MIT announces new climate action plan for the next decade
Plan increases opportunities for student involvement and introduces new organizational structure
MIT’s second climate action plan, titled Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade, was announced by President L. Rafael Reif, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, Associate Provost Richard Lester, Dean of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan, and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Glen Shor in a May 12 email to MIT community members.
The email writes that MIT is in a position “to set a standard of climate leadership” and that with the plan, it commits to “a coordinated set of leadership actions to spur innovation, accelerate action, and deliver impact.”
The development of the new plan was led by Zuber, Lester, and Chandrakasan, who also engaged with community members and solicited feedback for the plan through various meetings, engagement sessions, climate symposia, and fora with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and external partners.
The email describes the new plan as a “living document” that may be updated with continued feedback from the community, who can view the plan and climate initiatives at the Climate Portal and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zuber said in an interview with The Tech that MIT feels “that it’s our responsibility and duty to try to make a genuine difference, and to do that, we’re going to need the help of everyone in the community.”
According to the email, the “broad” challenge faced by the plan is finding “affordable, equitable ways to bring every sector of the global economy to net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.” The email writes that this challenge can be addressed by pursuing two strategies: to go “as far… [and] as fast as we can” with the tools the world currently has and to “invest in, invent, and deploy new tools.” The plan also includes an additional strategy of educating and empowering the next generation, “who are inheriting” the problem of climate change and “must ultimately solve it.”
Zuber told The Tech that the new plan is “way more ambitious” than the Institute’s first five-year climate action plan from 2015.
The new climate action plan is guided by ten themes and goals. The themes include focusing on the centrality of science through continued research; working toward the need to innovate and scale via technological breakthroughs; attending to issues of fairness and justice across global communities; recognizing the need for engagement by collaborating with government, industry, and academic partners; and more strongly coordinating the work of units at the Institute.
Zuber told The Tech that during work on the first climate action plan, she observed that “people at MIT have different skills, talents, and interests, and they want to contribute in ways that align with those capabilities,” resulting in a “1,000 flowers growing model” of activities surrounding the plan. She recognized that the Institute needed to coordinate the activities “so that they are greater than the sum of the parts.”
In order to accomplish this, MIT will introduce a new organizational structure in the plan that will “help amplify MIT’s voice, increase involvement across the community, and improve accountability,” Zuber said.
Thus, the plan introduces two new cross-Institute committees — the Climate Steering Committee and Climate Nucleus — that will replace the Climate Action Advisory Committee and facilitate the coordination of climate-related work across the Institute.
The steering committee, currently consisting of Zuber, Lester, Shor, and the deans of MIT’s five schools and the College of Computing, will provide “ongoing strategic planning and oversight, set priorities, commit resources, coordinate the efforts of operating units, evaluate progress, and ensure Institute-level accountability for the climate plan.” The committee will likely meet six times each year.
The Climate Nucleus’s membership will be decided by the steering committee and will consist of department, lab, and center representatives who have significant responsibilities under the plan. The members will manage and implement elements of the plan, which will involve program planning, budgeting, staffing, fundraising, external and internal engagement and program-level accountability. The Nucleus will likely meet monthly during the academic year and provide an annual progress report on the plan.
Zuber told The Tech that each element of the new plan had a “responsible person or organization at MIT who agreed to step up and be responsible for part of it” and that the annual report will be posted to the Climate Portal as a “definite plan for accountability” for the community to follow the Institute’s progress.
Another major theme of the plan is to “educate future generations of leaders, problem solvers, and citizens.”
Work towards this theme described in the plan includes establishing a Climate Education Working Group consisting of student and faculty who will assess curricular and co-curricular offerings and “develop recommendations for increasing participation in and strengthening climate-related education at MIT.”
Zuber told The Tech that the plan was “designed with the idea of trying to broaden participation from the MIT community” and that “for any student who wants to get involved, there’s going to be an opportunity for them to get involved.”
The MIT Technology and Policy Program will coordinate the creation of a Sustainability Policy Hub which will provide opportunities for students to assist and learn from sustainability policy makers, such as through climate policy internships in Washington, D.C. or a visitors program to invite policy leaders to campus.
MIT will also build on the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program to make climate or energy-related undergraduate research opportunities available to any undergraduate who wants one.
The new plan continues the work of the first plan by introducing climate and sustainability topics to courses, especially to General Institute Requirements and design-related courses.
Zuber told The Tech that for design courses, students will be taught about “using sustainable materials” and the courses “will build sustainability as a fundamental principle in design.”
Additionally, MIT will include students and postdoctoral scholars in its Council on the Uncertain Future, organize another series of climate symposia, and educate high school audiences about climate changes by developing a science-based climate curriculum in the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research.
MIT will also continue to “tell the science-based climate story to the world” by sending delegations of its community members to the United Nation’s annual Conference of the Parties and increasing the audience of its publicly available Climate Primer, TILclimate podcast, Climate Portal, and online course offerings.
The plan describes efforts to reduce MIT’s own climate impacts as well, writing that MIT “remains on track to meet or exceed its goal from the 2015 plan to reduce its net carbon emissions by 32% by 2030.”
With a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2026, the Institute will initially reduce emissions via “new large-scale off-campus renewable energy, storage, and infrastructure projects.” MIT is “actively collaborating” with other universities and governments for this transition.
By achieving this goal, MIT will also be making “sustainable energy supplies and facilities more available nationwide” and “demonstrating their feasibility.”
MIT further intends to completely eliminate direct emissions by 2050, which will require “significant advances in carbon-reducing technologies and a decarbonized electrical grid in New England.” Specific steps that MIT is committing to for on-campus decarbonization are purchasing only zero-emission light-duty vehicles for its future fleets, converting campus shuttle buses to zero-emission vehicles by 2026, increasing campus car-charging stations by at least 300% by 2026, and increasing the capacity of on-campus renewable energy installations by at least 500% by 2026.
MIT will also establish a Carbon Footprint Working Group of faculty, staff, students, and postdoctoral scholars, which will develop a “roadmap” for decarbonization by 2050. Some initial priority commitments for the working group include working on a carbon offset strategy for MIT-sponsored travel and a quantitative set of food, water, and waste systems goals; evaluating MIT’s greenhouse gas portfolio; advancing climate resiliency plans and mitigation strategies; exploring possibilities to reduce campus energy consumption using artificial intelligence; and encouraging department, labs, and centers to develop their own sustainability plans.
Zuber told The Tech that “leadership at the College of Computing is very excited about being involved in the plan and are going to be looking for ways that computing can add to sustainability.” An idea currently being considered is using artificial intelligence to optimize heating and cooling systems on campus. Additionally, Zuber said that complex climate models will require “computing advances” and “algorithmic advances to handle different time steps and different spatial scales.”
The MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo) will manage MIT’s endowment in “the fight against climate change” by providing resources to support the activities of MIT faculty, staff, and students. MIT will work to create a more sustainable investing portfolio by posting MIT’s environmental, social, and governance framework to MITIMCo’s website; performing an analysis of how to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 in its portfolio; offsetting the carbon footprint of the new Volpe development in Kendall Square; and actively participating in Climate Action 100+, where investors engage with major companies toward the goal of net-zero emissions.
Zuber told The Tech that MIT chose not to include divesting from fossil fuel companies in the new plan because fossil fuel stocks and companies “provide a critical product on which the operation depends,” and it seemed that divestment would not “accelerate progress towards decarbonization.”
Zuber added that in the plan, “the only practical way to decarbonize the global energy economy is to work with the people who run the current energy economy,” and “being at odds with them would be counterproductive” since the Institute is “in a better position to make progress by working with them.”
The plan also describes initiatives to “inform the work of governments and leverage their power to accelerate progress.”
These initiatives include establishing a Climate Policy Working Group of faculty members engaged in policy-related climate research and helping them work with federal, state, and local policy-making officials. Additionally, MIT will host climate and energy seminars for congressional staff.
Zuber, who currently serves in the U.S. government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, told The Tech that the office will be “setting the research agenda for climate and clean energy” in the U.S. and “recommend policies that will maximize action and encourage broader adoption.”
The plan also includes conducting new research on strengthening corporations’ climate-related financial disclosures, developing a series of case studies on companies that have transitioned to decarbonized, more-sustainable operations, and expanding the reach of its climate and energy modeling tools.
The Institute will additionally continue its work addressing socioeconomic challenges faced due to climate change and associated with the transition to a low-carbon economy for communities most affected and for the developing world.
In order to “spark, foster, and speed adoption of important innovations,” the new plan intends to advance the Climate Grand Challenges, announced in July 2020, wherein faculty members propose, research, and implement solutions to climate-related problems.
Additionally, the plan will continue to expand MIT’s Climate and Sustainability Consortium, announced in January 2021 and consisting of industry partners that are leaders in their sectors. Through the consortium, member companies will work with MIT researchers to develop and deploy climate solutions in production processes, supply chains, and service models.
The MIT Energy Initiative is launching its Future Energy Systems Center, which will participate in interdisciplinary research on energy and serve as “a single point of entry to the energy research ecosystem at MIT for energy-related firms.”
MIT will also hire at least 20 faculty members with a climate and sustainability focus over the next five years, establish a “mid-career ignition grant” for current faculty working in climate change or clean energy fields, and add “up to 100” new Climate and Sustainability Fellows as graduate and postdoctoral students.