Letter from the Director: April 2017

The end of the spring term marks the 3-year point for the ESI. At its inception, founding Director Susan Solomon launched a multi-disciplinary seed grant program with a first round of 9 awards. Recently, we closed the call for the second round and will announce winners later in the spring. We also completed another of Prof. Solomon’s early initiatives with the approval of an undergraduate minor in Environment and Sustainability open to all majors and beginning in the Fall of 2017. In support of this new offering we continue to fund curriculum development for the minor.

During these past three years, we’ve sponsored two Hackathons for the Climate and, come April 22 of this year, two Earth Day celebrations. We have hosted a monthly Faculty Lunch series highlighting research from professors and groups from all five schools across the Institute. We founded the ESI Student Advisory Council and members of that body initiated work on four key projects within our portfolio including an Environmental Student Action Corps and a Green Careers program.

We have also been reaching outward beyond MIT. Through the Office of the Vice President for Research we recently reached a collaborative agreement with Conservation International[1] and have already begun to engage with them on several fronts. We are also formalizing collaborative relationships with companies in the US and abroad and governments in South America, Europe and Africa.

We could be, and in some respects are satisfied with the progress we’ve made here at the ESI. The results of the first round of seed grants are having an influence on decision-making in various regions around the world. At the same time, change all around us is proceeding more rapidly and creating more immediate urgency than had been anticipated by many. During ESI’s existence, we have added three more years of record global temperatures. Concern over the consequences of these increased temperatures is now widespread and global. Attribution to specific events is still tentative in many cases, but rock solid in others. The concern that we are headed into a period of enormous climate uncertainty compounds the social, economic, and political complexity that accompanies a global population of 7.5 billion.

Eighteen months after ESI’s founding, Christiana Figueres and the UNFCCC secured possibly the most important climate agreement at the COP21. Since Dec 2015, 143 countries have ratified their commitments and the subsequent Conference of the Parties in Marrakech set the stage for continuing to deliver on those commitments. An ambitious and notable proposal came from the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI)[2] intended to spur the deployment of 10GW additional capacity by 2020 and 300GW by 2030.

Here in the US the renewable energy sector is going strong. The growth in solar energy jobs in the US is outpacing the economy by a whopping 12 times and solar and wind employment has been increasing in recent years at rates above 20%. Clean energy and sustainability employment in advanced vehicles, renewable energy, the public sector, and energy efficiency now amount to 4 million jobs[3]. The Department of Energy 2017 Energy and Employment Report[4] asserts that the solar industry now employs more people than coal, oil, and gas combined in the production of electricity. And let’s make sure to remember that efficiency, the avoidance of energy expenditures, is not only a powerful strategy for reducing carbon emissions but also grows the economy. One dollar not spent on energy has a 2.24 potential in non-energy sectors of the economy. Not spending on energy means that spending is freed up for other purposes. Maybe this is one of the reasons that the 2016 GreenBiz survey[5] found that 75% of firms now have dedicated budgets for internal sustainability programs.

The past three years have been a solid beginning for the ESI, but what is needed now is a dramatic increase in activities, engagement and support. It is now the new normal to expect that next year’s global average temperature will once again establish a new high. That’s a reasonable expectation given that the CO2 already banked in the atmosphere will be there for hundreds of years. We will need to mitigate carbon emissions at ferocious rates to secure our future. Adaptation in many forms is happening now; from Dhaka, to the 33 atolls and reef islands of Kiribati, to Miami. Increasingly, the prospect of having to actively remove carbon dioxide, alongside aggressive mitigation, is receiving a great deal more attention. Without active measures, we may not have any hope of avoiding the very high probabilities of catastrophic consequences.

But let’s not end on a sobering note. The future is very, very bright. Technology innovations in energy production and storage, engine and vehicle design, water and material reclamation and reuse are finding investment dollars focused on this new future. Renewed interest in pricing carbon that will result in creating new markets and revenue generation are spawning a regular stream of proposals and legislation. There is money to be made in this great renewable energy and sustainability transition. There are inventions needed in the form of products, services, and new systems. New disruptive and constructive business models will emerge, you can count on it. There is great opportunity for all that MIT excels at delivering. It just so happens that these opportunities also hold the very great potential of making a better world for everyone.

So, let’s get on with it!

John E. Fernández, Director
April 2017
Cambridge, Massachusetts





[5]https://www.greenbiz.com/report/state-profession-2016, open access but requires registration.