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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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    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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    MIT PhD students honored for their work to solve critical issues in water and food

    In 2017, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) initiated the J-WAFS Fellowship Program for outstanding MIT PhD students working to solve humankind’s water-related challenges. Since then, J-WAFS has awarded 18 fellowships to students who have gone on to create innovations like a pump that can maximize energy efficiency even with changing flow rates, and a low-cost water filter made out of sapwood xylem that has seen real-world use in rural India. Last year, J-WAFS expanded eligibility to students with food-related research. The 2022 fellows included students working on micronutrient deficiency and plastic waste from traditional food packaging materials. 

    Today, J-WAFS has announced the award of the 2023-24 fellowships to Gokul Sampath and Jie Yun. A doctoral student in the Department of Urban Studies and planning, Sampath has been awarded the Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions, which is supported through a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family. Yun, who is in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, received a J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions, which is funded by the J-WAFS Research Affiliate Program. Currently, Xylem, Inc. and GoAigua are J-WAFS’ Research Affiliate companies. A review committee comprised of MIT faculty and staff selected Sampath and Yun from a competitive field of outstanding graduate students working in water and food who were nominated by their faculty advisors. Sampath and Yun will receive one academic semester of funding, along with opportunities for networking and mentoring to advance their research.

    “Both Yun and Sampath have demonstrated excellence in their research,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “They also stood out in their communication skills and their passion to work on issues of agricultural sustainability and resilience and access to safe water. We are so pleased to have them join our inspiring group of J-WAFS fellows,” she adds.

    Using behavioral health strategies to address the arsenic crisis in India and Bangladesh

    Gokul Sampath’s research centers on ways to improve access to safe drinking water in developing countries. A PhD candidate in the International Development Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, his current work examines the issue of arsenic in drinking water sources in India and Bangladesh. In Eastern India, millions of shallow tube wells provide rural households a personal water source that is convenient, free, and mostly safe from cholera. Unfortunately, it is now known that one-in-four of these wells is contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic at levels dangerous to human health. As a result, approximately 40 million people across the region are at elevated risk of cancer, stroke, and heart disease from arsenic consumed through drinking water and cooked food. 

    Since the discovery of arsenic in wells in the late 1980s, governments and nongovernmental organizations have sought to address the problem in rural villages by providing safe community water sources. Yet despite access to safe alternatives, many households still consume water from their contaminated home wells. Sampath’s research seeks to understand the constraints and trade-offs that account for why many villagers don’t collect water from arsenic-safe government wells in the village, even when they know their own wells at home could be contaminated.

    Before coming to MIT, Sampath received a master’s degree in Middle East, South Asian, and African studies from Columbia University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and history from the University of California at Davis. He has long worked on water management in India, beginning in 2015 as a Fulbright scholar studying households’ water source choices in arsenic-affected areas of the state of West Bengal. He also served as a senior research associate with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, where he conducted randomized evaluations of market incentives for groundwater conservation in Gujarat, India. Sampath’s advisor, Bishwapriya Sanyal, the Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning at MIT, says Sampath has shown “remarkable hard work and dedication.” In addition to his classes and research, Sampath taught the department’s undergraduate Introduction to International Development course, for which he received standout evaluations from students.

    This summer, Sampath will travel to India to conduct field work in four arsenic-affected villages in West Bengal to understand how social influence shapes villagers’ choices between arsenic-safe and unsafe water sources. Through longitudinal surveys, he hopes to connect data on the social ties between families in villages and the daily water source choices they make. Exclusionary practices in Indian village communities, especially the segregation of water sources on the basis of caste and religion, has long been suspected to be a barrier to equitable drinking water access in Indian villages. Yet despite this, planners seeking to expand safe water access in diverse Indian villages have rarely considered the way social divisions within communities might be working against their efforts. Sampath hopes to test whether the injunctive norms enabled by caste ties constrain villagers’ ability to choose the safest water source among those shared within the village. When he returns to MIT in the fall, he plans to dive into analyzing his survey data and start work on a publication.

    Understanding plant responses to stress to improve crop drought resistance and yield

    Plants, including crops, play a fundamental role in Earth’s ecosystems through their effects on climate, air quality, and water availability. At the same time, plants grown for agriculture put a burden on the environment as they require energy, irrigation, and chemical inputs. Understanding plant/environment interactions is becoming more and more important as intensifying drought is straining agricultural systems. Jie Yun, a PhD student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is studying plant response to drought stress in the hopes of improving agricultural sustainability and yield under climate change.  Yun’s research focuses on genotype-by-environment interaction (GxE.) This relates to the observation that plant varieties respond to environmental changes differently. The effects of GxE in crop breeding can be exploited because differing environmental responses among varieties enables breeders to select for plants that demonstrate high stress-tolerant genotypes under particular growing conditions. Yun bases her studies on Brachypodium, a model grass species related to wheat, oat, barley, rye, and perennial forage grasses. By experimenting with this species, findings can be directly applied to cereal and forage crop improvement. For the first part of her thesis, Yun collaborated with Professor Caroline Uhler’s group in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. Uhler’s computational tools helped Yun to evaluate gene regulatory networks and how they relate to plant resilience and environmental adaptation. This work will help identify the types of genes and pathways that drive differences in drought stress response among plant varieties.  David Des Marais, the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is Yun’s advisor. He notes, “throughout Jie’s time [at MIT] I have been struck by her intellectual curiosity, verging on fearlessness.” When she’s not mentoring undergraduate students in Des Marais’ lab, Yun is working on the second part of her project: how carbon allocation in plants and growth is affected by soil drying. One result of this work will be to understand which populations of plants harbor the necessary genetic diversity to adapt or acclimate to climate change. Another likely impact is identifying targets for the genetic improvement of crop species to increase crop yields with less water supply. Growing up in China, Yun witnessed environmental issues springing from the development of the steel industry, which caused contamination of rivers in her hometown. On one visit to her aunt’s house in rural China, she learned that water pollution was widespread after noticing wastewater was piped outside of the house into nearby farmland without being treated. These experiences led Yun to study water supply and sewage engineering for her undergraduate degree at Shenyang Jianzhu University. She then went on to complete a master’s program in civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. It was there that Yun discovered a passion for plant-environment interactions; during an independent study on perfluorooctanoic sulfonate, she realized the amazing ability of plants to adapt to environmental changes, toxins, and stresses. Her goal is to continue researching plant and environment interactions and to translate the latest scientific findings into applications that can improve food security. 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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    Helping the cause of environmental resilience

    Haruko Wainwright, the Norman C. Rasmussen Career Development Professor in Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) and assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at MIT, grew up in rural Japan, where many nuclear facilities are located. She remembers worrying about the facilities as a child. Wainwright was only 6 at the time of the Chernobyl accident in 1986, but still recollects it vividly.

    Those early memories have contributed to Wainwright’s determination to research how technologies can mold environmental resilience — the capability of mitigating the consequences of accidents and recovering from contamination.

    Wainwright believes that environmental monitoring can help improve resilience. She co-leads the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Advanced Long-term Environmental Monitoring Systems (ALTEMIS) project, which integrates technologies such as in situ sensors, geophysics, remote sensing, simulations, and artificial intelligence to establish new paradigms for monitoring. The project focuses on soil and groundwater contamination at more than 100 U.S. sites that were used for nuclear weapons production.

    As part of this research, which was featured last year in Environmental Science & Technology Journal, Wainwright is working on a machine learning framework for improving environmental monitoring strategies. She hopes the ALTEMIS project will enable the rapid detection of anomalies while ensuring the stability of residual contamination and waste disposal facilities.

    Childhood in rural Japan

    Even as a child, Wainwright was interested in physics, history, and a variety of other subjects.

    But growing up in a rural area was not ideal for someone interested in STEM. There were no engineers or scientists in the community and no science museums, either. “It was not so cool to be interested in science, and I never talked about my interest with anyone,” Wainwright recalls.

    Television and books were the only door to the world of science. “I did not study English until middle school and I had never been on a plane until college. I sometimes find it miraculous that I am now working in the U.S. and teaching at MIT,” she says.

    As she grew a little older, Wainwright heard a lot of discussions about nuclear facilities in the region and many stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    At the same time, giants like Marie Curie inspired her to pursue science. Nuclear physics was particularly fascinating. “At some point during high school, I started wondering ‘what are radiations, what is radioactivity, what is light,’” she recalls. Reading Richard Feynman’s books and trying to understand quantum mechanics made her want to study physics in college.

    Pursuing research in the United States

    Wainwright pursued an undergraduate degree in engineering physics at Kyoto University. After two research internships in the United States, Wainwright was impressed by the dynamic and fast-paced research environment in the country.

    And compared to Japan, there were “more women in science and engineering,” Wainwright says. She enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 2005, where she completed her doctorate in nuclear engineering with minors in statistics and civil and environmental engineering.

    Before moving to MIT NSE in 2022, Wainwright was a staff scientist in the Earth and Environmental Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). She worked on a variety of topics, including radioactive contamination, climate science, CO2 sequestration, precision agriculture, and watershed science. Her time at LBNL helped Wainwright build a solid foundation about a variety of environmental sensors and monitoring and simulation methods across different earth science disciplines.   

    Empowering communities through monitoring

    One of the most compelling takeaways from Wainwright’s early research: People trust actual measurements and data as facts, even though they are skeptical about models and predictions. “I talked with many people living in Fukushima prefecture. Many of them have dosimeters and measure radiation levels on their own. They might not trust the government, but they trust their own data and are then convinced that it is safe to live there and to eat local food,” Wainwright says.

    She has been impressed that area citizens have gained significant knowledge about radiation and radioactivity through these efforts. “But they are often frustrated that people living far away, in cities like Tokyo, still avoid agricultural products from Fukushima,” Wainwright says.

    Wainwright thinks that data derived from environmental monitoring — through proper visualization and communication — can address misconceptions and fake news that often hurt people near contaminated sites.

    Wainwright is now interested in how these technologies — tested with real data at contaminated sites — can be proactively used for existing and future nuclear facilities “before contamination happens,” as she explored for Nuclear News. “I don’t think it is a good idea to simply dismiss someone’s concern as irrational. Showing credible data has been much more effective to provide assurance. Or a proper monitoring network would enable us to minimize contamination or support emergency responses when accidents happen,” she says.

    Educating communities and students

    Part of empowering communities involves improving their ability to process science-based information. “Potentially hazardous facilities always end up in rural regions; minorities’ concerns are often ignored. The problem is that these regions don’t produce so many scientists or policymakers; they don’t have a voice,” Wainwright says, “I am determined to dedicate my time to improve STEM education in rural regions and to increase the voice in these regions.”

    In a project funded by DOE, she collaborates with the team of researchers at the University of Alaska — the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and Teaching Through Technology program — aiming to improve STEM education for rural and indigenous communities. “Alaska is an important place for energy transition and environmental justice,” Wainwright says. Micro-nuclear reactors can potentially improve the life of rural communities who bear the brunt of the high cost of fuel and transportation. However, there is a distrust of nuclear technologies, stemming from past nuclear weapon testing. At the same time, Alaska has vast metal mining resources for renewable energy and batteries. And there are concerns about environmental contamination from mining and various sources. The teams’ vision is much broader, she points out. “The focus is on broader environmental monitoring technologies and relevant STEM education, addressing general water and air qualities,” Wainwright says.

    The issues also weave into the courses Wainwright teaches at MIT. “I think it is important for engineering students to be aware of environmental justice related to energy waste and mining as well as past contamination events and their recovery,” she says. “It is not OK just to send waste to, or develop mines in, rural regions, which could be a special place for some people. We need to make sure that these developments will not harm the environment and health of local communities.” Wainwright also hopes that this knowledge will ultimately encourage students to think creatively about engineering designs that minimize waste or recycle material.

    The last question of the final quiz of one of her recent courses was: Assume that you store high-level radioactive waste in your “backyard.” What technical strategies would make you and your family feel safe? “All students thought about this question seriously and many suggested excellent points, including those addressing environmental monitoring,” Wainwright says, “that made me hopeful about the future.” More

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    Improving health outcomes by targeting climate and air pollution simultaneously

    Climate policies are typically designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that result from human activities and drive climate change. The largest source of these emissions is the combustion of fossil fuels, which increases atmospheric concentrations of ozone, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and other air pollutants that pose public health risks. While climate policies may result in lower concentrations of health-damaging air pollutants as a “co-benefit” of reducing greenhouse gas emissions-intensive activities, they are most effective at improving health outcomes when deployed in tandem with geographically targeted air-quality regulations.

    Yet the computer models typically used to assess the likely air quality/health impacts of proposed climate/air-quality policy combinations come with drawbacks for decision-makers. Atmospheric chemistry/climate models can produce high-resolution results, but they are expensive and time-consuming to run. Integrated assessment models can produce results for far less time and money, but produce results at global and regional scales, rendering them insufficiently precise to obtain accurate assessments of air quality/health impacts at the subnational level.

    To overcome these drawbacks, a team of researchers at MIT and the University of California at Davis has developed a climate/air-quality policy assessment tool that is both computationally efficient and location-specific. Described in a new study in the journal ACS Environmental Au, the tool could enable users to obtain rapid estimates of combined policy impacts on air quality/health at more than 1,500 locations around the globe — estimates precise enough to reveal the equity implications of proposed policy combinations within a particular region.

    “The modeling approach described in this study may ultimately allow decision-makers to assess the efficacy of multiple combinations of climate and air-quality policies in reducing the health impacts of air pollution, and to design more effective policies,” says Sebastian Eastham, the study’s lead author and a principal research scientist at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “It may also be used to determine if a given policy combination would result in equitable health outcomes across a geographical area of interest.”

    To demonstrate the efficiency and accuracy of their policy assessment tool, the researchers showed that outcomes projected by the tool within seconds were consistent with region-specific results from detailed chemistry/climate models that took days or even months to run. While continuing to refine and develop their approaches, they are now working to embed the new tool into integrated assessment models for direct use by policymakers.

    “As decision-makers implement climate policies in the context of other sustainability challenges like air pollution, efficient modeling tools are important for assessment — and new computational techniques allow us to build faster and more accurate tools to provide credible, relevant information to a broader range of users,” says Noelle Selin, a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and supervising author of the study. “We are looking forward to further developing such approaches, and to working with stakeholders to ensure that they provide timely, targeted and useful assessments.”

    The study was funded, in part, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Biogen Foundation. More

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    A healthy wind

    Nearly 10 percent of today’s electricity in the United States comes from wind power. The renewable energy source benefits climate, air quality, and public health by displacing emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants that would otherwise be produced by fossil-fuel-based power plants.

    A new MIT study finds that the health benefits associated with wind power could more than quadruple if operators prioritized turning down output from the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants when energy from wind is available.

    In the study, published today in Science Advances, researchers analyzed the hourly activity of wind turbines, as well as the reported emissions from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the country, between the years 2011 and 2017. They traced emissions across the country and mapped the pollutants to affected demographic populations. They then calculated the regional air quality and associated health costs to each community.

    The researchers found that in 2014, wind power that was associated with state-level policies improved air quality overall, resulting in $2 billion in health benefits across the country. However, only roughly 30 percent of these health benefits reached disadvantaged communities.

    The team further found that if the electricity industry were to reduce the output of the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants, rather than the most cost-saving plants, in times of wind-generated power, the overall health benefits could quadruple to $8.4 billion nationwide. However, the results would have a similar demographic breakdown.

    “We found that prioritizing health is a great way to maximize benefits in a widespread way across the U.S., which is a very positive thing. But it suggests it’s not going to address disparities,” says study co-author Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “In order to address air pollution disparities, you can’t just focus on the electricity sector or renewables and count on the overall air pollution benefits addressing these real and persistent racial and ethnic disparities. You’ll need to look at other air pollution sources, as well as the underlying systemic factors that determine where plants are sited and where people live.”

    Selin’s co-authors are lead author and former MIT graduate student Minghao Qiu PhD ’21, now at Stanford University, and Corwin Zigler at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Turn-down service

    In their new study, the team looked for patterns between periods of wind power generation and the activity of fossil-fuel-based power plants, to see how regional electricity markets adjusted the output of power plants in response to influxes of renewable energy.

    “One of the technical challenges, and the contribution of this work, is trying to identify which are the power plants that respond to this increasing wind power,” Qiu notes.

    To do so, the researchers compared two historical datasets from the period between 2011 and 2017: an hour-by-hour record of energy output of wind turbines across the country, and a detailed record of emissions measurements from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the U.S. The datasets covered each of seven major regional electricity markets, each market providing energy to one or multiple states.

    “California and New York are each their own market, whereas the New England market covers around seven states, and the Midwest covers more,” Qiu explains. “We also cover about 95 percent of all the wind power in the U.S.”

    In general, they observed that, in times when wind power was available, markets adjusted by essentially scaling back the power output of natural gas and sub-bituminous coal-fired power plants. They noted that the plants that were turned down were likely chosen for cost-saving reasons, as certain plants were less costly to turn down than others.

    The team then used a sophisticated atmospheric chemistry model to simulate the wind patterns and chemical transport of emissions across the country, and determined where and at what concentrations the emissions generated fine particulates and ozone — two pollutants that are known to damage air quality and human health. Finally, the researchers mapped the general demographic populations across the country, based on U.S. census data, and applied a standard epidemiological approach to calculate a population’s health cost as a result of their pollution exposure.

    This analysis revealed that, in the year 2014, a general cost-saving approach to displacing fossil-fuel-based energy in times of wind energy resulted in $2 billion in health benefits, or savings, across the country. A smaller share of these benefits went to disadvantaged populations, such as communities of color and low-income communities, though this disparity varied by state.

    “It’s a more complex story than we initially thought,” Qiu says. “Certain population groups are exposed to a higher level of air pollution, and those would be low-income people and racial minority groups. What we see is, developing wind power could reduce this gap in certain states but further increase it in other states, depending on which fossil-fuel plants are displaced.”

    Tweaking power

    The researchers then examined how the pattern of emissions and the associated health benefits would change if they prioritized turning down different fossil-fuel-based plants in times of wind-generated power. They tweaked the emissions data to reflect several alternative scenarios: one in which the most health-damaging, polluting power plants are turned down first; and two other scenarios in which plants producing the most sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide respectively, are first to reduce their output.

    They found that while each scenario increased health benefits overall, and the first scenario in particular could quadruple health benefits, the original disparity persisted: Communities of color and low-income communities still experienced smaller health benefits than more well-off communities.

    “We got to the end of the road and said, there’s no way we can address this disparity by being smarter in deciding which plants to displace,” Selin says.

    Nevertheless, the study can help identify ways to improve the health of the general population, says Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington.

    “The detailed information provided by the scenarios in this paper can offer a roadmap to electricity-grid operators and to state air-quality regulators regarding which power plants are highly damaging to human health and also are likely to noticeably reduce emissions if wind-generated electricity increases,” says Marshall, who was not involved in the study.

    “One of the things that makes me optimistic about this area is, there’s a lot more attention to environmental justice and equity issues,” Selin concludes. “Our role is to figure out the strategies that are most impactful in addressing those challenges.”

    This work was supported, in part, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and by the National Institutes of Health. More