Sustainability – 5.12.23

Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,

Do you know what a CO2 pipeline is? Me neither, until Wednesday when I heard an NPR item on the topic. The premise is that CO2 produced by human activities can be prevented from leaking into the atmosphere, through transport along pipelines to permanent underground storage facilities. Sounds complex and questionably effective. The pipelines, like other types – oil, natural gas for example, can be dangerous and can rupture. There are ~5,000 miles of CO2pipelines in the US presently, scheduled to be increased more than ten-fold in the next few years, with pipes often traversing disadvantaged areas.

It's quite extraordinary that such individually small humans have collectively wrought such vast damage onto a planet so much larger than any of us. Climate change, as we understand it, leading to disruption of habitats, species, cities and societies, results from an issue I sometimes forget, that of global warming. The point is that when sunlight hits earth, some of the sun’s energy is absorbed and some is released as heat (infrared) that travels back through the atmosphere into space. ‘Greenhouse gases’, in the atmosphere reflect this heat back to earth, so less is released to the atmosphere, and the earth warms. Excess CO2 is a problematic greenhouse gas but look at this TEDx talk about methane (with illustrations by my daughter Simone Lassar), that is 100 times more powerful than CO2 in preventing heat from leaving the atmosphere. If methane emissions were sharply reduced, the rate of global warming could decline within 100 years, whereas changes in CO2 levels would take 1,000 years to reverse global warming. Either way, other approaches to prevent and mitigate the damages of climate change must be taken.

Contributing solutions around climate change is deeply on the minds of our students and researchers. Many College of Science departments and members are addressing climate change through research and education. For example, investigators are examining genomic changes associated with altered species range through increasing temperature; preventing coastal erosion; assessing impact on coastal communities; devising ‘green energy’ and sustainable batteries; developing sustainable methods of chemical synthesis; understanding the plastics cycle; modeling effects of climate change; analyzing air and water quality; exploring mental health and the relationship to sustainability decisions. Northeastern University has a long-standing commitment to sustainability, and through our ongoing work the College of Science is making crucial cross-disciplinary, high impact contributions to mitigating climate change.

Correction: Last week, I omitted thanks to organizers of our COS Commencement. THANK YOU! Melissa Rubock, Linda Aryapetov and Caroline Leary for your leadership of this complex and wonderful event.