Low-Carbon, Locally

A county fair in Greene County, Pennsylvania, the heart of Appalachian coal country, isn’t where one might expect to find education on adapting to climate change; yet, in the summer of 2020, the nonprofit Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), in partnership with MIT, presented an interactive game to share important ideas about coal, adaptation, and the local economy.

Greene County is a case-study site for Here and Real, a project launched in October 2018 by MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). The project engages with hydrocarbon-producing regions in the United States to connect local perspectives, values, and priorities with climate-change science and solutions, and works with government and academic leaders in Wyoming to foster conversations about how to lower carbon emissions while maintaining a strong local economy. In addition, Here and Real is collaborating with local newsrooms though the recently launched ESI Journalism Fellowship, which supports and trains journalists in connecting what is happening on the ground locally with the broader reach of climate-change science and solutions.

Read the full article in Spectrum.

Protecting and Enhancing Natural Carbon Sinks

“There is an urgent need for investment, policy, and technological innovations to strengthen both the basic science of natural carbon sequestration and the governance mechanisms that enable local communities to protect and enhance carbon-storing ecosystems,” writes ESI research associate Marcela Angel. Read the full op ed at MIT Solve.

From entrepreneur to climate policy advocate

Whether improving sanitation or addressing climate change, Kiara Wahnschafft is drawn to evidence-based methods for tackling social challenges. Read the full article on MIT News.

Reflections on the First Earth Day, 51 Years Later

by Harvey Michaels, lecturer at MIT Sloan and ESI research collaborator

I was among the many participating in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 who had their lives changed by the experience. As a senior in high school, my class had grown up through the 1960’s turmoil of assassinations, marches, and riots; amid conflicts of war and justice, defiance and mistrust between generations. There was activism and some successes, but still violent and deadly clashes, and the draft.

And during all this, in school we read Silent Spring[1];  learned of rivers on fire from chemical waste; cities in decline from smog; and poisons in our food, water, and air.  We sang about how we paved paradise, and put up parking lots[2]. With this as backdrop, we joined in the first Earth Day as a teach-in and protest of what we saw around us. A decentralized grassroots movement encouraged by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (WI) and his student (HKS) organizer Denis Hayes, in the days before social media, shockingly brought out over 20 million people. The voices were loud, the dissenters were quiet or behind-the-scenes, great music was everywhere, and it was a beautiful day in most places with just a tinge of hope to it.

I was among five students in my high school class to give graduation remarks shortly afterwards, and we split up the things to complain about—my talk on environment was probably the most hopeful, noting that Earth Day left us with resolve as the surprising result, politicians from both parties hopping aboard, and our parents agreed with us for once. And in no time we had new empowering legislation setting up the EPA regulating hazardous wastes, requiring environmental impact statements, and Clean Air and Water Acts requiring mitigation of harmful pollutants.  I came to MIT the next fall, and found inspiration from my faculty in Civil Engineering, Architecture, and Urban Planning as we together learned about the nascent field of environmental studies, and have enjoyed my career and connection with the community that has worked for a better environment in all of the 51 years since 1970, and still do.

There is a long story to the 51 years since the first Earth Day, and many chapters are yet to be written. But the recurring theme is that with activism, we move forward; and when activism grows quiet, we stop. Activism follows from educating ourselves about unsustainable and unhealthy habits we’ve developed: our informed activism brought progress to recycling, resulted in more options for sustainable and healthy food, advanced our energy efficiency and clean energy, and continues now to press us towards a timely and sufficient response to the climate emergency.

In a time now when in-person marching is difficult due to COVID, we can still make known what we care about. Our voices can still be heard when we attend events virtually, write to our leaders and representatives, make good choices in how we consume, and who we vote for.  And our voices, including and especially young voices, can make a big difference —you can look at what is happening right now in local, state, federal, and worldwide governing bodies for clear evidence of that. The recent wave of activism is a very necessary ingredient for our progress and having opportunities to participate professionally and personally in environmental solutions, but the trend is fragile and requires constant nurture. This is the lesson I learned from my first Earth Day, and it still holds true today.


[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (book and New Yorker articles), 1962

[2] Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi (song), 1970

To advance climate action, MIT seeks partnerships beyond industry

Engagement with political, community leaders must be a key part of forthcoming climate action plan, MIT climate leaders say

by Elizabeth Gribkoff

MIT is uniquely positioned to lead the way on the technological advances and policy options needed to address climate change. At the second MIT Climate Engagement Forum of the spring, students, faculty, alumni and staff described the many ways they are engaging an array of organizations to bring real solutions to the climate crisis. Several participants in the discussion offered suggestions from their own personal and professionals experiences on how the Institute can make tackling the climate crisis part of its core mission. “The problems are too big and too interconnected for any institution, even this one, to solve alone,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s Vice President for Research, in opening remarks.

As MIT prepares to release its second Plan for Action on Climate Change this spring, the Office of the Vice President for Research is taking stock of the Institute’s climate progress to-date. The forum, hosted by the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), brought together a diverse group: undergraduates Kiara Wahnshafft ‘21 and Megan Guenther ‘21, graduate students Pervez Agwan and Caroline White-Nockleby, alumni Lucy Milde and Gail Greenwald, MIT Corporation member Diana Chapman-Walsh, Senior Assoc. Dean Kate Trimble, and professors Megan Black, Desiree Plata, Timothy Gutowski and John E. Fernandez.

Supporting students to ensure an “all of MIT” approach

MIT is known for providing students with hands-on training through experiential learning opportunities and internships. Industry leaders are increasingly recognizing the value of having technically skilled employees who can also navigate the messiness of real-world problem-solving, said John Fernández, director of ESI.

“There are a growing number of companies who see that one of the obstacles to a sustainable future for them is they don’t have the workforce to get there,” Fernández said. “I think this is an extraordinary opportunity for us.”

Similarly, Kate Trimble, Director of the Office of Experiential Learning, told forum attendees that sustainability should be the “crown jewel” of an MIT education. “I imagine a world where sustainability really permeates everything that we do, and sustainability is something that students have to go out of their way to avoid as opposed to specially seeking it out,” Trimble said. To do that, MIT needs to provide more opportunities for students to develop “change-making skills,” she said, and reflect on what they’re learning out in the field during internships.

A broad cross-section of the MIT community was represented at the engagement forum. Clockwise from upper left: Senior Associate Dean and Director of the Office of Experiential Learning Kate Trimble, graduate student and President of the MIT Energy Club Pervez Agwan, ESI Director John Fernández, and Prof. Tim Gutowski of the Department of Mechanical Engineering

Timothy Gutowski, an MIT professor of engineering, described the hands-on class he co-teaches called “Solving for carbon neutrality at MIT.” Diving deep into MIT’s own emissions has given him a new perspective on the obstacles to carbon neutrality, both on campus and in the wider world. “Quite frankly, they often turn out to be people—human behavior, how we get along, how we cooperate, how we solve problems.”

Pervez Agwan, an MBA candidate and president of the MIT Energy Club, said that he has found a community of like-minded students working on energy problems. But the Institute should do a better job of instilling in all students that MIT stands for sustainability and climate action. “It’s not because they don’t have an interest,” he said. “They just don’t know what’s happening, and it’s not part of our culture.”

Engaging outside of MIT

One of the pillars of MIT’s 2015 Plan for Action on Climate Change is to better educate government and industry leaders on climate change. Kiara Wahnschafft ‘21 remarked that she worked on Massachusetts’ recent climate bill as part of an internship she did with the Environmental Solution Initiative’s Rapid Response Group. The Institute should scale up those partnerships so that policymakers know to turn to MIT for scientifically-sound climate research. “In my ideal world, MIT is the climate policymaking hub,” she said.

A key component of that will be continually evaluating what successful engagement with partners looks like, said Gail Greenwald ‘75, a board member of Launchpad Venture Group. Similar to how MIT tracks its emissions reductions project, the Institute needs to ensure its partnerships advance decarbonization off-campus. “We don’t have time to rest on our laurels or to be participating in greenwashing,” she said.

At the same time, meeting attendees stressed that MIT should not shy away from working with companies who have less than sterling reputations on climate change. “It doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach,” said Wahnschafft. “We can have a great relationship with a company and do research or some other kind of partnership, and still say we disagree with their current tax bill in Washington.”

Lucy Milde ’20 called on MIT to weave ethical considerations into its work around climate mitigation and adaptation. “I think the MIT education is kind of lacking in the area of making sure that we’re empowering marginalized communities,” and ensuring that graduates carry those considerations forward into their careers, she said.

To do that, the Institute should incorporate community engagement and climate justice into its next plan, stressed Caroline White-Nockleby, a graduate student in MIT’s Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. MIT is “well-positioned” to facilitate energy transition conversations between residents, employers, and local and state officials, she added.

White-Nockleby noted that places facing climate impacts are often dealing with other economic or environmental challenges. For example, in a western Pennsylvania county where she and other Environmental Solutions Initiative interns researched the economic impacts of coal’s decline, residents are primarily concerned about job losses and tax cuts. “There’s a lot of ways to engage communities around climate change by engaging in the values that matter to those communities,” White-Nockleby said.

Facing uncertainty head-on

The forum closed with a panel on how to deal with uncertainty—the topic of a new effort called the “Council on the Uncertain Human Future” at MIT and other universities. Diana Chapman Walsh, a member of the Council’s leadership team, said that anxiety and dread can hinder meaningful conversations around climate change. “So our intention for the council was and is to hold a space for a very different conversation than usual,” she explained, “where participants look deeply and personally into the reality of situation as best we can understand it” with others ready to commit to an “honest reckoning” with the climate emergency.

Desiree Plata, an associate professor of in MIT’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, said her initial skepticism about joining the Council went away when she saw other participants become more optimistic over the course of weekly meetings. “People need mechanisms for healing in this time, especially, and that healing can impart motivation,” she said.

Megan Black, an associate professor of history at MIT, pointed to the massive infrastructure building and conservation work done in the U.S. in response to the Great Depression as an inspiration for how to deal with present day uncertainties. “In moments of crisis, people have come together even though it was highly uncertain how it would turn out, and tried to forge a meaningful response,” she said.

Megan Guenther ’21, echoing that, said that although, “there is a lot of uncertainty regarding what is going on with the climate, there are a ton of opportunities available—really, endless opportunities—for how we can address this issue.”

In closing remarks, Richard Lester, Associate Provost for International Activities highlighted the “whole-of-MIT” approach as integral to its expanding commitment to the climate challenge. “This institution, more than most, has the capacity and therefore the responsibility to contribute” to addressing the climate emergency,” he said. “And it seems to me that the question that we should always be asking ourselves is, how can we make our institution stronger and better able to contribute, where we can have the greatest impact?”


Watch the full forum:


Environmental Solutions Initiative digs into how reliance on coal impacts county, school funding

by Elizabeth Gribkoff

More extreme weather, heat waves, and inland flooding are some of the impacts that the state of Pennsylvania expects to see with a changing climate. And scientists and economists agree that, if we don’t quickly reduce the greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels like coal and gas that contribute to warming the planet, these impacts will only grow more costly and dangerous.

Yet parts of western Pennsylvania, like many regions of the United States, rely on coal and gas production to support the local economy. Through its Here & Real project, the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) is investigating solutions that reduce carbon pollution and are economically just for communities that are reliant on fossil fuel production.

In a new ESI white paper, the authors highlight the case of Greene County, PA, and how equitable solutions need to be about more than creating jobs; they also need to protect schools.

A frontline community for changing energy markets

Greene County, PA, a roughly 36,000-person county in the southwestern corner of the state bounded on two sides by West Virginia, sits atop a vast coal bed that stretches from Alabama to northern Pennsylvania. Since 1986, it has been the number one coal mining county in one of the biggest coal-producing states in the country. But, as coal struggles to compete with methane gas prices, Greene County coal production has decreased in recent years.

When most people hear about the decline of coal in the U.S., they picture out of work miners. What’s perhaps less obvious is that, in parts of the country where governments count on mines as major taxpayers, like Greene County, this reliance on coal also has affected critical social services, from public schools to senior programs.

In the new white paper, authors at ESI show that the county’s reliance on tax revenues from coal production creates substantial financial risk. They also found that differences in how taxes are collected on coal production versus methane gas (also called natural gas) call into question claims that the shale gas boom could make up for the tax revenue shortfall.

Graduate student Caroline White-Nockleby at the Center for Coalfield Justice offices in Greene County, PA

Graduate student Caroline White-Nockleby at the Center for Coalfield Justice offices in Greene County, PA

As coal mining wanes, Greene County contemplates its future

While waiting tables after moving back home to Greene County in the wake of the Great Recession, Veronica Coptis heard from customers who felt captive to the coal industry. Coal provided good-paying jobs, but mining also wreaked havoc on the environment—something Coptis, who grew up fishing on a lake that was drained after a mining company ruptured a dam on it, has seen firsthand.

Coptis soon started working at the Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), the nonprofit she now heads, to make sure that state regulators enforced environmental regulations on the mining industry. “There was definitely the need to advocate for the environment,” she recalls. “But being from the community, I couldn’t continue just doing environmental advocacy if I wasn’t doing economic justice advocacy as well.”

In 2017, John Fernández, director of ESI, read a New Yorker profile of her and reached out to Coptis to explore a collaboration between CCJ and MIT. That year, CCJ had started a community outreach campaign to hear what residents thought about the decline of coal, the rise of methane gas, and the future of Greene County. “People were widely concerned about the jobs,” Coptis says. “But people were also widely aware of how much tax revenue and support comes back to the community from the coal operations that are here.”

Greene County became the first engagement for ESI’s Here & Real project. “Our approach is not for MIT to come in and tell communities, ‘here’s what we know and here’s what you should do,’” says Laur Hesse Fisher, ESI program director who heads Here & Real. Rather, “we work closely with local partners to conduct research that’s deeply relevant to the community, keeping front of mind the issues that matter most to them.”

The following summer, Fernández and MIT student intern Ben Delhees, a finance and mathematical economics double major, visited western Pennsylvania to learn more about how the decline of the coal industry was affecting the county.

School districts’ heavy reliance on coal taxes proves risky

In the summer of 2018, Delhees worked with data from the Greene County Budget Office to study the local economic and environmental consequences of coal’s departure. Over winter and spring of 2018-2019, MIT students Mimi Wahid and Caroline Boone built upon his research by looking into how declining tax revenues from coal companies impacted school funding. Their internships with CCJ were supported by ESI and the PKG Center.

They uncovered a concerning trend. Some school districts receive over half of their funding from a tax on the value of coal mined, which has declined almost 13% county-wide from 2010 to 2019. One district, Central Greene, saw mineral values decrease by 44% from 2010 to 2018. Even with tax raises, the district still saw mineral revenues go down 32%—a loss of $888,724.

Wahid and Boone worked with the Center for Coalfield Justice to include these findings in the group’s door-to-door canvassing in the county, as well as a series of workshops that CCJ ran over the summer to educate residents on their local tax structure and how it was changing as coal companies leave and petrochemical companies move in.  ESI also worked with students at design a hands-on educational game to illustrate this research, that CCJ ran at three summer county fairs.

“Part of what made this project successful was the diverse disciplines of the students,” said Hesse Fisher. Wahid majors in writing and urban planning and studies, while Boone majors in mechanical engineering, adding to Delhees’ focus on finance and mathematical economics and White-Nockleby’s anthropology studies. “Their different perspectives strengthened both the research and how we engaged with the community.”

Authors find methane gas “can’t replace coal”

Caroline White-Nockleby, a graduate student in MIT’s Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society, expanded upon their work by looking into how coal’s decline was impacting real estate tax revenues, and the extent to which the shale gas boom could offset those losses.  Her research culminated in a white paper synthesizing all this information into a complete picture of Greene County’s tax structure, public services, and vulnerabilities as the coal industry declines.

Hydraulic fracking—the process used to extract methane gas from shale—has soared in the past decade with 870 active wells in the county. To help make up for lost coal revenue, school districts have been using funds from a fee charged on these wells. But this is not a long-term solution, according to the white paper, because those revenues are so much lower than what was coming in from the coal mines.

“There’s a narrative that money from fracking would be able to replace some of the money from coal extraction,” says White-Nockleby. “But actually, if you look at the numbers, that’s really not what’s happening.”

“You can project that within three years, they’re not going to be able to fill the budget gaps,” she says.

Greene County’s real estate tax revenue has also taken a hit. While coal companies remain the largest property taxpayers in the county, White-Nockleby found that property taxes paid by the largest coal companies fell from $5.2 million in 2015 to $3.1 million in 2019. And while there was some hope that increased methane gas production would offset this decline, methane gas companies pay much less in real estate taxes. “Gas basically can’t replace coal, and it has its own huge suite of environmental impacts,” White-Nockleby says.

The consolidation of Greene County’s revenue base among a small number of actors in which coal companies figure heavily, combined with the past and projected decline of the industry, poses a distinct financial risk—one that has been noted by the Global Credit Portal, the organization that rates the financial stability of the County’s municipal bonds.

Coptis, from the Center for Coalfield Justice, says the MIT tax analyses armed her group and other community members with the data needed to convince school board members and local officials to anticipate, rather than react to, mine closures.

“Let’s start making the plan now to figure out [what] alternative revenue sources to build,” she says. “Because what these communities can’t withstand…is an increase in tax rates to cover the cost of an industry that bails on the community.”

Next, ESI and CCJ are bringing these findings to county and state officials, as well as other communities going through similar transitions. “It is imperative to slow climate change and we need to take care of people as we lower emissions,” says Hesse Fisher. “This paper has shown that we also need to look at the broader fiscal impacts of the energy transition. We hope this work can support states and communities as they plan for a resilient future.”


Read the white paper

Learn more about Here & Real



A “just transition” from coal mining must think about community services, not just jobs

Caroline White-Nockleby, lead author of an ESI white paper on the tax structure of Greene County, Pennsylvania, talks to Pittsburgh’s NPR radio station WESA about her findings and the implications for public schools and other crucial community services as methane gas production displaces coal mining. Listen to the segment on WESA.

Student Sustainability Journeys: Alejandro Diaz

by Elizabeth Gribkoff

ESI launched the Minor in Environment & Sustainability in 2018, which means we now have the pleasure of seeing our first cohorts of graduates go out into the world. As they depart MIT, we’re interviewing them to understand what worked and didn’t work in their sustainability careers on campus.

Like many MIT electrical engineering students, Alejandro Diaz spent a lot of time as a kid playing with circuits and trying to make his own electronics. But he also grew up backpacking and camping with his family in the northern California mountains. This early love of the outdoors instilled in him an appreciation for the environment that has directed his path at MIT.

During his first year in college, Diaz took part in the MIT Outing Club’s “winter school,” which teaches students how to safely enjoy winter sports like cross-country skiing and mountaineering. Through MITOC, Diaz met fellow students who were passionate about sustainability and decided to enroll in 21W.775 Writing about Nature and Environmental Issues. “After taking a few more environment-related classes, I realized that probably where I want to end up career-wise is combining electrical engineering and computer science with sustainability,” says Diaz.

Alejandro DiazDiaz wasted no time testing that theory out. The summer after his freshman year, he took an internship in Brazil with renewable energy company Iberdola. He helped design a new wind farm and even delivered a 40-minute presentation to the head of the company on the state of Brazilian wind energy—putting to use the Portuguese classes he signed up for as soon as he came to MIT. “I got to learn a lot about the energy infrastructure in Brazil, and how it’s all an interconnected system,” he says.

Diaz has also worked as an undergraduate researcher in MIT’s D-Lab with Dr. Eric Verploegen, who designs off-the-grid refrigeration systems in shipping containers. The coolers contain solar-powered fans that force air over a series of wet pads, making the inside of the insulated shipping containers more humid and cooler, an energy-efficient way to preserve food where electricity is scarce. Dr. Verploegen says that while in the lab, Diaz “takes initiative to learn new skills” while bringing a “positive attitude towards problem solving.”

Throughout his time at MIT, Diaz has been drawn to classes and research opportunities that allow him to solve environmental challenges as part of a team. “I think always what it comes down to for me is the people and the relationships I’ve made,” he says. “Everyone has a drive to do a specific thing, and it’s really cool being able to share that and collaborate on different projects.”  For that reason, one of his favorite classes was EC.719 D-Lab: Water, Climate Change, and Health with Prof. Susan Murcott. Diaz and other students developed a climate clock that shows how much time remains until the “carbon budget,” the total amount of carbon dioxide we can emit to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, runs out.

Diaz, a rock climber, has also been involved with MIT’s Outing Club as a trip leader. His passion for climbing led him to take 12.001 Introduction to Geology, where the enthusiastic professors and field trips to local rock formations made it a memorable class. “MIT has such a wealth of classes that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know about,” says Diaz, whose love of Hispanic Literature inspired him to minor in Latin American and Latinx Studies. He suggests that students take classes outside of their major to see where their interests might lead them.

Diaz feels that MIT has an obligation to not just work on coming up with new technology to solve the climate crisis, but also to engage with policymakers to better implement solutions that already exist. “I think that’s where a major push has to be,” he says. Leading by example, he has worked on MIT’s next Climate Action Plan, sitting on the plan’s advisory committee as the representative for the Student Sustainability Coalition.

Now, Diaz is pursuing a Master’s in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science focused on artificial intelligence at MIT. After finishing his undergraduate degree a semester early, he felt he still had more to learn at MIT—and was especially reluctant to move on with all the job market uncertainty from the pandemic. While he has not yet chosen a lab to work in, Diaz plans to continue doing research that allows him to “combine electrical engineering…with working on an environmental problem.”


The Practical Challenges of Carbon Footprinting

What is the carbon footprint of the things we use every day? This is a question Suzanne Greene, leader of ESI’s Metals, Minerals & the Environment Program and manager of the MIT Sustainable Supply Chains Initiative, continues to ask. By looking at the carbon emissions companies report (or in some cases, don’t report), we can better understand entire industries’ and economies’ climate impacts, and set a “carbon budget” to reduce them.

Greene recently published two studies that dive deep into two sectors that make a big difference for our everyday life—mining and oil. Making up a lion’s share of industrial carbon emissions, both sectors are key to making society work, but also key to reaching the Paris Agreement climate goals. By looking at these “elemental” commodities, we can start at the base of global supply chains, understanding where and how emissions occur and targeting efforts to address them.

In “Responsible or reckless? A critical review of the environmental and climate assessments of mineral supply chains,” published in Environmental Research Letters, Greene and her co-authors look at the methods major mining companies use to calculate their annual carbon emissions. They found that reporting was often incomplete, and differences in methodologies employed by companies made a significant difference in the final numbers. These inconsistencies inhibit investors and consumers from being able to compare and contrast corporate emissions and progress towards climate goals.

In the second paper, “Well-to-tank carbon emissions from crude oil maritime transportation,” published in Transportation Research, Greene and her co-authors used information on more than 28,000 shipments of crude oil to understand the carbon emissions from the sea transport of oil. The results show that there are significant differences in the carbon footprint of oil transport depending on the oil’s origin and destination—underlining the point that all fuel has a carbon footprint above and beyond the emissions associated with burning it. Understanding these upstream emissions will become even more relevant as putatively low-carbon fuels like biofuel and hydrogen hit the market, for which most emissions lie upstream.

Greene continues to extend these research efforts as part of the Coalition on Materials Emissions Transparency (COMET), a multi-institutional effort to create a universal framework for direct comparison of greenhouse gas emissions in diverse industrial supply chains. Tracking global carbon emissions is a challenging prospect, but one society needs to master if we are to meet our 2050 climate goals. The advancement of consistent methodologies, application of satellite tracking, and setting of science-based targets are all pieces of the puzzle that we can work to advance.


The Curious Case of Engineering Schools and Sustainable Investing

The ESI Rapid Response Group is investigating climate-related financial disclosures, the fiduciary duties of institutional investors to incorporate climate change into the investment process, and what universities and their endowments should be doing in terms of both. Read the full story in Forbes.