The Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) is an independent academic research program housed within the High Meadows Environmental Institute at Princeton University.1 Sponsored by bp, CMI is Princeton’s largest and most long-term industry-university relationship. Its mission is to lead the way to a compelling and sustainable solution to the carbon and climate problem.
Since its inception in 2000, CMI has advanced understanding of climate and energy science, technology, and policy. Actively led by 13 principal faculty, the program currently engages an additional 40 research staff and students. These scientists, engineers and policy experts are committed to the dissemination of their joint and individual research findings so they may benefit the larger scientific community, government, and the general public.
The purpose of this report is to provide a summary of CMI’s 2020 key activities and research initiatives. This section includes a brief overview of CMI’s programming and collaborations, Annual Meeting highlights, and announcements about awards and changes in leadership.
The rest of the report is comprised of a series of 11 research highlights. Every CMI Principal Investigator (PI) or team of PIs selected one research highlight from 2020 to feature and provided context for the work. For each highlight, a short summary is provided, which is referred to as “At a Glance.” These highlights are followed by a complete list of this year’s publications.
1 The Princeton Environmental Institute was renamed the High Meadows Environmental Institute by Princeton University in October 2020.
Throughout 2020, despite the Coronavirus pandemic, CMI researchers remained fully active and engaged. Several CMI scientists played critical roles in the CMI-led Princeton University study, “Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure and Impacts.” Published in December 2020, the report provides a detailed blueprint for achieving a carbon-neutral economy in the United States by 2050. The study was extensively referenced by the recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s report “Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System.” It has resulted in the creation of an interactive website designed to help policy makers and other stakeholders extract specific information most useful to their particular contexts and priorities. This effort has been a focus of CMI for nearly two years and is an ongoing project.
During the year, another team of CMI investigators launched a new initiative to help determine how land-based climate solutions can be deployed globally to maximize carbon storage on land, while at the same time maintain global biodiversity and food security. While previous research efforts have tabulated the global potential of individual land-based climate solutions, no study has co-optimized the planning of multiple land-based climate solutions, biodiversity, and food. Ultimately, the team aims to develop an online tool for informing policy similar to the Net-Zero America Project’s website. This would allow policy makers and NGO’s to assess various scenarios of land-based climate solution planning within their region of influence.
In addition, CMI is always keeping an eye out for new and emerging issues. CMI members are engaging in important work to better understand the climate problem and to find solutions. A few of these other research initiatives are listed below and described in greater detail in the highlights featured in this report.
- Understanding the biogeochemical controls, sources, and sinks of methane using experimental and modeling approaches
- The role of soils in the future of atmospheric hydrogen
- Pipeline infrastructure development for large-scale CCUS in the United States
- Understanding and optimizing fluid-silicate interfacial properties in low carbon emission technologies
- Mineral-organic interactions in soils and sediments
- Drought tolerant agriculture for semi-arid ecosystems
- Global climate changes and their hurricane impacts
- Coastal dead zones in the northern Indian Ocean
The Coronavirus pandemic has changed many things around the world, including how the CMI community gathered to hold its 19th Annual Meeting in April 2020.
The customary in-person meeting scheduled for April 22-23 in London was nearly upended in early February as concerns grew about the potential spread of the virus worldwide. Fortunately, the organizers were able to transition the meeting to a virtual platform, shortening the two days to accommodate the time change between Princeton and London.
Liz Rogers, then bp’s vice president of environmental technology and bp’s relationship manager for CMI, and Cindy Yeilding, then bp America’s senior vice president and bp’s executive sponsor for Princeton University, opened the meeting by highlighting the significance of the day, April 22, as Earth Day. Earth Day is an annual event celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection and the focus in 2020 was climate change.
Remarking on Earth Day’s relevance to the current ambitions of both CMI and bp, Rogers said, “It is relevant to CMI’s mission to lead the way to a compelling and sustainable solution to the carbon and climate change problem and relevant to bp for our recent announcement to be a net-zero carbon emissions company in absolute reductions by 2050 or sooner.”
Yeilding noted the synergistic 20 year-long relationship between Princeton and bp. “It’s a relationship based on shared challenges, trust, and respect built over 20 years of industry and academic perspectives on the challenges informing CMI as they conduct their independent research,” she said. “CMI continually approaches the climate challenges with fresh-eyes and always brings us back to the science.”
In an introductory overview of CMI, Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the director of CMI stated, “The relationship between CMI and bp began at a time when John Browne, then the CEO of bp, sensed that the world might begin to take the climate change problem seriously and he wanted a relationship with a research center that would keep their eyes over the horizon to try to anticipate what was coming and what we all might do about it. This we have done now for about 20 years and it remains our joint objective.”
The major areas of research discussed during the annual meeting included terrestrial ecosystems and natural climate solutions, the methane cycle, and possible pathways for the United States to realize net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.
In addition, Pacala announced the recipients of two awards named in honor of Robert H. Socolow, emeritus professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at Princeton and CMI co-director from 2000 – 2019.
Former postdoctoral research fellow, Jane Baldwin, received The Robert H. Socolow Best Paper Award for Postdoctoral Fellows for her paper, “Temporally Compound Heat Wave Events and Global Warming: An Emerging Hazard,” published in Earth’s Future by the American Geophysical Union in 2019. Baldwin is now a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University.
Since 2010, the CMI Best Paper Award for Postdoctoral Fellows has been presented annually to one or two CMI affiliated postdoctoral research associate(s) or research scholar(s) selected for his or her contribution to an important CMI paper. In late 2019, CMI created a similar award for doctoral students to award a CMI affiliated doctoral student selected for his or her contributions to an important CMI paper.
Samantha Hartzell, a former graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, is the first recipient of The Robert H. Socolow Best Paper Award for Doctoral Students for her paper, “Unified representation of the C3, C4, and CAM photosynthetic pathways with the Photo3 model,” published in Ecological Modelling in 2018. Hartzell is an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Portland State University.
This year’s virtual Annual Meeting brought together over 100 participants. This included Princeton faculty and researchers, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, many colleagues from bp, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, eight other national and international universities, and members of environmental nonprofit organizations and think tanks.
In addition to the external collaborations undertaken through the Princeton-led Net-Zero America Project and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Committee on Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System, CMI continued its engagement with three excellent research programs bp has long supported: the Center for the Environment at Harvard University; the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University; and the Thermal Engineering Department and the Tsinghua-bp Clean Energy Research and Educational Center at Tsinghua University.
In 2020, the following honors were awarded to CMI scholars including: the Robert MacArthur Award from the Ecological Society of America to Jonathan Levine; The 2020 Weldon Memorial Prize, Oxford University to Stephen Pacala; the 2020 John Dalton Medal from the European Geosciences Union to Amilcare Porporato; and Jonathan Levine and Gabriel Vecchi were listed by the Clairvate Web of Science as “Highly Cited Researchers” in recognition for ranking among 1% of researchers for most cited documents in geosciences and the environment over 2008-2018.
Changes in Leadership
At the end of 2020, Cindy Yeilding, then Senior Vice President, bp America and CMI’s executive sponsor and Liz Rogers, then Vice President Environmental Technology, bp, and CMI’s Relationship Manager, relinquished their CMI roles as they retired from bp. Yeilding served in her respective role for four years and Liz for two. The CMI community will miss working with them both and wish them every success in their future endeavors.
The new bp CMI Executive Sponsor is Kelly Goddard, Vice President Carbon Ambition. We are already enjoying working with her and her new team.