Science & Tech

7 projects win funding for climate change solutions

6 min read

Harvard grant program provides $1 million across a range of academic boundaries

Seven research projects led by scientists, historians, economists, and public health experts from five Harvard Schools will share about $1 million in the third round of grants awarded by the Climate Change Solutions Fund. This initiative, which was launched by Harvard President Drew Faust, encourages multidisciplinary research that seeks creative solutions to climate change.

“Universities have a uniquely important role to play in the battle against climate change, and Harvard must continue to be at the forefront of efforts to bring disciplines together, deepen awareness of the issue, and speed progress,” said Faust. “This year’s Climate Change Solutions Fund awards will help experts from engineering, medicine, chemistry, public health, public policy, and the arts confront the challenges facing our society and our planet at a moment when the dire consequences of inaction are becoming increasingly apparent.”

Three years ago, Faust announced the creation of the fund to hasten the transition from carbon-based energy systems to those that rely on renewable energy sources, and to propel innovations to accelerate progress toward cleaner energy and a greener world.

To date, 24 projects have received approximately $3 million. Projects have addressed a wide range of topics, including technological advances to lower the cost of solar energy, partnering with local government agencies to address air pollution in India, modeling the local economic impact of extreme weather events, and targeting emissions associated with food waste.

“We see Harvard’s unique advantage coming from the breadth of expertise that can be leveraged throughout our many Schools and institutes, from science and medicine and public health to engineering and the humanities,” said Vice Provost for Research Richard McCullough, whose office administers the fund. “The power of these grants is how they integrate all this knowledge into game-changing insights.”

The fund’s evaluation committee targets projects representing the range of academic disciplines and research interests across Harvard’s 12 Schools. Special consideration is given to projects seeking to use the campus as a living laboratory to test ideas, or produce new insights through the lens of nontraditional disciplines, including the arts and humanities.

This year’s seven projects are:

  • Exploring a New Paradigm for Developing Green Platform Reactions Relevant for Pharmaceutical and Biomass Industries
    Cynthia M. Friend, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
    Efthimios Kaxiras, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
    Robert Madix, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Existing processes for manufacturing chemicals use more energy than necessary because they do not selectively produce the desired materials. This leads to undesired byproducts and unnecessary waste. This project will develop models for heterogeneous catalytic behavior, a process that uses solid material to promote specific reactions that will provide an important tool for enabling science to maximize energy efficiency and carbon neutral operations.

  • Identifying Challenges and Policy Pathways to “Deep Decarbonization” in China
    Henry Lee, Harvard Kennedy School
    Daniel Schrag, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard Kennedy School

The challenge of deep decarbonization in China is especially difficult because of the country’s enormous energy dependence on large, coal-fired power plants, and the rapidly growing demand for oil in the transportation sector. This project will support a multiyear research partnership with Chinese scholars to identify the key drivers and challenges to decarbonization, laying the foundation for determining a path toward a carbon-free energy system.

  • An Early Warning System for Ecosystem Stress and Biodiversity Change in Equatorial Amazonia in Response to Climate Change
    Scot T. Martin, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

The more rapidly changing climate in the Amazon rainforest is affecting the delicate balance needed for long-term stability. This project will model a cost-effective tool for monitoring ecosystem health in the Amazon by using drones to fingerprint the amount and type of volatile organic compounds being emitted. A more precise measurement of these compounds will play a critical role in helping assess how climate change stresses forests around the world.

The bionic leaf, a proof-of-concept platform pioneered by Harvard scientists, makes possible a cheap, nontoxic, portable device to create value-added products such as bioplastics for accelerating widespread adoption of solar and other renewable technologies, while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions. This project will support work toward constructing a deployable bionic leaf that could provide a blueprint for bringing this technology to scale.

The capacity to imagine change is essential to mobilizing people to act. Unfortunately, despite a large amount of scientific literature on climate change, most people cannot imagine what a fossil fuel-free future might look like. This award supports a two-year postdoctoral fellowship for writing a fact-based work of fiction that combines science and storytelling to advance the cultural conversation within which available climate solutions are understood and implemented.

  • Eating Green on Campus: Motivating the Next Generation Toward Sustainable Dietary Patterns
    Eric B. Rimm, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
    Stacy Blondin, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
    Ann-Christine Duhaime, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital
    Walter C. Willett, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Agriculture contributes up to 25 percent of total global, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and utilizes as much as 70 percent of Earth’s water. This project will use Harvard’s campus as a living laboratory to design, implement, and evaluate an intervention intended to improve the healthfulness and reduce the environmental impact of food choices among college students in a dining hall setting.

  • Leveraging Market Mechanisms in a Heterogeneous International Policy Environment
    Robert N. Stavins, Harvard Kennedy School
    Robert Stowe, Harvard Kennedy School

Market mechanisms, which include greenhouse-gas emissions-trading systems and carbon taxes, are, in aggregate, a more cost-effective way to reduce emissions than regulations that impose a uniform performance standard or technology requirements. This project aims to explore the efficacy of diverse policies intended to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, with the goal of developing research and briefs that will inform the 23rd annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting of the parties in November.

The awards follow those for those who won in 2016 and the 2015. The fund is supported by the president’s office and alumni donors.