Building Momentum and Advancing Ideas Toward Scalable Solutions to Climate Change
January 22, 2024
At the MIT Climate & Sustainability Consortium’s recent member meetings, member companies came together with the MIT community to share and amplify their brainpower and drive toward specificity when it comes to developing scalable solutions to climate change. This two-day event, held at MIT in November 2023, exemplified the energy, ideas, and innovations that can be sparked when companies, across sectors, and academia join forces.
“We can all agree that MIT has an amazing concentration of brilliant minds and ready hands – but we can’t get where we need to go without the systems-level impact that only industry can provide,” said MIT President Sally Kornbluth in her opening remarks at the event. “Academia and industry need to act collectively to deliver solutions that will dramatically accelerate progress against climate change, strengthen the economy and create new jobs.”
This collective action is what the MCSC is helping to facilitate. The member meetings are one representation of the MCSC’s larger mission of forming academia industry collaborations to vastly accelerate the implementation of large-scale, real-world solutions to help meet global climate and sustainability challenges.
“This is an incredibly exciting time for climate and sustainability research at MIT,” added Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering, Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and chair of the MCSC. “The MCSC, an MIT-wide effort, is positioned to play a pivotal role to develop solutions for a more sustainable future.”
The MCSC member meetings provided a unique opportunity for its companies and the MIT community to soak up and engage with strategic programming, crafted by the MCSC’s postdoctoral Impact Fellows to be relevant to attendees’ interests and needs. This programming was the jumping-off point for conversations about shared challenges, best practices, and learnings from various industries – making way for solutions and next steps to emerge. One unifying theme throughout all of the diverse topics was the power of working together, sharing resources, and harnessing data to make sharper decisions that lead to widespread adoption and implementation of climate strategies.
Joining forces with MITEI to explore opportunities in maritime shipping and computing
The event started with two sessions held in conjunction with the MIT Energy Initiative Future Energy Systems Center featuring speakers from MIT, industry, and government. The first session on decarbonizing maritime shipping, an industry that relies on high-density fuels to go long distances and has the potential to increase its portion of global emissions to 10%, featured different perspectives along the value chain. Speakers included Keith Dawe, Head of Decarbonization and Energy Transition, Cargill Ocean Transportation; William H. Green, Hoyt C. Hottel Professor of Chemical Engineering, MIT; Florian Gruschwitz, Business Development Manager, MAN Energy Systems; Rohemir Ramirez Ballagas, Foreign Affairs Officer, U.S. Department of State; Anshul Tuteja, AVP Global Fleet Optimization, Royal Caribbean; and Florian Allroggen, Executive Director, MIT AeroAstro. These experts highlighted the incredibly vast scale of what is needed for positive change to occur and explored the pros and cons of alternative fuels such as methanol and ammonia. Utilizing taxes and subsidies to close price gaps, converting the International Maritime Organization GHG Strategy to policy, incorporating data and digitization to increase efficiency and assess fuel interventions, as well as simply more time, were cited as some foundations of moving forward effectively.
The second session dove into opportunities to decarbonize computing, particularly large data centers. Noman Bashir, MCSC Impact Fellow, outlined the evidence for significant growth in computing, as well as the factors that contribute to the operational and embodied carbon footprint of computing. Sydney Sroka, MCSC Research Scientist, moderated the session and helped ignite a lively conversation that highlighted how the demand for computing is rapidly growing, which exacerbates existing weak points in power systems and electronics supply chains. Until there are incentives to reduce demand, data centers are not going to stop needing and driving more energy use. Speakers included Adam Belay, Associate Professor, Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, MIT; James Cuff, Executive Director of the Office of Research Computing and Data, MIT; and Pritish Parida, Research Staff Member, IBM. They centered their comments on the categories where reduction might be achieved, the practical considerations when running a data center, opportunities in algorithmic efficiency gains, and the contrast between the significant paradigm shifts that may come from new computing technology and the challenges of deployment given the rate of such shifts.
Navigating the transition to a decarbonized future
On the second day of the member meetings, a panel with representation from Liberty Mutual Insurance and MIT, moderated by Sydney Sroka, sparked discussion around the physical and transition risks of climate change.
“The transition to a decarbonized future requires a strategy that accounts for the larger systems that a company operates within, as opposed to focusing primarily on factors within a company’s control and fulfilling individual reporting obligations,” said Rakhi Kumar, Senior Vice President at Liberty Mutual Insurance, who also provided an overview of transition risk, made connections to historical examples of disruptive transition, and discussed how climate impacts bring systems-level challenges to the forefront.
Highlighting an opportunity to improve the risk assessment tools available to decision-makers, Victoria Yanco, Sustainability Consultant at Liberty Mutual Insurance, spoke about how current risk models and scenario analyses are used to take a systems-level approach to transition risk planning. These models often target policy rather than business strategy applications, making the results better suited for indicating broad trends than for predicting specific future states of affairs.
“There is a significant gap between the way the economy currently assesses the risk of businesses’ operations and the risk of the same operations in a world that is heading towards net-zero,” added Sergey Paltsev, Deputy Director, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at MIT, who closed out the session by describing specific risk drivers and how MIT researchers are forecasting their impacts on businesses.
Making social sustainability central to strategy
As organizations continue to strategize and plan for a decarbonized future, the relevant social dimensions must be embedded into supply chains and decision-making. But while setting corporate social sustainability goals is productive, the implementation aspect is not always clear. These sentiments were central to the session about the future of social sustainability led by Laura Frye-Levine and Jungwoo Chun, MCSC Impact Fellows.
“When it comes to achieving a more sustainable cocoa sector, there are multiple and interconnected issues and factors at play, which means that action in any one area is likely to influence another,” Rupert Day, Farmer Livelihood Advisor at Cargill, explained. “This makes it essential to take a comprehensive, holistic approach to decision-making that considers all relevant information and possible outcomes before launching into any new or adjusted initiatives. In this way, we ensure that each of our actions will have a concrete, positive impact.”
The panel also featured Dylan Mayer, Sustainability Strategy Manager at Verizon; Marina Rakhlin, Program Director, Partnerships and ESG Strategy at IBM; and Indalecio Perez, Head of Sustainability Engagement at Inditex. They all shared ideas on how companies might effectively prioritize the social dimensions of their climate strategies, including implementing large-scale employee engagement programs focused on social sustainability and justice and taking advantage of partnerships to amplify impact. After hearing about the perspectives of the speakers, members joined focused conversations with experts on a range of topics in social sustainability, such as climate justice implications for corporate sustainability, identifying community needs for climate adaptation using bottom-up data collection, and reputational risk.
Janelle Knox-Hayes, Professor of Economic Geography and Planning at MIT, along with Jungwoo Chun, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, led an interactive simulation exercise applying the Equitable Resilience Framework, where participants explored the issues and trade-offs involved in the development of offshore wind energy projects. Participants formed two groups, one representing the community and one representing development, and through role-playing, they brainstormed concerns, ideas, and solutions from different perspectives. Each group had an opportunity to share their thoughts, and then work together to come to an agreement that worked for everyone – underlining the importance of community, academic, industry, and policy stakeholders collaboration to achieve equitable resilience solutions.
Adding another perspective on the more human and behavioral side of sustainability was the session focused on changing behavior across sustainable finance, organized by Aneil Tripathy and Poushali Maji, MCSC Impact Fellows. Florian Berg, Jaime Oliver Huidobro, and Erez Yoeli of MIT School of Management presented a range of research and perspectives on sustainable finance, while Jonah Smith, Vice President of Environmental Social Governance Strategy & Programs at IBM, concluded the session with a description of his experience working on ESG in corporations.
“From my corporate perspective, it is clear that effective sustainable finance metrics and governance require the collaboration of a range of organizations, across academia, NGOs, government, companies and civil society more broadly,” said Smith. His discussion then explored the implications of regulations and changing ESG public sentiment, along with the lag in financial decision-making and its impact on corporate behavior. This topic is the foundation of some new work emerging in the MCSC, in collaboration with the MIT Sloan Aggregate Confusion Project, focused on making sense of corporate responses to changing regulations and sentiment around ESG ratings.
Lowering barriers to decarbonized transportation
Industry experts in logistics services and infrastructure provision convened to discuss key barriers to transitioning trucking fleets to electrification and low-carbon fuels, and opportunities for stakeholders to pool resources to lower the barriers to decarbonized transportation. This session highlighted the major challenges, opportunities, and open questions around this large topic – and generated a rich set of ideas for how academia can support industry stakeholders in identifying and realizing fleet transition and pooling opportunities.
“We are interested in bringing a broad array of technologies together for customers to optimize their operations – from fleet and driver management solutions to end-to-end decarbonization support across EV, CNG/RNG, and H2,” said Nate Valaik, Director, Strategy & Business Development, Alternative Energy & Sustainable Fleets at Vontier. “From an infrastructure pooling perspective, we are thinking about how we can get people in the same room to talk about the benefits of collective utilization. We need a diverse set of stakeholders to collaborate on complex issues; as we build relationships and have conversations, this will happen organically.”
Another opportunity is data-sharing between different companies to identify and build out strategies to move forward. As Dan Callahan, Head of Quality, Health, Safety, Environmental and Fleet Safety at CEVA Logistics North America said, “We have the data, and we are interested in breaking down silos by sharing it, but there is no easy way to share it.” This presents an opportunity for a company or third-party consultant to help sort and share the data.
Moderated by Danika MacDonell, MCSC Impact Fellow, the panel, which also included Craig Harper, former Chief Sustainability Officer and Executive Vice President, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc.; Shannon Radulovic, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager at CEVA Logistics North America; and Robert Solimani, Chief Sustainability Officer and Executive Vice President at Stevens Transport, generated many ideas for how academic research can support fleet transition and pooling efforts.
Harnessing the opportunities of data to improve materials circularity
Data continued to be a central theme to the conversation as attendees explored the importance of having high-quality data on materials flows in creating a circular economy. This session, moderated by Evan Coleman and Poushali Maji, MCSC Impact Fellows, explored using materials passports as a data traceability mechanism in circular supply chains for enhanced resource recovery and optimal materials development. Presenters included Inge Donovan, Jenna Schnitzler, and Hazel Mann of MIT Architecture, who talked about Pixelframe, a structural system designed for disassembly and reuse in a circular building economy. From the industry side, Sophie Wu, Regional Head, Geocycle North America, Holcim, spoke about using waste as resources in the construction materials supply chain. Antoine Allanore, Professor of Metallurgy and the Heather N. Lechtman Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, added an academic and research lens, sharing his knowledge about valorizing mixed waste streams.
Conserving data throughout material loops, through material passports or other traceability mechanisms, can create value both at recycler and producer/manufacturer level downstream and upstream in a supply chain in two ways: increasing the efficiency of material recovery through data collection and using material recovery data to optimize materials for circularity.
During this session, attendees had the opportunity to play the Circular Distribution Game, created by Coleman and Maji, which highlighted the opportunities in data conservation and collection along supply chains.
Incorporating biodiversity into corporate goal setting
One of the day’s closing workshops was about opportunities to drive measurably positive outcomes in biodiversity protection and recovery. Since biodiversity encompasses many research areas and is defined differently across scientific disciplines, collecting data is difficult to scale and requires careful design and data interpretation.
“Biodiversity data metrics are very limited,” said Sara Beery, Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science’s Faculty of AI and Decision Making and CSAIL at MIT. “The question to answer then becomes: how do we productively use and form conclusions from small data sets?”
As Evan Fricke, Research Scientist in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, explored, the Global Biodiversity Framework presents opportunity by identifying actions that can be taken for biodiversity preservation, including conservation efforts such as land protection or protection of migratory routes, tool development to support decision making, and supporting ongoing research on effective practices.
Other panelists included Norhan Bayomi, Postdoctoral Fellow, MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative; Meghan Blumstein, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT; and Amanda Bischoff, MCSC Impact Fellow, as moderator. Throughout the session, MCSC member companies expressed that prioritization is a major factor in their decision-making regarding biodiversity actions. “There is still a lot of progress to be made with academics interacting with companies and conducting pilot studies to show what’s possible,” concluded Beery. “Allowing companies to see some on the ground research before they invest or commit to anything might help them prioritize biodiversity.”