Research Week 2024 climate panel

Duke Climate Solutions Panel Offers Cautious Hope for a Warming Planet

Experts shared innovative strategies based on developing science, technology, economics, and policy.

“Our estimates and estimates by other researchers indicate that there's a large area in low- to middle-income countries, on the order of a billion hectares, where it's possible to restore forest,” Vincent said. That is about a quarter of the planet’s total forest area.

Lydia Olander, who recently returned to Durham from Washington DC where she said was “on loan from Duke” to the Biden White House, shared her recent work with the federal government that helped create nature-based solutions, such as green roofs or green storm water systems, as a required evaluation criteria for every new federal government funding opportunity.

“What we did is we really tried to create this big umbrella of nature-based solutions that incorporate all these different kinds of solutions so that we can put nature-based solutions on the same kind of elevation as other climate solutions,” Olander said. “We talk a lot about renewable energy, electric vehicles, and then I wanted everybody to also say, ‘nature-based solutions.’”

Olander, who is an adjunct professor in environmental sciences and policy in the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, also shared how her work helped incorporate a new evaluation criterion at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which all major regulations, programs, and projects must go through to receive approval.

“There's a cost-benefit analysis tool that the OMB uses,” Olander said. “And we wanted to make sure that nature was fully accounted for in those types of decisions.”

With eye towards public and private policies, Jackson Ewing reflected on the Biden White House’s landmark achievements for climate, and how private investments are needed to complement public support.

“The Biden administration has put a lot of the public purse behind climate in ways that has not been employed form,” said Ewing, who is an adjunct associate professor in the Nicholas Institute. “This has taken the form of several federal policies, the most relevant one here being the inaptly named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).”

Ewing explained how the IRA is expected to cost around $369 billion over the next 10 years. Since it’s not capped, that number could easily rise to $1 trillion. Compared to other large acts, like the $1.9 trillion Biden committed for covid relief through the American Rescue Plan, there’s a lot more money needed for meaningful climate change.

“That means the private sector really has to invest,” Ewing said. “And we’re already seeing signs of that,”

Engineering ways to tamp down emissions

Civil engineering assistant professor Laura Dalton opened her comments with a jarring statistic about the hidden cost of concrete: 8% of the world’s total CO2 emissions can be traced to portland cement.

“If the cement-making industry were its own country, it’d be the third biggest producer of CO2 behind the United States and China,” Dalton said in a recent interview. “If we can better understand how CO2 moves through concrete, we can hone processes to trap it and make this common building material much more environmentally friendly.”

Between burning limestone and fossil fuels, cement is hardly a green material. To offset its carbon footprint, Dalton’s lab, which specializes in studying how gases and liquids move through porous materials, is studying how to trap carbon back into cement. Pumping carbon dioxide into portland cement, for example, creates a permanently bound CO2 mineral, and keeps it out of the environment.

Laura Dalton shares an overview of her lab's work on carbon sequestration.

Economist Drew Shindell, the Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Earth Science, pointed to impactful short-term solutions that don’t solve the bigger issue of fossil fuel use and emissions, but are easier for nations to adopt, such as reducing methane emissions.

“We have the strongest leverage over changing the climate trajectory in the near term by targeting methane,” said Shindell, who’s work with the United Nations has recently demonstrated that cutting methane emissions is the most economical route to slow the rising global temperatures.

Cautious optimism

Though there is plenty in the news to make someone feel nervous about Earth’s warming future, such as the record-breaking heat wave this past summer, panelists shared some of the encouraging progress being made to combat climate change.

Dalton highlighted several promising low- and no-carbon alternatives to limestone for cement-making, such as algae, which actually slurps up CO2 in the process. Companies such as Biomason and Sublime Systems are also paving the way for greener cement, Dalton explained, with their new materials that have minimal environmental impact.

Outside of technological advancements, Vincent revealed how money in fact does grow on trees. And that’s a good thing for people’s pockets.

“If you have a retirement account or insurance policy, most likely you are a forest owner,” Vincent said. “That company is investing your money in companies that grow trees. And why is that? Well, trees return a very reliable, predictable return on investment.”

Duke’s climate leadership

All the panelists made clear, too, that Duke is at the forefront of climate optimism. In addition to the Climate Commitment that makes Duke a leader of how academia can push ideas from the ivory tower to serve society, panelists shared other Durham-born green ideas, polices, and technology being thought up by fellow Blue Devils.

The increasing investment in forests by retirement account managers insurers over the last 40 years? That’s rooted in conversations started at Duke in the 1980’s, Vincent explained.

Shindell’s work on methane at Duke and in collaboration with the U.N. has inspired more than 150 countries to pledge methane reduction. With ever-improving satellite technology, regulators and policymakers can  remotely monitor these countries and check for compliance, Shindell explained.

Educational offerings have also evolved with the times at Duke, including the newly established master of engineering in climate & sustainability program that Dalton shared.

Dalton capped off the panel by sharing Duke’s efforts to evaluate the use of geothermal energy as a sustainable power supply for the campus’s needs. During excavations for that project, Dalton was brought in to examine some of the geological formations Duke was built on and discovered that the rocks beneath campus are an ideal bit of green gold for carbon capture.

“They're doing drilling on campus, and we have the rocks from the drilling to study their porosity,” Dalton said. “We happen to sit on a specific geological formation that could also be used for part of capture and storage on campus.”