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    Study: Global deforestation leads to more mercury pollution

    About 10 percent of human-made mercury emissions into the atmosphere each year are the result of global deforestation, according to a new MIT study.

    The world’s vegetation, from the Amazon rainforest to the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, acts as a sink that removes the toxic pollutant from the air. However, if the current rate of deforestation remains unchanged or accelerates, the researchers estimate that net mercury emissions will keep increasing.

    “We’ve been overlooking a significant source of mercury, especially in tropical regions,” says Ari Feinberg, a former postdoc in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and lead author of the study.

    The researchers’ model shows that the Amazon rainforest plays a particularly important role as a mercury sink, contributing about 30 percent of the global land sink. Curbing Amazon deforestation could thus have a substantial impact on reducing mercury pollution.

    The team also estimates that global reforestation efforts could increase annual mercury uptake by about 5 percent. While this is significant, the researchers emphasize that reforestation alone should not be a substitute for worldwide pollution control efforts.

    “Countries have put a lot of effort into reducing mercury emissions, especially northern industrialized countries, and for very good reason. But 10 percent of the global anthropogenic source is substantial, and there is a potential for that to be even greater in the future. [Addressing these deforestation-related emissions] needs to be part of the solution,” says senior author Noelle Selin, a professor in IDSS and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    Feinberg and Selin are joined on the paper by co-authors Martin Jiskra, a former Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione Fellow at the University of Basel; Pasquale Borrelli, a professor at Roma Tre University in Italy; and Jagannath Biswakarma, a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. The paper appears today in Environmental Science and Technology.

    Modeling mercury

    Over the past few decades, scientists have generally focused on studying deforestation as a source of global carbon dioxide emissions. Mercury, a trace element, hasn’t received the same attention, partly because the terrestrial biosphere’s role in the global mercury cycle has only recently been better quantified.

    Plant leaves take up mercury from the atmosphere, in a similar way as they take up carbon dioxide. But unlike carbon dioxide, mercury doesn’t play an essential biological function for plants. Mercury largely stays within a leaf until it falls to the forest floor, where the mercury is absorbed by the soil.

    Mercury becomes a serious concern for humans if it ends up in water bodies, where it can become methylated by microorganisms. Methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin, can be taken up by fish and bioaccumulated through the food chain. This can lead to risky levels of methylmercury in the fish humans eat.

    “In soils, mercury is much more tightly bound than it would be if it were deposited in the ocean. The forests are doing a sort of ecosystem service, in that they are sequestering mercury for longer timescales,” says Feinberg, who is now a postdoc in the Blas Cabrera Institute of Physical Chemistry in Spain.

    In this way, forests reduce the amount of toxic methylmercury in oceans.

    Many studies of mercury focus on industrial sources, like burning fossil fuels, small-scale gold mining, and metal smelting. A global treaty, the 2013 Minamata Convention, calls on nations to reduce human-made emissions. However, it doesn’t directly consider impacts of deforestation.

    The researchers launched their study to fill in that missing piece.

    In past work, they had built a model to probe the role vegetation plays in mercury uptake. Using a series of land use change scenarios, they adjusted the model to quantify the role of deforestation.

    Evaluating emissions

    This chemical transport model tracks mercury from its emissions sources to where it is chemically transformed in the atmosphere and then ultimately to where it is deposited, mainly through rainfall or uptake into forest ecosystems.

    They divided the Earth into eight regions and performed simulations to calculate deforestation emissions factors for each, considering elements like type and density of vegetation, mercury content in soils, and historical land use.

    However, good data for some regions were hard to come by.

    They lacked measurements from tropical Africa or Southeast Asia — two areas that experience heavy deforestation. To get around this gap, they used simpler, offline models to simulate hundreds of scenarios, which helped them improve their estimations of potential uncertainties.

    They also developed a new formulation for mercury emissions from soil. This formulation captures the fact that deforestation reduces leaf area, which increases the amount of sunlight that hits the ground and accelerates the outgassing of mercury from soils.

    The model divides the world into grid squares, each of which is a few hundred square kilometers. By changing land surface and vegetation parameters in certain squares to represent deforestation and reforestation scenarios, the researchers can capture impacts on the mercury cycle.

    Overall, they found that about 200 tons of mercury are emitted to the atmosphere as the result of deforestation, or about 10 percent of total human-made emissions. But in tropical and sub-tropical countries, deforestation emissions represent a higher percentage of total emissions. For example, in Brazil deforestation emissions are 40 percent of total human-made emissions.

    In addition, people often light fires to prepare tropical forested areas for agricultural activities, which causes more emissions by releasing mercury stored by vegetation.

    “If deforestation was a country, it would be the second highest emitting country, after China, which emits around 500 tons of mercury a year,” Feinberg adds.

    And since the Minamata Convention is now addressing primary mercury emissions, scientists can expect deforestation to become a larger fraction of human-made emissions in the future.

    “Policies to protect forests or cut them down have unintended effects beyond their target. It is important to consider the fact that these are systems, and they involve human activities, and we need to understand them better in order to actually solve the problems that we know are out there,” Selin says.

    By providing this first estimate, the team hopes to inspire more research in this area.

    In the future, they want to incorporate more dynamic Earth system models into their analysis, which would enable them to interactively track mercury uptake and better model the timescale of vegetation regrowth.

    “This paper represents an important advance in our understanding of global mercury cycling by quantifying a pathway that has long been suggested but not yet quantified. Much of our research to date has focused on primary anthropogenic emissions — those directly resulting from human activity via coal combustion or mercury-gold amalgam burning in artisanal and small-scale gold mining,” says Jackie Gerson, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Michigan State University, who was not involved with this research. “This research shows that deforestation can also result in substantial mercury emissions and needs to be considered both in terms of global mercury models and land management policies. It therefore has the potential to advance our field scientifically as well as to promote policies that reduce mercury emissions via deforestation.

    This work was funded, in part, by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. More

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    MIT campus goals in food, water, waste support decarbonization efforts

    With the launch of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, the Institute committed to decarbonize campus operations by 2050 — an effort that touches on every corner of MIT, from building energy use to procurement and waste. At the operational level, the plan called for establishing a set of quantitative climate impact goals in the areas of food, water, and waste to inform the campus decarbonization roadmap. After an 18-month process that engaged staff, faculty, and researchers, the goals — as well as high-level strategies to reach them — were finalized in spring 2023.

    The goal development process was managed by a team representing the areas of campus food, water, and waste, respectively, and includes Director of Campus Dining Mark Hayes and Senior Sustainability Project Manager Susy Jones (food), Director of Utilities Janine Helwig (water), Assistant Director of Campus Services Marty O’Brien, and Assistant Director of Sustainability Brain Goldberg (waste) to co-lead the efforts. The group worked together to set goals that leverage ongoing campus sustainability efforts. “It was important for us to collaborate in order to identify the strategies and goals,” explains Goldberg. “It allowed us to set goals that not only align, but build off of one another, enabling us to work more strategically.”

    In setting the goals, each team relied on data, community insight, and best practices. The co-leads are sharing their process to help others at the Institute understand the roles they can play in supporting these objectives.  

    Sustainable food systems

    The primary food impact goal aims for a 25 percent overall reduction in the greenhouse gas footprint of food purchases starting with academic year 2021-22 as a baseline, acknowledging that beef purchases make up a significant share of those emissions. Additionally, the co-leads established a goal to recover all edible food waste in dining hall and retail operations where feasible, as that reduces MIT’s waste impact and acknowledges that redistributing surplus food to feed people is critically important.

    The work to develop the food goal was uniquely challenging, as MIT works with nine different vendors — including main vendor Bon Appetit — to provide food on campus, with many vendors having their own sustainability targets. The goal-setting process began by understanding vendor strategies and leveraging their climate commitments. “A lot of this work is not about reinventing the wheel, but about gathering data,” says Hayes. “We are trying to connect the dots of what is currently happening on campus and to better understand food consumption and waste, ensuring that we area reaching these targets.”

    In identifying ways to reach and exceed these targets, Jones conducted listening sessions around campus, balancing input with industry trends, best-available science, and institutional insight from Hayes. “Before we set these goals and possible strategies, we wanted to get a grounding from the community and understand what would work on our campus,” says Jones, who recently began a joint role that bridges the Office of Sustainability and MIT Dining in part to support the goal work.

    By establishing the 25 percent reduction in the greenhouse gas footprint of food purchases across MIT residential dining menus, Jones and Hayes saw goal-setting as an opportunity to add more sustainable, local, and culturally diverse foods to the menu. “If beef is the most carbon-intensive food on the menu, this enables us to explore and expand so many recipes and menus from around the globe that incorporate alternatives,” Jones says.

    Strategies to reach the climate food goals focus on local suppliers, more plant-forward meals, food recovery, and food security. In 2019, MIT was a co-recipient of the New England Food Vision Prize provided by the Kendall Foundation to increase the amount of local food served on campus in partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester. While implementation of that program was put on pause due to the pandemic, work resumed this year. Currently, the prize is funding a collaborative effort to introduce falafel-like, locally manufactured fritters made from Maine-grown yellow field peas to dining halls at MIT and other university campuses, exemplifying the efforts to meet the climate impact goal, serve as a model for others, and provide demonstrable ways of strengthening the regional food system.

    “This sort of innovation is where we’re a leader,” says Hayes. “In addition to the Kendall Prize, we are looking to focus on food justice, growing our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] vendors, and exploring ideas such as local hydroponic and container vegetable growing companies, and how to scale these types of products into institutional settings.”

    Reduce and reuse for campus water

    The 2030 water impact goal aims to achieve a 10 percent reduction in water use compared to the 2019 baseline and to update the water reduction goal to align with the new metering program and proposed campus decarbonization plans as they evolve.

    When people think of campus water use, they may think of sprinklers, lab sinks, or personal use like drinking water and showers. And while those uses make up around 60 percent of campus water use, the Central Utilities Plant (CUP) accounts for the remaining 40 percent. “The CUP generates electricity and delivers heating and cooling to the campus through steam and chilled water — all using what amounts to a large percentage of water use on campus,” says Helwig. As such, the water goal focuses as much on reuse as reduction, with one approach being to expand water capture from campus cooling towers for reuse in CUP operations. “People often think of water use and energy separately, but they often go hand-in-hand,” Helwig explains.

    Data also play a central part in the water impact goal — that’s why a new metering program is called for in the implementation strategy. “We have access to a lot of data at MIT, but in reviewing the water data to inform the goal, we learned that it wasn’t quite where we needed it,” explains Helwig. “By ensuring we have the right meter and submeters set up, we can better set boundaries to understand where there is the potential to reduce water use.” Irrigation on campus is one such target with plans to soon release new campuswide landscaping standards that minimize water use.

    Reducing campus waste

    The waste impact goal aims to reduce campus trash by 30 percent compared to 2019 baseline totals. Additionally, the goal outlines efforts to improve the accuracy of indicators tracking campus waste; reduce the percentage of food scraps in trash and percent of recycling in trash in select locations; reduce the percentage of trash and recycling comprised of single use items; and increase the percentage of residence halls and other campus spaces where food is consumed at scale, implementing an MIT food scrap collection program.

    In setting the waste goals, Goldberg and O’Brien studied available campus waste data from past waste audits, pilot programs, and MIT’s waste haulers. They factored in state and city policies that regulate things like the type and amount of waste large institutions can transport. “Looking at all the data it became clear that a 30 percent trash reduction goal will make a tremendous impact on campus and help us drive toward the goal of completely designing out waste from campus,” Goldberg says. The strategies to reach the goals include reducing the amount of materials that come into campus, increasing recycling rates, and expanding food waste collection on campus.

    While reducing the waste created from material sources is outlined in the goals, food waste is a special focus on campus because it comprises approximately 40 percent of campus trash, it can be easily collected separately from trash and recycled locally, and decomposing food waste is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions found in landfills. “There is a lot of greenhouse gas emissions that result from production, distribution, transportation, packaging, processing, and disposal of food,” explains Goldberg. “When food travels to campus, is removed from campus as waste, and then breaks down in a landfill, there are emissions every step of the way.”

    To reduce food waste, Goldberg and O’Brien outlined strategies that include working with campus suppliers to identify ordering volumes and practices to limit waste. Once materials are on campus, another strategy kicks in, with a new third stream of waste collection that joins recycling and trash — food waste. By collecting the food waste separately — in bins that are currently rolling out across campus — the waste can be reprocessed into fertilizer, compost, and/or energy without the off-product of greenhouse gases. The waste impact goal also relies on behavioral changes to reduce waste, with education materials part of the process to reduce waste and decontaminate reprocessing streams.

    Tracking progress

    As work toward the goals advances, community members can monitor progress in the Sustainability DataPool Material Matters and Campus Water Use dashboards, or explore the Impact Goals in depth.

    “From food to water to waste, everyone on campus interacts with these systems and can grapple with their impact either from a material they need to dispose of, to water they’re using in a lab, or leftover food from an event,” says Goldberg. “By setting these goals we as an institution can lead the way and help our campus community understand how they can play a role, plug in, and make an impact.” More

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    Forging climate connections across the Institute

    Climate change is the ultimate cross-cutting issue: Not limited to any one discipline, it ranges across science, technology, policy, culture, human behavior, and well beyond. The response to it likewise requires an all-of-MIT effort.

    Now, to strengthen such an effort, a new grant program spearheaded by the Climate Nucleus, the faculty committee charged with the oversight and implementation of Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, aims to build up MIT’s climate leadership capacity while also supporting innovative scholarship on diverse climate-related topics and forging new connections across the Institute.

    Called the Fast Forward Faculty Fund (F^4 for short), the program has named its first cohort of six faculty members after issuing its inaugural call for proposals in April 2023. The cohort will come together throughout the year for climate leadership development programming and networking. The program provides financial support for graduate students who will work with the faculty members on the projects — the students will also participate in leadership-building activities — as well as $50,000 in flexible, discretionary funding to be used to support related activities. 

    “Climate change is a crisis that truly touches every single person on the planet,” says Noelle Selin, co-chair of the nucleus and interim director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “It’s therefore essential that we build capacity for every member of the MIT community to make sense of the problem and help address it. Through the Fast Forward Faculty Fund, our aim is to have a cohort of climate ambassadors who can embed climate everywhere at the Institute.”

    F^4 supports both faculty who would like to begin doing climate-related work, as well as faculty members who are interested in deepening their work on climate. The program has the core goal of developing cohorts of F^4 faculty and graduate students who, in addition to conducting their own research, will become climate leaders at MIT, proactively looking for ways to forge new climate connections across schools, departments, and disciplines.

    One of the projects, “Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies,” led by Professor Siqi Zheng of the MIT Center for Real Estate in collaboration with colleagues from the MIT Sloan School of Management, focuses on the roughly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions that come from the buildings and real estate sector. Zheng notes that this sector has been slow to respond to climate change, but says that is starting to change, thanks in part to the rising awareness of climate risks and new local regulations aimed at reducing emissions from buildings.

    Using a data-driven approach, the project seeks to understand the efficient and equitable market incentives, technology solutions, and public policies that are most effective at transforming the real estate industry. Johnattan Ontiveros, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, is working with Zheng on the project.

    “We were thrilled at the incredible response we received from the MIT faculty to our call for proposals, which speaks volumes about the depth and breadth of interest in climate at MIT,” says Anne White, nucleus co-chair and vice provost and associate vice president for research. “This program makes good on key commitments of the Fast Forward plan, supporting cutting-edge new work by faculty and graduate students while helping to deepen the bench of climate leaders at MIT.”

    During the 2023-24 academic year, the F^4 faculty and graduate student cohorts will come together to discuss their projects, explore opportunities for collaboration, participate in climate leadership development, and think proactively about how to deepen interdisciplinary connections among MIT community members interested in climate change.

    The six inaugural F^4 awardees are:

    Professor Tristan Brown, History Section: Humanistic Approaches to the Climate Crisis  

    With this project, Brown aims to create a new community of practice around narrative-centric approaches to environmental and climate issues. Part of a broader humanities initiative at MIT, it brings together a global working group of interdisciplinary scholars, including Serguei Saavedra (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Or Porath (Tel Aviv University; Religion), collectively focused on examining the historical and present links between sacred places and biodiversity for the purposes of helping governments and nongovernmental organizations formulate better sustainability goals. Boyd Ruamcharoen, a PhD student in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) program, will work with Brown on this project.

    Professor Kerri Cahoy, departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (AeroAstro): Onboard Autonomous AI-driven Satellite Sensor Fusion for Coastal Region Monitoring

    The motivation for this project is the need for much better data collection from satellites, where technology can be “20 years behind,” says Cahoy. As part of this project, Cahoy will pursue research in the area of autonomous artificial intelligence-enabled rapid sensor fusion (which combines data from different sensors, such as radar and cameras) onboard satellites to improve understanding of the impacts of climate change, specifically sea-level rise and hurricanes and flooding in coastal regions. Graduate students Madeline Anderson, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and Mary Dahl, a PhD student in AeroAstro, will work with Cahoy on this project.

    Professor Priya Donti, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: Robust Reinforcement Learning for High-Renewables Power Grids 

    With renewables like wind and solar making up a growing share of electricity generation on power grids, Donti’s project focuses on improving control methods for these distributed sources of electricity. The research will aim to create a realistic representation of the characteristics of power grid operations, and eventually inform scalable operational improvements in power systems. It will “give power systems operators faith that, OK, this conceptually is good, but it also actually works on this grid,” says Donti. PhD candidate Ana Rivera from EECS is the F^4 graduate student on the project.

    Professor Jason Jackson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP): Political Economy of the Climate Crisis: Institutions, Power and Global Governance

    This project takes a political economy approach to the climate crisis, offering a distinct lens to examine, first, the political governance challenge of mobilizing climate action and designing new institutional mechanisms to address the global and intergenerational distributional aspects of climate change; second, the economic challenge of devising new institutional approaches to equitably finance climate action; and third, the cultural challenge — and opportunity — of empowering an adaptive socio-cultural ecology through traditional knowledge and local-level social networks to achieve environmental resilience. Graduate students Chen Chu and Mrinalini Penumaka, both PhD students in DUSP, are working with Jackson on the project.

    Professor Haruko Wainwright, departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) and Civil and Environmental Engineering: Low-cost Environmental Monitoring Network Technologies in Rural Communities for Addressing Climate Justice 

    This project will establish a community-based climate and environmental monitoring network in addition to a data visualization and analysis infrastructure in rural marginalized communities to better understand and address climate justice issues. The project team plans to work with rural communities in Alaska to install low-cost air and water quality, weather, and soil sensors. Graduate students Kay Whiteaker, an MS candidate in NSE, and Amandeep Singh, and MS candidate in System Design and Management at Sloan, are working with Wainwright on the project, as is David McGee, professor in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences.

    Professor Siqi Zheng, MIT Center for Real Estate and DUSP: Climate Crisis and Real Estate: Science-based Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies 

    See the text above for the details on this project. More

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    Improving US air quality, equitably

    Decarbonization of national economies will be key to achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050, a major stepping stone to the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (and ideally 1.5 C), and thereby averting the worst consequences of climate change. Toward that end, the United States has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, backed by its implementation of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. This strategy is consistent with a 50-percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) by the end of the decade.

    If U.S. federal carbon policy is successful, the nation’s overall air quality will also improve. Cutting CO2 emissions reduces atmospheric concentrations of air pollutants that lead to the formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. But an average nationwide improvement in air quality will not be felt equally; air pollution exposure disproportionately harms people of color and lower-income populations.

    How effective are current federal decarbonization policies in reducing U.S. racial and economic disparities in PM2.5 exposure, and what changes will be needed to improve their performance? To answer that question, researchers at MIT and Stanford University recently evaluated a range of policies which, like current U.S. federal carbon policies, reduce economy-wide CO2 emissions by 40-60 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Their findings appear in an open-access article in the journal Nature Communications.

    First, they show that a carbon-pricing policy, while effective in reducing PM2.5 exposure for all racial/ethnic groups, does not significantly mitigate relative disparities in exposure. On average, the white population undergoes far less exposure than Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations. This policy does little to reduce exposure disparities because the CO2 emissions reductions that it achieves primarily occur in the coal-fired electricity sector. Other sectors, such as industry and heavy-duty diesel transportation, contribute far more PM2.5-related emissions.

    The researchers then examine thousands of different reduction options through an optimization approach to identify whether any possible combination of carbon dioxide reductions in the range of 40-60 percent can mitigate disparities. They find that that no policy scenario aligned with current U.S. carbon dioxide emissions targets is likely to significantly reduce current PM2.5 exposure disparities.

    “Policies that address only about 50 percent of CO2 emissions leave many polluting sources in place, and those that prioritize reductions for minorities tend to benefit the entire population,” says Noelle Selin, supervising author of the study and a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “This means that a large range of policies that reduce CO2 can improve air quality overall, but can’t address long-standing inequities in air pollution exposure.”

    So if climate policy alone cannot adequately achieve equitable air quality results, what viable options remain? The researchers suggest that more ambitious carbon policies could narrow racial and economic PM2.5 exposure disparities in the long term, but not within the next decade. To make a near-term difference, they recommend interventions designed to reduce PM2.5 emissions resulting from non-CO2 sources, ideally at the economic sector or community level.

    “Achieving improved PM2.5 exposure for populations that are disproportionately exposed across the United States will require thinking that goes beyond current CO2 policy strategies, most likely involving large-scale structural changes,” says Selin. “This could involve changes in local and regional transportation and housing planning, together with accelerated efforts towards decarbonization.” More

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    The curse of variety in transportation systems

    Cathy Wu has always delighted in systems that run smoothly. In high school, she designed a project to optimize the best route for getting to class on time. Her research interests and career track are evidence of a propensity for organizing and optimizing, coupled with a strong sense of responsibility to contribute to society instilled by her parents at a young age.

    As an undergraduate at MIT, Wu explored domains like agriculture, energy, and education, eventually homing in on transportation. “Transportation touches each of our lives,” she says. “Every day, we experience the inefficiencies and safety issues as well as the environmental harms associated with our transportation systems. I believe we can and should do better.”

    But doing so is complicated. Consider the long-standing issue of traffic systems control. Wu explains that it is not one problem, but more accurately a family of control problems impacted by variables like time of day, weather, and vehicle type — not to mention the types of sensing and communication technologies used to measure roadway information. Every differentiating factor introduces an exponentially larger set of control problems. There are thousands of control-problem variations and hundreds, if not thousands, of studies and papers dedicated to each problem. Wu refers to the sheer number of variations as the curse of variety — and it is hindering innovation.

    Play video

    “To prove that a new control strategy can be safely deployed on our streets can take years. As time lags, we lose opportunities to improve safety and equity while mitigating environmental impacts. Accelerating this process has huge potential,” says Wu.  

    Which is why she and her group in the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems are devising machine learning-based methods to solve not just a single control problem or a single optimization problem, but families of control and optimization problems at scale. “In our case, we’re examining emerging transportation problems that people have spent decades trying to solve with classical approaches. It seems to me that we need a different approach.”

    Optimizing intersections

    Currently, Wu’s largest research endeavor is called Project Greenwave. There are many sectors that directly contribute to climate change, but transportation is responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions — 29 percent, of which 81 percent is due to land transportation. And while much of the conversation around mitigating environmental impacts related to mobility is focused on electric vehicles (EVs), electrification has its drawbacks. EV fleet turnover is time-consuming (“on the order of decades,” says Wu), and limited global access to the technology presents a significant barrier to widespread adoption.

    Wu’s research, on the other hand, addresses traffic control problems by leveraging deep reinforcement learning. Specifically, she is looking at traffic intersections — and for good reason. In the United States alone, there are more than 300,000 signalized intersections where vehicles must stop or slow down before re-accelerating. And every re-acceleration burns fossil fuels and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

    Highlighting the magnitude of the issue, Wu says, “We have done preliminary analysis indicating that up to 15 percent of land transportation CO2 is wasted through energy spent idling and re-accelerating at intersections.”

    To date, she and her group have modeled 30,000 different intersections across 10 major metropolitan areas in the United States. That is 30,000 different configurations, roadway topologies (e.g., grade of road or elevation), different weather conditions, and variations in travel demand and fuel mix. Each intersection and its corresponding scenarios represents a unique multi-agent control problem.

    Wu and her team are devising techniques that can solve not just one, but a whole family of problems comprised of tens of thousands of scenarios. Put simply, the idea is to coordinate the timing of vehicles so they arrive at intersections when traffic lights are green, thereby eliminating the start, stop, re-accelerate conundrum. Along the way, they are building an ecosystem of tools, datasets, and methods to enable roadway interventions and impact assessments of strategies to significantly reduce carbon-intense urban driving.

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    Their collaborator on the project is the Utah Department of Transportation, which Wu says has played an essential role, in part by sharing data and practical knowledge that she and her group otherwise would not have been able to access publicly.

    “I appreciate industry and public sector collaborations,” says Wu. “When it comes to important societal problems, one really needs grounding with practitioners. One needs to be able to hear the perspectives in the field. My interactions with practitioners expand my horizons and help ground my research. You never know when you’ll hear the perspective that is the key to the solution, or perhaps the key to understanding the problem.”

    Finding the best routes

    In a similar vein, she and her research group are tackling large coordination problems. For example, vehicle routing. “Every day, delivery trucks route more than a hundred thousand packages for the city of Boston alone,” says Wu. Accomplishing the task requires, among other things, figuring out which trucks to use, which packages to deliver, and the order in which to deliver them as efficiently as possible. If and when the trucks are electrified, they will need to be charged, adding another wrinkle to the process and further complicating route optimization.

    The vehicle routing problem, and therefore the scope of Wu’s work, extends beyond truck routing for package delivery. Ride-hailing cars may need to pick up objects as well as drop them off; and what if delivery is done by bicycle or drone? In partnership with Amazon, for example, Wu and her team addressed routing and path planning for hundreds of robots (up to 800) in their warehouses.

    Every variation requires custom heuristics that are expensive and time-consuming to develop. Again, this is really a family of problems — each one complicated, time-consuming, and currently unsolved by classical techniques — and they are all variations of a central routing problem. The curse of variety meets operations and logistics.

    By combining classical approaches with modern deep-learning methods, Wu is looking for a way to automatically identify heuristics that can effectively solve all of these vehicle routing problems. So far, her approach has proved successful.

    “We’ve contributed hybrid learning approaches that take existing solution methods for small problems and incorporate them into our learning framework to scale and accelerate that existing solver for large problems. And we’re able to do this in a way that can automatically identify heuristics for specialized variations of the vehicle routing problem.” The next step, says Wu, is applying a similar approach to multi-agent robotics problems in automated warehouses.

    Wu and her group are making big strides, in part due to their dedication to use-inspired basic research. Rather than applying known methods or science to a problem, they develop new methods, new science, to address problems. The methods she and her team employ are necessitated by societal problems with practical implications. The inspiration for the approach? None other than Louis Pasteur, who described his research style in a now-famous article titled “Pasteur’s Quadrant.” Anthrax was decimating the sheep population, and Pasteur wanted to better understand why and what could be done about it. The tools of the time could not solve the problem, so he invented a new field, microbiology, not out of curiosity but out of necessity. More

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    Q&A: Are far-reaching fires the new normal?

    Where there’s smoke, there is fire. But with climate change, larger and longer-burning wildfires are sending smoke farther from their source, often to places that are unaccustomed to the exposure. That’s been the case this week, as smoke continues to drift south from massive wildfires in Canada, prompting warnings of hazardous air quality, and poor visibility in states across New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest.

    As wildfire season is just getting going, many may be wondering: Are the air-polluting effects of wildfires a new normal?

    MIT News spoke with Professor Colette Heald of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Professor Noelle Selin of the Institute for Data, Systems and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Heald specializes in atmospheric chemistry and has studied the climate and health effects associated with recent wildfires, while Selin works with atmospheric models to track air pollutants around the world, which she uses to inform policy decisions on mitigating  pollution and climate change. The researchers shared some of their insights on the immediate impacts of Canada’s current wildfires and what downwind regions may expect in the coming months, as the wildfire season stretches into summer.  

    Q: What role has climate change and human activity played in the wildfires we’ve seen so far this year?

    Heald: Unusually warm and dry conditions have dramatically increased fire susceptibility in Canada this year. Human-induced climate change makes such dry and warm conditions more likely. Smoke from fires in Alberta and Nova Scotia in May, and Quebec in early June, has led to some of the worst air quality conditions measured locally in Canada. This same smoke has been transported into the United States and degraded air quality here as well. Local officials have determined that ignitions have been associated with lightning strikes, but human activity has also played a role igniting some of the fires in Alberta.

    Q: What can we expect for the coming months in terms of the pattern of wildfires and their associated air pollution across the United States?

    Heald: The Government of Canada is projecting higher-than-normal fire activity throughout the 2023 fire season. Fire susceptibility will continue to respond to changing weather conditions, and whether the U.S. is impacted will depend on the winds and how air is transported across those regions. So far, the fire season in the United States has been below average, but fire risk is expected to increase modestly through the summer, so we may see local smoke influences as well.

    Q: How has air pollution from wildfires affected human health in the U.S. this year so far?

    Selin: The pollutant of most concern in wildfire smoke is fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – fine particles in the atmosphere that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing health damages. Exposure to PM2.5 causes respiratory and cardiovascular damage, including heart attacks and premature deaths. It can also cause symptoms like coughing and difficulty breathing. In New England this week, people have been breathing much higher concentrations of PM2.5 than usual. People who are particularly vulnerable to the effects are likely experiencing more severe impacts, such as older people and people with underlying conditions. But PM2.5 affects everyone. While the number and impact of wildfires varies from year to year, the associated air pollution from them generally lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. overall annually. There is also some evidence that PM2.5 from fires could be particularly damaging to health.

    While we in New England usually have relatively lower levels of pollution, it’s important also to note that some cities around the globe experience very high PM2.5 on a regular basis, not only from wildfires, but other sources such as power plants and industry. So, while we’re feeling the effects over the past few days, we should remember the broader importance of reducing PM2.5 levels overall for human health everywhere.

    Q: While firefighters battle fires directly this wildfire season, what can we do to reduce the effects of associated air pollution? And what can we do in the long-term, to prevent or reduce wildfire impacts?

    Selin: In the short term, protecting yourself from the impacts of PM2.5 is important. Limiting time outdoors, avoiding outdoor exercise, and wearing a high-quality mask are some strategies that can minimize exposure. Air filters can help reduce the concentrations of particles in indoor air. Taking measures to avoid exposure is particularly important for vulnerable groups. It’s also important to note that these strategies aren’t equally possible for everyone (for example, people who work outside) — stressing the importance of developing new strategies to address the underlying causes of increasing wildfires.

    Over the long term, mitigating climate change is important — because warm and dry conditions lead to wildfires, warming increases fire risk. Preventing the fires that are ignited by people or human activities can help.  Another way that damages can be mitigated in the longer term is by exploring land management strategies that could help manage fire intensity. More

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    Study: Shutting down nuclear power could increase air pollution

    Nearly 20 percent of today’s electricity in the United States comes from nuclear power. The U.S. has the largest nuclear fleet in the world, with 92 reactors scattered around the country. Many of these power plants have run for more than half a century and are approaching the end of their expected lifetimes.

    Policymakers are debating whether to retire the aging reactors or reinforce their structures to continue producing nuclear energy, which many consider a low-carbon alternative to climate-warming coal, oil, and natural gas.

    Now, MIT researchers say there’s another factor to consider in weighing the future of nuclear power: air quality. In addition to being a low carbon-emitting source, nuclear power is relatively clean in terms of the air pollution it generates. Without nuclear power, how would the pattern of air pollution shift, and who would feel its effects?

    The MIT team took on these questions in a new study appearing today in Nature Energy. They lay out a scenario in which every nuclear power plant in the country has shut down, and consider how other sources such as coal, natural gas, and renewable energy would fill the resulting energy needs throughout an entire year.

    Their analysis reveals that indeed, air pollution would increase, as coal, gas, and oil sources ramp up to compensate for nuclear power’s absence. This in itself may not be surprising, but the team has put numbers to the prediction, estimating that the increase in air pollution would have serious health effects, resulting in an additional 5,200 pollution-related deaths over a single year.

    If, however, more renewable energy sources become available to supply the energy grid, as they are expected to by the year 2030, air pollution would be curtailed, though not entirely. The team found that even under this heartier renewable scenario, there is still a slight increase in air pollution in some parts of the country, resulting in a total of 260 pollution-related deaths over one year.

    When they looked at the populations directly affected by the increased pollution, they found that Black or African American communities — a disproportionate number of whom live near fossil-fuel plants — experienced the greatest exposure.

    “This adds one more layer to the environmental health and social impacts equation when you’re thinking about nuclear shutdowns, where the conversation often focuses on local risks due to accidents and mining or long-term climate impacts,” says lead author Lyssa Freese, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

    “In the debate over keeping nuclear power plants open, air quality has not been a focus of that discussion,” adds study author Noelle Selin, a professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and EAPS. “What we found was that air pollution from fossil fuel plants is so damaging, that anything that increases it, such as a nuclear shutdown, is going to have substantial impacts, and for some people more than others.”

    The study’s MIT-affiliated co-authors also include Principal Research Scientist Sebastian Eastham and Guillaume Chossière SM ’17, PhD ’20, along with Alan Jenn of the University of California at Davis.

    Future phase-outs

    When nuclear power plants have closed in the past, fossil fuel use increased in response. In 1985, the closure of reactors in Tennessee Valley prompted a spike in coal use, while the 2012 shutdown of a plant in California led to an increase in natural gas. In Germany, where nuclear power has almost completely been phased out, coal-fired power increased initially to fill the gap.

    Noting these trends, the MIT team wondered how the U.S. energy grid would respond if nuclear power were completely phased out.

    “We wanted to think about what future changes were expected in the energy grid,” Freese says. “We knew that coal use was declining, and there was a lot of work already looking at the impact of what that would have on air quality. But no one had looked at air quality and nuclear power, which we also noticed was on the decline.”

    In the new study, the team used an energy grid dispatch model developed by Jenn to assess how the U.S. energy system would respond to a shutdown of nuclear power. The model simulates the production of every power plant in the country and runs continuously to estimate, hour by hour, the energy demands in 64 regions across the country.

    Much like the way the actual energy market operates, the model chooses to turn a plant’s production up or down based on cost: Plants producing the cheapest energy at any given time are given priority to supply the grid over more costly energy sources.

    The team fed the model available data on each plant’s changing emissions and energy costs throughout an entire year. They then ran the model under different scenarios, including: an energy grid with no nuclear power, a baseline grid similar to today’s that includes nuclear power, and a grid with no nuclear power that also incorporates the additional renewable sources that are expected to be added by 2030.

    They combined each simulation with an atmospheric chemistry model to simulate how each plant’s various emissions travel around the country and to overlay these tracks onto maps of population density. For populations in the path of pollution, they calculated the risk of premature death based on their degree of exposure.

    System response

    Play video

    Courtesy of the researchers, edited by MIT News

    Their analysis showed a clear pattern: Without nuclear power, air pollution worsened in general, mainly affecting regions in the East Coast, where nuclear power plants are mostly concentrated. Without those plants, the team observed an uptick in production from coal and gas plants, resulting in 5,200 pollution-related deaths across the country, compared to the baseline scenario.

    They also calculated that more people are also likely to die prematurely due to climate impacts from the increase in carbon dioxide emissions, as the grid compensates for nuclear power’s absence. The climate-related effects from this additional influx of carbon dioxide could lead to 160,000 additional deaths over the next century.

    “We need to be thoughtful about how we’re retiring nuclear power plants if we are trying to think about them as part of an energy system,” Freese says. “Shutting down something that doesn’t have direct emissions itself can still lead to increases in emissions, because the grid system will respond.”

    “This might mean that we need to deploy even more renewables, in order to fill the hole left by nuclear, which is essentially a zero-emissions energy source,” Selin adds. “Otherwise we will have a reduction in air quality that we weren’t necessarily counting on.”

    This study was supported, in part, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More

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    Minimizing electric vehicles’ impact on the grid

    National and global plans to combat climate change include increasing the electrification of vehicles and the percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources. But some projections show that these trends might require costly new power plants to meet peak loads in the evening when cars are plugged in after the workday. What’s more, overproduction of power from solar farms during the daytime can waste valuable electricity-generation capacity.

    In a new study, MIT researchers have found that it’s possible to mitigate or eliminate both these problems without the need for advanced technological systems of connected devices and real-time communications, which could add to costs and energy consumption. Instead, encouraging the placing of charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) in strategic ways, rather than letting them spring up anywhere, and setting up systems to initiate car charging at delayed times could potentially make all the difference.

    The study, published today in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science, is by Zachary Needell PhD ’22, postdoc Wei Wei, and Professor Jessika Trancik of MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

    In their analysis, the researchers used data collected in two sample cities: New York and Dallas. The data were gathered from, among other sources, anonymized records collected via onboard devices in vehicles, and surveys that carefully sampled populations to cover variable travel behaviors. They showed the times of day cars are used and for how long, and how much time the vehicles spend at different kinds of locations — residential, workplace, shopping, entertainment, and so on.

    The findings, Trancik says, “round out the picture on the question of where to strategically locate chargers to support EV adoption and also support the power grid.”

    Better availability of charging stations at workplaces, for example, could help to soak up peak power being produced at midday from solar power installations, which might otherwise go to waste because it is not economical to build enough battery or other storage capacity to save all of it for later in the day. Thus, workplace chargers can provide a double benefit, helping to reduce the evening peak load from EV charging and also making use of the solar electricity output.

    These effects on the electric power system are considerable, especially if the system must meet charging demands for a fully electrified personal vehicle fleet alongside the peaks in other demand for electricity, for example on the hottest days of the year. If unmitigated, the evening peaks in EV charging demand could require installing upwards of 20 percent more power-generation capacity, the researchers say.

    “Slow workplace charging can be more preferable than faster charging technologies for enabling a higher utilization of midday solar resources,” Wei says.

    Meanwhile, with delayed home charging, each EV charger could be accompanied by a simple app to estimate the time to begin its charging cycle so that it charges just before it is needed the next day. Unlike other proposals that require a centralized control of the charging cycle, such a system needs no interdevice communication of information and can be preprogrammed — and can accomplish a major shift in the demand on the grid caused by increasing EV penetration. The reason it works so well, Trancik says, is because of the natural variability in driving behaviors across individuals in a population.

    By “home charging,” the researchers aren’t only referring to charging equipment in individual garages or parking areas. They say it’s essential to make charging stations available in on-street parking locations and in apartment building parking areas as well.

    Trancik says the findings highlight the value of combining the two measures — workplace charging and delayed home charging — to reduce peak electricity demand, store solar energy, and conveniently meet drivers’ charging needs on all days. As the team showed in earlier research, home charging can be a particularly effective component of a strategic package of charging locations; workplace charging, they have found, is not a good substitute for home charging for meeting drivers’ needs on all days.

    “Given that there’s a lot of public money going into expanding charging infrastructure,” Trancik says, “how do you incentivize the location such that this is going to be efficiently and effectively integrated into the power grid without requiring a lot of additional capacity expansion?” This research offers some guidance to policymakers on where to focus rules and incentives.

    “I think one of the fascinating things about these findings is that by being strategic you can avoid a lot of physical infrastructure that you would otherwise need,” she adds. “Your electric vehicles can displace some of the need for stationary energy storage, and you can also avoid the need to expand the capacity of power plants, by thinking about the location of chargers as a tool for managing demands — where they occur and when they occur.”

    Delayed home charging could make a surprising amount of difference, the team found. “It’s basically incentivizing people to begin charging later. This can be something that is preprogrammed into your chargers. You incentivize people to delay the onset of charging by a bit, so that not everyone is charging at the same time, and that smooths out the peak.”

    Such a program would require some advance commitment on the part of participants. “You would need to have enough people committing to this program in advance to avoid the investment in physical infrastructure,” Trancik says. “So, if you have enough people signing up, then you essentially don’t have to build those extra power plants.”

    It’s not a given that all of this would line up just right, and putting in place the right mix of incentives would be crucial. “If you want electric vehicles to act as an effective storage technology for solar energy, then the [EV] market needs to grow fast enough in order to be able to do that,” Trancik says.

    To best use public funds to help make that happen, she says, “you can incentivize charging installations, which would go through ideally a competitive process — in the private sector, you would have companies bidding for different projects, but you can incentivize installing charging at workplaces, for example, to tap into both of these benefits.” Chargers people can access when they are parked near their residences are also important, Trancik adds, but for other reasons. Home charging is one of the ways to meet charging needs while avoiding inconvenient disruptions to people’s travel activities.

    The study was supported by the European Regional Development Fund Operational Program for Competitiveness and Internationalization, the Lisbon Portugal Regional Operation Program, and the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology. More