Last summer brought a glimmer of hope in the ongoing buzz of concern over Earth’s climate. Scientists at MIT and elsewhere announced they had identified the “first fingerprints of healing” of the Antarctic ozone layer. Led by Susan Solomon, MIT’s Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science, the team compared ozone hole measurements from 15 consecutive Septembers, and found that the hole has shrunk by more than 4 million square kilometers since 2000. The researchers attributed at least half of this recovery to the decline of atmospheric chlorine originating from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a onetime byproduct of aerosol sprays and other consumer products that was widely banned in 1989 when numerous countries signed the Montreal Protocol. In the words of Solomon—who was the first to characterize the conditions under which chlorine depletes ozone, and whose work spurred that historic agreement, “Science was helpful in showing the path, diplomats and countries and industry were incredibly able in charting a pathway out of these molecules, and now we’ve actually seen the planet starting to get better.”
However, there are countless steps still to be taken toward our planet’s health. That’s why MIT’s Plan for Action on Climate Change, released in October 2015, remains more urgent than ever in year two of its five-year scope. The plan positions MIT to play a critical leadership role in the fight against climate change. Its stated goal: “to minimize emission of carbon dioxide, methane, and other global warming agents into the atmosphere, and to devise pathways for adaptation to climate change, through the active involvement of the MIT community, proactively engaged with industry, government, academia, foundations, philanthropists, and the public.”
In October 2016, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, who oversees the plan’s implementation, released a report outlining its progress within five pillars:
- improving understanding of climate change and advancing novel, targeted mitigation and adaptation solutions;
- accelerating progress toward low- and zero-carbon energy technologies;
- educating a new generation of climate, energy, and environmental innovators;
- sharing knowledge about climate change, and learning from others around the world;
- using the MIT community as a test bed for change.
According to Zuber’s 2016 report, outcomes of year one include new rounds of research grants from MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, which is also developing a student minor in environment and sustainability; a new Climate Action Advisory Committee that includes several students and other members of the broader MIT community; and the creation of eight Low-Carbon Energy Centers within the MIT Energy Initiative, each of which is focused on a key technology area for addressing climate change. The centers are actively engaging with industry: companies including Exelon and GE have committed to supporting research through the centers as members.
Following conversations with the student group Fossil Free MIT, Zuber recently noted that a 32% reduction in carbon emissions on campus is a minimum goal, and that the campus will strive to be carbon neutral. According to Office of Sustainability director Julie Newman, carbon reduction is a major consideration in all new campus projects. “It’s becoming integrated into the decision process,” she recently told MIT News. “I don’t think I’ve seen a campus move so quickly to incorporate changes.”