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    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

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    Methane research takes on new urgency at MIT

    One of the most notable climate change provisions in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is the first U.S. federal tax on a greenhouse gas (GHG). That the fee targets methane (CH4), rather than carbon dioxide (CO2), emissions is indicative of the urgency the scientific community has placed on reducing this short-lived but powerful gas. Methane persists in the air about 12 years — compared to more than 1,000 years for CO2 — yet it immediately causes about 120 times more warming upon release. The gas is responsible for at least a quarter of today’s gross warming. 

    “Methane has a disproportionate effect on near-term warming,” says Desiree Plata, the director of MIT Methane Network. “CH4 does more damage than CO2 no matter how long you run the clock. By removing methane, we could potentially avoid critical climate tipping points.” 

    Because GHGs have a runaway effect on climate, reductions made now will have a far greater impact than the same reductions made in the future. Cutting methane emissions will slow the thawing of permafrost, which could otherwise lead to massive methane releases, as well as reduce increasing emissions from wetlands.  

    “The goal of MIT Methane Network is to reduce methane emissions by 45 percent by 2030, which would save up to 0.5 degree C of warming by 2100,” says Plata, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and director of the Plata Lab. “When you consider that governments are trying for a 1.5-degree reduction of all GHGs by 2100, this is a big deal.” 

    Under normal concentrations, methane, like CO2, poses no health risks. Yet methane assists in the creation of high levels of ozone. In the lower atmosphere, ozone is a key component of air pollution, which leads to “higher rates of asthma and increased emergency room visits,” says Plata. 

    Methane-related projects at the Plata Lab include a filter made of zeolite — the same clay-like material used in cat litter — designed to convert methane into CO2 at dairy farms and coal mines. At first glance, the technology would appear to be a bit of a hard sell, since it converts one GHG into another. Yet the zeolite filter’s low carbon and dollar costs, combined with the disproportionate warming impact of methane, make it a potential game-changer.

    The sense of urgency about methane has been amplified by recent studies that show humans are generating far more methane emissions than previously estimated, and that the rates are rising rapidly. Exactly how much methane is in the air is uncertain. Current methods for measuring atmospheric methane, such as ground, drone, and satellite sensors, “are not readily abundant and do not always agree with each other,” says Plata.  

    The Plata Lab is collaborating with Tim Swager in the MIT Department of Chemistry to develop low-cost methane sensors. “We are developing chemiresisitive sensors that cost about a dollar that you could place near energy infrastructure to back-calculate where leaks are coming from,” says Plata.  

    The researchers are working on improving the accuracy of the sensors using machine learning techniques and are planning to integrate internet-of-things technology to transmit alerts. Plata and Swager are not alone in focusing on data collection: the Inflation Reduction Act adds significant funding for methane sensor research. 

    Other research at the Plata Lab includes the development of nanomaterials and heterogeneous catalysis techniques for environmental applications. The lab also explores mitigation solutions for industrial waste, particularly those related to the energy transition. Plata is the co-founder of an lithium-ion battery recycling startup called Nth Cycle. 

    On a more fundamental level, the Plata Lab is exploring how to develop products with environmental and social sustainability in mind. “Our overarching mission is to change the way that we invent materials and processes so that environmental objectives are incorporated along with traditional performance and cost metrics,” says Plata. “It is important to do that rigorous assessment early in the design process.”

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    MIT amps up methane research 

    The MIT Methane Network brings together 26 researchers from MIT along with representatives of other institutions “that are dedicated to the idea that we can reduce methane levels in our lifetime,” says Plata. The organization supports research such as Plata’s zeolite and sensor projects, as well as designing pipeline-fixing robots, developing methane-based fuels for clean hydrogen, and researching the capture and conversion of methane into liquid chemical precursors for pharmaceuticals and plastics. Other members are researching policies to encourage more sustainable agriculture and land use, as well as methane-related social justice initiatives. 

    “Methane is an especially difficult problem because it comes from all over the place,” says Plata. A recent Global Carbon Project study estimated that half of methane emissions are caused by humans. This is led by waste and agriculture (28 percent), including cow and sheep belching, rice paddies, and landfills.  

    Fossil fuels represent 18 percent of the total budget. Of this, about 63 percent is derived from oil and gas production and pipelines, 33 percent from coal mining activities, and 5 percent from industry and transportation. Human-caused biomass burning, primarily from slash-and-burn agriculture, emits about 4 percent of the global total.  

    The other half of the methane budget includes natural methane emissions from wetlands (20 percent) and other natural sources (30 percent). The latter includes permafrost melting and natural biomass burning, such as forest fires started by lightning.  

    With increases in global warming and population, the line between anthropogenic and natural causes is getting fuzzier. “Human activities are accelerating natural emissions,” says Plata. “Climate change increases the release of methane from wetlands and permafrost and leads to larger forest and peat fires.”  

    The calculations can get complicated. For example, wetlands provide benefits from CO2 capture, biological diversity, and sea level rise resiliency that more than compensate for methane releases. Meanwhile, draining swamps for development increases emissions. 

    Over 100 nations have signed onto the U.N.’s Global Methane Pledge to reduce at least 30 percent of anthropogenic emissions within the next 10 years. The U.N. report estimates that this goal can be achieved using proven technologies and that about 60 percent of these reductions can be accomplished at low cost. 

    Much of the savings would come from greater efficiencies in fossil fuel extraction, processing, and delivery. The methane fees in the Inflation Reduction Act are primarily focused on encouraging fossil fuel companies to accelerate ongoing efforts to cap old wells, flare off excess emissions, and tighten pipeline connections.  

    Fossil fuel companies have already made far greater pledges to reduce methane than they have with CO2, which is central to their business. This is due, in part, to the potential savings, as well as in preparation for methane regulations expected from the Environmental Protection Agency in late 2022. The regulations build upon existing EPA oversight of drilling operations, and will likely be exempt from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that limits the federal government’s ability to regulate GHGs. 

    Zeolite filter targets methane in dairy and coal 

    The “low-hanging fruit” of gas stream mitigation addresses most of the 20 percent of total methane emissions in which the gas is released in sufficiently high concentrations for flaring. Plata’s zeolite filter aims to address the thornier challenge of reducing the 80 percent of non-flammable dilute emissions. 

    Plata found inspiration in decades-old catalysis research for turning methane into methanol. One strategy has been to use an abundant, low-cost aluminosilicate clay called zeolite.  

    “The methanol creation process is challenging because you need to separate a liquid, and it has very low efficiency,” says Plata. “Yet zeolite can be very efficient at converting methane into CO2, and it is much easier because it does not require liquid separation. Converting methane to CO2 sounds like a bad thing, but there is a major anti-warming benefit. And because methane is much more dilute than CO2, the relative CO2 contribution is minuscule.”  

    Using zeolite to create methanol requires highly concentrated methane, high temperatures and pressures, and industrial processing conditions. Yet Plata’s process, which dopes the zeolite with copper, operates in the presence of oxygen at much lower temperatures under typical pressures. “We let the methane proceed the way it wants from a thermodynamic perspective from methane to methanol down to CO2,” says Plata. 

    Researchers around the world are working on other dilute methane removal technologies. Projects include spraying iron salt aerosols into sea air where they react with natural chlorine or bromine radicals, thereby capturing methane. Most of these geoengineering solutions, however, are difficult to measure and would require massive scale to make a difference.  

    Plata is focusing her zeolite filters on environments where concentrations are high, but not so high as to be flammable. “We are trying to scale zeolite into filters that you could snap onto the side of a cross-ventilation fan in a dairy barn or in a ventilation air shaft in a coal mine,” says Plata. “For every packet of air we bring in, we take a lot of methane out, so we get more bang for our buck.”  

    The major challenge is creating a filter that can handle high flow rates without getting clogged or falling apart. Dairy barn air handlers can push air at up to 5,000 cubic feet per minute and coal mine handlers can approach 500,000 CFM. 

    Plata is exploring engineering options including fluidized bed reactors with floating catalyst particles. Another filter solution, based in part on catalytic converters, features “higher-order geometric structures where you have a porous material with a long path length where the gas can interact with the catalyst,” says Plata. “This avoids the challenge with fluidized beds of containing catalyst particles in the reactor. Instead, they are fixed within a structured material.”  

    Competing technologies for removing methane from mine shafts “operate at temperatures of 1,000 to 1,200 degrees C, requiring a lot of energy and risking explosion,” says Plata. “Our technology avoids safety concerns by operating at 300 to 400 degrees C. It reduces energy use and provides more tractable deployment costs.” 

    Potentially, energy and dollar costs could be further reduced in coal mines by capturing the heat generated by the conversion process. “In coal mines, you have enrichments above a half-percent methane, but below the 4 percent flammability threshold,” says Plata. “The excess heat from the process could be used to generate electricity using off-the-shelf converters.” 

    Plata’s dairy barn research is funded by the Gerstner Family Foundation and the coal mining project by the U.S. Department of Energy. “The DOE would like us to spin out the technology for scale-up within three years,” says Plata. “We cannot guarantee we will hit that goal, but we are trying to develop this as quickly as possible. Our society needs to start reducing methane emissions now.”  More

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    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

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    Computing for the health of the planet

    The health of the planet is one of the most important challenges facing humankind today. From climate change to unsafe levels of air and water pollution to coastal and agricultural land erosion, a number of serious challenges threaten human and ecosystem health.

    Ensuring the health and safety of our planet necessitates approaches that connect scientific, engineering, social, economic, and political aspects. New computational methods can play a critical role by providing data-driven models and solutions for cleaner air, usable water, resilient food, efficient transportation systems, better-preserved biodiversity, and sustainable sources of energy.

    The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is committed to hiring multiple new faculty in computing for climate and the environment, as part of MIT’s plan to recruit 20 climate-focused faculty under its climate action plan. This year the college undertook searches with several departments in the schools of Engineering and Science for shared faculty in computing for health of the planet, one of the six strategic areas of inquiry identified in an MIT-wide planning process to help focus shared hiring efforts. The college also undertook searches for core computing faculty in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

    The searches are part of an ongoing effort by the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing to hire 50 new faculty — 25 shared with other academic departments and 25 in computer science and artificial intelligence and decision-making. The goal is to build capacity at MIT to help more deeply infuse computing and other disciplines in departments.

    Four interdisciplinary scholars were hired in these searches. They will join the MIT faculty in the coming year to engage in research and teaching that will advance physical understanding of low-carbon energy solutions, Earth-climate modeling, biodiversity monitoring and conservation, and agricultural management through high-performance computing, transformational numerical methods, and machine-learning techniques.

    “By coordinating hiring efforts with multiple departments and schools, we were able to attract a cohort of exceptional scholars in this area to MIT. Each of them is developing and using advanced computational methods and tools to help find solutions for a range of climate and environmental issues,” says Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Henry Warren Ellis Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “They will also help strengthen cross-departmental ties in computing across an important, critical area for MIT and the world.”

    “These strategic hires in the area of computing for climate and the environment are an incredible opportunity for the college to deepen its academic offerings and create new opportunity for collaboration across MIT,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the MIT School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The college plays a pivotal role in MIT’s overarching effort to hire climate-focused faculty — introducing the critical role of computing to address the health of the planet through innovative research and curriculum.”

    The four new faculty members are:

    Sara Beery will join MIT as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in September 2023. Beery received her PhD in computing and mathematical sciences at Caltech in 2022, where she was advised by Pietro Perona. Her research focuses on building computer vision methods that enable global-scale environmental and biodiversity monitoring across data modalities, tackling real-world challenges including strong spatiotemporal correlations, imperfect data quality, fine-grained categories, and long-tailed distributions. She partners with nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to deploy her methods in the wild worldwide and works toward increasing the diversity and accessibility of academic research in artificial intelligence through interdisciplinary capacity building and education.

    Priya Donti will join MIT as an assistant professor in the faculties of Electrical Engineering and Artificial Intelligence and Decision-Making in EECS in academic year 2023-24. Donti recently finished her PhD in the Computer Science Department and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, co-advised by Zico Kolter and Inês Azevedo. Her work focuses on machine learning for forecasting, optimization, and control in high-renewables power grids. Specifically, her research explores methods to incorporate the physics and hard constraints associated with electric power systems into deep learning models. Donti is also co-founder and chair of Climate Change AI, a nonprofit initiative to catalyze impactful work at the intersection of climate change and machine learning that is currently running through the Cornell Tech Runway Startup Postdoc Program.

    Ericmoore Jossou will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the faculty of electrical engineering in EECS in July 2023. He is currently an assistant scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy-affiliated lab that conducts research in nuclear and high energy physics, energy science and technology, environmental and bioscience, nanoscience, and national security. His research at MIT will focus on understanding the processing-structure-properties correlation of materials for nuclear energy applications through advanced experiments, multiscale simulations, and data science. Jossou obtained his PhD in mechanical engineering in 2019 from the University of Saskatchewan.

    Sherrie Wang will join MIT as an assistant professor in a shared position between the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society in academic year 2023-24. Wang is currently a Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, hosted by Solomon Hsiang and the Global Policy Lab. She develops machine learning for Earth observation data. Her primary application areas are improving agricultural management and forecasting climate phenomena. She obtained her PhD in computational and mathematical engineering from Stanford University in 2021, where she was advised by David Lobell. More

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    On the road to cleaner, greener, and faster driving

    No one likes sitting at a red light. But signalized intersections aren’t just a minor nuisance for drivers; vehicles consume fuel and emit greenhouse gases while waiting for the light to change.

    What if motorists could time their trips so they arrive at the intersection when the light is green? While that might be just a lucky break for a human driver, it could be achieved more consistently by an autonomous vehicle that uses artificial intelligence to control its speed.

    In a new study, MIT researchers demonstrate a machine-learning approach that can learn to control a fleet of autonomous vehicles as they approach and travel through a signalized intersection in a way that keeps traffic flowing smoothly.

    Using simulations, they found that their approach reduces fuel consumption and emissions while improving average vehicle speed. The technique gets the best results if all cars on the road are autonomous, but even if only 25 percent use their control algorithm, it still leads to substantial fuel and emissions benefits.

    “This is a really interesting place to intervene. No one’s life is better because they were stuck at an intersection. With a lot of other climate change interventions, there is a quality-of-life difference that is expected, so there is a barrier to entry there. Here, the barrier is much lower,” says senior author Cathy Wu, the Gilbert W. Winslow Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a member of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS).

    The lead author of the study is Vindula Jayawardana, a graduate student in LIDS and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The research will be presented at the European Control Conference.

    Intersection intricacies

    While humans may drive past a green light without giving it much thought, intersections can present billions of different scenarios depending on the number of lanes, how the signals operate, the number of vehicles and their speeds, the presence of pedestrians and cyclists, etc.

    Typical approaches for tackling intersection control problems use mathematical models to solve one simple, ideal intersection. That looks good on paper, but likely won’t hold up in the real world, where traffic patterns are often about as messy as they come.

    Wu and Jayawardana shifted gears and approached the problem using a model-free technique known as deep reinforcement learning. Reinforcement learning is a trial-and-error method where the control algorithm learns to make a sequence of decisions. It is rewarded when it finds a good sequence. With deep reinforcement learning, the algorithm leverages assumptions learned by a neural network to find shortcuts to good sequences, even if there are billions of possibilities.

    This is useful for solving a long-horizon problem like this; the control algorithm must issue upwards of 500 acceleration instructions to a vehicle over an extended time period, Wu explains.

    “And we have to get the sequence right before we know that we have done a good job of mitigating emissions and getting to the intersection at a good speed,” she adds.

    But there’s an additional wrinkle. The researchers want the system to learn a strategy that reduces fuel consumption and limits the impact on travel time. These goals can be conflicting.

    “To reduce travel time, we want the car to go fast, but to reduce emissions, we want the car to slow down or not move at all. Those competing rewards can be very confusing to the learning agent,” Wu says.

    While it is challenging to solve this problem in its full generality, the researchers employed a workaround using a technique known as reward shaping. With reward shaping, they give the system some domain knowledge it is unable to learn on its own. In this case, they penalized the system whenever the vehicle came to a complete stop, so it would learn to avoid that action.

    Traffic tests

    Once they developed an effective control algorithm, they evaluated it using a traffic simulation platform with a single intersection. The control algorithm is applied to a fleet of connected autonomous vehicles, which can communicate with upcoming traffic lights to receive signal phase and timing information and observe their immediate surroundings. The control algorithm tells each vehicle how to accelerate and decelerate.

    Their system didn’t create any stop-and-go traffic as vehicles approached the intersection. (Stop-and-go traffic occurs when cars are forced to come to a complete stop due to stopped traffic ahead). In simulations, more cars made it through in a single green phase, which outperformed a model that simulates human drivers. When compared to other optimization methods also designed to avoid stop-and-go traffic, their technique resulted in larger fuel consumption and emissions reductions. If every vehicle on the road is autonomous, their control system can reduce fuel consumption by 18 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent, while boosting travel speeds by 20 percent.

    “A single intervention having 20 to 25 percent reduction in fuel or emissions is really incredible. But what I find interesting, and was really hoping to see, is this non-linear scaling. If we only control 25 percent of vehicles, that gives us 50 percent of the benefits in terms of fuel and emissions reduction. That means we don’t have to wait until we get to 100 percent autonomous vehicles to get benefits from this approach,” she says.

    Down the road, the researchers want to study interaction effects between multiple intersections. They also plan to explore how different intersection set-ups (number of lanes, signals, timings, etc.) can influence travel time, emissions, and fuel consumption. In addition, they intend to study how their control system could impact safety when autonomous vehicles and human drivers share the road. For instance, even though autonomous vehicles may drive differently than human drivers, slower roadways and roadways with more consistent speeds could improve safety, Wu says.

    While this work is still in its early stages, Wu sees this approach as one that could be more feasibly implemented in the near-term.

    “The aim in this work is to move the needle in sustainable mobility. We want to dream, as well, but these systems are big monsters of inertia. Identifying points of intervention that are small changes to the system but have significant impact is something that gets me up in the morning,” she says.  

    This work was supported, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab. More

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    MIT announces five flagship projects in first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition

    MIT today announced the five flagship projects selected in its first-ever Climate Grand Challenges competition. These multiyear projects will define a dynamic research agenda focused on unraveling some of the toughest unsolved climate problems and bringing high-impact, science-based solutions to the world on an accelerated basis.

    Representing the most promising concepts to emerge from the two-year competition, the five flagship projects will receive additional funding and resources from MIT and others to develop their ideas and swiftly transform them into practical solutions at scale.

    “Climate Grand Challenges represents a whole-of-MIT drive to develop game-changing advances to confront the escalating climate crisis, in time to make a difference,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “We are inspired by the creativity and boldness of the flagship ideas and by their potential to make a significant contribution to the global climate response. But given the planet-wide scale of the challenge, success depends on partnership. We are eager to work with visionary leaders in every sector to accelerate this impact-oriented research, implement serious solutions at scale, and inspire others to join us in confronting this urgent challenge for humankind.”

    Brief descriptions of the five Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects are provided below.

    Bringing Computation to the Climate Challenge

    This project leverages advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data sciences to improve the accuracy of climate models and make them more useful to a variety of stakeholders — from communities to industry. The team is developing a digital twin of the Earth that harnesses more data than ever before to reduce and quantify uncertainties in climate projections.

    Research leads: Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate; and Noelle Eckley Selin, director of the Technology and Policy Program and professor with a joint appointment in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    Center for Electrification and Decarbonization of Industry

    This project seeks to reinvent and electrify the processes and materials behind hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene production. A new innovation hub will perform targeted fundamental research and engineering with urgency, pushing the technological envelope on electricity-driven chemical transformations.

    Research leads: Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Bilge Yıldız, the Breene M. Kerr Professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

    Preparing for a new world of weather and climate extremes

    This project addresses key gaps in knowledge about intensifying extreme events such as floods, hurricanes, and heat waves, and quantifies their long-term risk in a changing climate. The team is developing a scalable climate-change adaptation toolkit to help vulnerable communities and low-carbon energy providers prepare for these extreme weather events.

    Research leads: Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center; Miho Mazereeuw, associate professor of architecture and urbanism in the Department of Architecture and director of the Urban Risk Lab; and Paul O’Gorman, professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

    The Climate Resilience Early Warning System

    The CREWSnet project seeks to reinvent climate change adaptation with a novel forecasting system that empowers underserved communities to interpret local climate risk, proactively plan for their futures incorporating resilience strategies, and minimize losses. CREWSnet will initially be demonstrated in southwestern Bangladesh, serving as a model for similarly threatened regions around the world.

    Research leads: John Aldridge, assistant leader of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

    Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops

    This project works to revolutionize the agricultural sector with climate-resilient crops and fertilizers that have the ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.

    Research lead: Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering

    “As one of the world’s leading institutions of research and innovation, it is incumbent upon MIT to draw on our depth of knowledge, ingenuity, and ambition to tackle the hard climate problems now confronting the world,” says Richard Lester, MIT associate provost for international activities. “Together with collaborators across industry, finance, community, and government, the Climate Grand Challenges teams are looking to develop and implement high-impact, path-breaking climate solutions rapidly and at a grand scale.”

    The initial call for ideas in 2020 yielded nearly 100 letters of interest from almost 400 faculty members and senior researchers, representing 90 percent of MIT departments. After an extensive evaluation, 27 finalist teams received a total of $2.7 million to develop comprehensive research and innovation plans. The projects address four broad research themes:

    To select the winning projects, research plans were reviewed by panels of international experts representing relevant scientific and technical domains as well as experts in processes and policies for innovation and scalability.

    “In response to climate change, the world really needs to do two things quickly: deploy the solutions we already have much more widely, and develop new solutions that are urgently needed to tackle this intensifying threat,” says Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research. “These five flagship projects exemplify MIT’s strong determination to bring its knowledge and expertise to bear in generating new ideas and solutions that will help solve the climate problem.”

    “The Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects set a new standard for inclusive climate solutions that can be adapted and implemented across the globe,” says MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles. “This competition propels the entire MIT research community — faculty, students, postdocs, and staff — to act with urgency around a worsening climate crisis, and I look forward to seeing the difference these projects can make.”

    “MIT’s efforts on climate research amid the climate crisis was a primary reason that I chose to attend MIT, and remains a reason that I view the Institute favorably. MIT has a clear opportunity to be a thought leader in the climate space in our own MIT way, which is why CGC fits in so well,” says senior Megan Xu, who served on the Climate Grand Challenges student committee and is studying ways to make the food system more sustainable.

    The Climate Grand Challenges competition is a key initiative of “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” which the Institute published in May 2021. Fast Forward outlines MIT’s comprehensive plan for helping the world address the climate crisis. It consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts. More

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    Ocean vital signs

    Without the ocean, the climate crisis would be even worse than it is. Each year, the ocean absorbs billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, preventing warming that greenhouse gas would otherwise cause. Scientists estimate about 25 to 30 percent of all carbon released into the atmosphere by both human and natural sources is absorbed by the ocean.

    “But there’s a lot of uncertainty in that number,” says Ryan Woosley, a marine chemist and a principal research scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at MIT. Different parts of the ocean take in different amounts of carbon depending on many factors, such as the season and the amount of mixing from storms. Current models of the carbon cycle don’t adequately capture this variation.

    To close the gap, Woosley and a team of other MIT scientists developed a research proposal for the MIT Climate Grand Challenges competition — an Institute-wide campaign to catalyze and fund innovative research addressing the climate crisis. The team’s proposal, “Ocean Vital Signs,” involves sending a fleet of sailing drones to cruise the oceans taking detailed measurements of how much carbon the ocean is really absorbing. Those data would be used to improve the precision of global carbon cycle models and improve researchers’ ability to verify emissions reductions claimed by countries.

    “If we start to enact mitigation strategies—either through removing CO2 from the atmosphere or reducing emissions — we need to know where CO2 is going in order to know how effective they are,” says Woosley. Without more precise models there’s no way to confirm whether observed carbon reductions were thanks to policy and people, or thanks to the ocean.

    “So that’s the trillion-dollar question,” says Woosley. “If countries are spending all this money to reduce emissions, is it enough to matter?”

    In February, the team’s Climate Grand Challenges proposal was named one of 27 finalists out of the almost 100 entries submitted. From among this list of finalists, MIT will announce in April the selection of five flagship projects to receive further funding and support.

    Woosley is leading the team along with Christopher Hill, a principal research engineer in EAPS. The team includes physical and chemical oceanographers, marine microbiologists, biogeochemists, and experts in computational modeling from across the department, in addition to collaborators from the Media Lab and the departments of Mathematics, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

    Today, data on the flux of carbon dioxide between the air and the oceans are collected in a piecemeal way. Research ships intermittently cruise out to gather data. Some commercial ships are also fitted with sensors. But these present a limited view of the entire ocean, and include biases. For instance, commercial ships usually avoid storms, which can increase the turnover of water exposed to the atmosphere and cause a substantial increase in the amount of carbon absorbed by the ocean.

    “It’s very difficult for us to get to it and measure that,” says Woosley. “But these drones can.”

    If funded, the team’s project would begin by deploying a few drones in a small area to test the technology. The wind-powered drones — made by a California-based company called Saildrone — would autonomously navigate through an area, collecting data on air-sea carbon dioxide flux continuously with solar-powered sensors. This would then scale up to more than 5,000 drone-days’ worth of observations, spread over five years, and in all five ocean basins.

    Those data would be used to feed neural networks to create more precise maps of how much carbon is absorbed by the oceans, shrinking the uncertainties involved in the models. These models would continue to be verified and improved by new data. “The better the models are, the more we can rely on them,” says Woosley. “But we will always need measurements to verify the models.”

    Improved carbon cycle models are relevant beyond climate warming as well. “CO2 is involved in so much of how the world works,” says Woosley. “We’re made of carbon, and all the other organisms and ecosystems are as well. What does the perturbation to the carbon cycle do to these ecosystems?”

    One of the best understood impacts is ocean acidification. Carbon absorbed by the ocean reacts to form an acid. A more acidic ocean can have dire impacts on marine organisms like coral and oysters, whose calcium carbonate shells and skeletons can dissolve in the lower pH. Since the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has become about 30 percent more acidic on average.

    “So while it’s great for us that the oceans have been taking up the CO2, it’s not great for the oceans,” says Woosley. “Knowing how this uptake affects the health of the ocean is important as well.” More

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    Understanding air pollution from space

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

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

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

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

    A global concern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Telltale signs from space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Data for the people

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

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

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

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

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

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