, etc., come on, that's so naive.

And no mention at all of deforestation, as if the carbon storage role of forests were not part of the solution or as if it were unknown to MIT researchers. I am disappointed by my alma mater. To top it all there is a massive event going on in the world for the past two months, and people are dieing from it; in case you haven't heard in the ivory tower, Borneo forests and peatland are burning and are daily releasing more carbon emissions than the entire US economy, that number one polluter... I wished MIT also thought about this issue.

http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/1...

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