Advisory committee, ethics forum, carbon neutrality among enacted elements of Climate Action Plan

Spearheading efforts to combat climate change on MIT’s campus and worldwide, the Office of the Vice President for Research and other departments are enacting components of the Plan for Action on Climate Change released last October and revised in March.

These include the formation of an advisory committee and an upcoming ethics forum, and the creation of a “living lab on campus energy usage” to track progress toward achieving carbon neutrality.

The plan was originally announced last October and updated in March after negotiations with student group Fossil Free MIT.

Maria Zuber, Vice President for Research, said that most of the feedback on the original plan was positive. In fact, complaints that MIT was wasting resources on combating climate change actually outnumbered protests that the plan was insufficient.

The most public criticism came from FFMIT, whose demands for divestment have been rejected.

Enacting the plan, Zuber said, will be very “human intensive,” and raising more money will be necessary to fund the outlined initiatives.

Asked if the plan will benefit from any portion of the $5 billion that MIT hopes to raise through its Campaign for a Better World, Zuber said that funds will definitely be “going to the health of the planet.”

Zuber’s team is working in conjunction with the Office of Sustainability, the Environmental Solutions Initiative, and various other campus organizations.

Zuber spoke to The Tech on Monday about MIT’s progress toward fulfilling this plan, in particular the goals outlined in the March updates to the climate plan.

Advisory committee to be composed of members from all pockets of MIT Community

This past spring, Zuber created an advisory committee for the plan, comprising 20 members.

The committee plans to meet monthly. Beyond advising, it is tasked with coming up with new ideas to facilitate the plan.

Members include the heads of ESI, MIT Energy Initiative, and the Climate Colab, as well as two each of grad students, undergrads, postdocs, and alumni. Additionally, there are three MIT Corporation members and one representative from FFMIT, as was promised to them in March following negotiations.

In March, Zuber’s team approached the Undergraduate Association’s Sustainability Committee, the GSC’s Sustainability Subcommittee, and FFMIT to help them “solicit statements of interest from students who wanted to be considered for the CAAC,” Tom Kiley, senior advisor to Zuber, said. Students who submitted statements then had to explain to the VPR office why they were interested in joining, and the representatives were selected from among this group.

Zuber to convene forum on ethics of climate issues.

The forum will take place Nov. 17.

The topics under discussion were determined by FFMIT students with input from faculty of the philosophy department, and include subjects such as individual responsibilities in promoting sustainability.

“Everyone [in the MIT community] I talked to,” Zuber said, “believes that climate change is a serious issue.”

MIT aims to reach carbon neutrality on campus ASAP, has set minimum goal of 32 percent reduction by 2030

To quantify and keep track of progress made toward reducing carbon emissions, the Office of Sustainability will be setting up a living lab on campus energy usage. They have also teamed up with Zuber and faculty from EAPS to analyze campus climate resiliency in the face of possible flooding and stormwater surges.

Out of all the provisions in the plan, establishing low-carbon energy centers is coming to fruition the fastest, Zuber said.

These centers bring together cross-disciplinary teams to work toward solving the energy crisis. The centers for solar and nuclear research were established first.

“In the first year... the focus has been on developing the structure of the centers, solidifying areas of research, and beginning to recruit members,” Kiley said.

For five of the eight planned centers, co-directors have already been named: solar; materials for energy and extreme environments; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; energy storage; and energy bioscience all have two appointed directors. Three more centers each have one director appointed thus far.

The biggest barrier for global climate action, Zuber said, could be political rather than technological -- though not so much from within MIT, she said.

“You gotta take care of your own house,” she said, adding that one of the most important aspects of the plan is the fact that MIT made a stand for the significance of climate issues.

“We don’t want to be alarmist,” she said, adding that “we have to be realistic” and cannot claim success just from keeping temperature change below 2C, as stipulated in the multilateral Paris climate change agreement issued last fall.

Zuber and advisory committee to develop guidelines for engagement with industry, government

MIT recently joined the Carbon Pricing Leadership “in response to the community’s expressed opinion,” Zuber said.

MIT and Yale are the only two unviersity members in this organization, which aims to hold accountable those responsible for the negative externalities of carbon emissions.

At the upcoming SOLVE conference, Zuber said, one of the questions that will be considered is how new technology such as bitcoin can be used in carbon pricing.

General Electric sent department heads to MITEI to be updated on the state of actions taken to address climate change, and has committed $7.5 million over a five-year period to cooperating with MITEI on tackling the issue.

Earlier this year, GE moved its headquarters to Boston to “become part of the community and recruit talented students,” Zuber said.

Other goals moving forward

To measure whether their efforts are having an impact,  Zuber and her team will use a combination of evaluation standards to monitor the success of the many programs and initiatives.

For research initiatives, she said, they will use the “typical metrics” of publications and citations.

For other programs, she will ask the advisory committee to consider the question of “what would have happened if [they] hadn’t initiated” the plan.

Of  interest to students may be the new Minor in Environment & Sustainability, planned for launch next fall.

The Alumni Fund has fully funded ESI’s development of the minor, Zuber said.

In addition to the minor, the ESI has offered “packaged themes” to GIR lecturers, who can then incorporate modular environmental topics into their curriculums.

Next month is the anniversary of the plan. As stated in the plan, Zuber will release an official progress update during that time.