Launching the Midwest Carbon Leadership Project
On December 8, 2022, the University of Minnesota and the Institute on the Environment, supported by a gift from the Ecolab Foundation, kicked off an ambitious collaborative effort to identify the knowledge gaps that need to be filled to achieve deep decarbonization. Branded the Midwest Carbon Leadership Project (MWCLP), this effort is a platform for sustained engagement between the private sector, academia, and communities affected by climate change. Three tactical gatherings mark milestones in the Project’s development, with interstitial work between gatherings and commitments to collaboration after each gathering.
We cannot be more excited to get MWCLP off the ground and leverage the unique assets of the Institute on the Environment to do the hard work of crossing disciplines and sectors to achieve ambitious outcomes. Our work is just getting started, but I’m eager to share some insights from phase one of the Project and our commitment to next steps that build on early momentum.
What is the MWCLP?
The MWCLP is focused on positioning the Midwest region for economic transition and economic development that pushes all the way to carbon neutrality – a state of greenhouse gas emissions that halts climate change. The US Midwest is a leading emitter of greenhouse gasses (ranking #5 globally if it were a country), supplies approximately 20 percent of US gross domestic product (GDP), and is home to dozens of Fortune 500 companies with massive market penetration and global reach. MWCLP acknowledges these facts and seizes the opportunity to engage influential, ambitious thinkers and doers who take responsibility for affecting change from and for the Midwest region. Participants in the MWCLP are people committed to building relationships around shared understanding, trust, and accountability.
Further, the MWCLP knows that industry – and the markets where goods and services are bought and sold – is responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions, and that when solutions take hold in the marketplace, they can spread at a rate and scale needed to stop climate change. We also know that industry is an excellent source of innovation, especially related to practice and operational efficiency.
But an abundance of new ideas, new solutions sets, and technology innovation comes from academia – from a vast network of researchers, students, and collaborators that work in laboratories, field-settings, and communities to design and test approaches to sustainability. Through technology transfer, collaborative research, and engaged scholarship, ideas make their way from the lab to the market shelf. This works best when pursued with intentionality and involving collaboration between academia, the private sector, and affected communities. Intentionality is critical to working on the right problems at the right time and in service to justice, equity, and the adoption of innovation. Collaboration is essential because the strengths of different sectors of the economy are amplified when working together.
Our planet and global economy are at a turning point: within the next decade we must bend our economic trajectory from unsustainable toward renewable. But it will take more than a decade to achieve our ultimate goal of an economy that is sustainable, regenerative and just. MWCLP participants are committed to curve-bending, but our role is focused on major roadblocks and potholes along the way.
Filling essential knowledge gaps
Scientists, the advocacy community, and countless private ventures have pointed out that we have abundant, readily available technology to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These technologies include solar and wind power, electric vehicles, and heat pumps and even innovations like carbon pricing and carbon markets. We cannot understate the significance of these shovel-ready approaches. They are the product of decades of deliberation, innovation, and creative thinking, making possible today what has never been possible before. Where and when we fail to implement these solutions, it’s for lack of capital, capacity, or political will, creating a substantial implementation gap.
But it’s also true that existing solutions are not enough to get us where we need to go. To actually stop climate change, we need deep emission reductions and true carbon neutrality. We must stop the increase of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere entirely. This lofty goal requires a degree of energy management that exceeds current technology and an understanding of carbon sinks that exceeds current science, as just two examples. In other words, society faces a considerable knowledge gap to achieving a stable climate and a sustainable and renewable future. As described in a white paper that launched the MWCLP, filling critical knowledge gaps “requires new ideas, experimentation and demonstration, and direct collaboration between researchers, innovators, and implementers.” A laser-focus on knowledge gaps is the mission of the MWCLP.
Highlights from first gathering of the MWCLP
More than 60 people took part in the first MWCLP gathering; dozens more were told about the Project and invited to participate in the future. The MWCLP was not a standard conference with keynote speakers, panels, and seats in the back of the room with good wifi where attendees check their email! Instead, all participants were expected to bring and contribute their knowledge, expertise, and commitment and to put those things forward in moderated, small group discussion. The context for discussion were set by “featured participants” who gave lightning talks in plenary, and attendees snatched up tickets to attend discussion on the subject of each talk (See the December 8 Midwest Carbon Leadership Project Agenda).
To enable this level of engagement, we started pretty small, creating a participation core – and Project content – to build on over time. Moderated small group discussion unpacked and expanded on the gaps defined in lightning talks, and Project leaders will be mining that data for essential take-aways and insights in the coming weeks. We’re grateful to founding MWCLP participants for generating content that propels the Project into its next steps.
Because the MWCLP project was focused on carbon neutrality and knowledge gaps, you might expect a bunch of talk about missing technology and technology transfer. And these issues were certainly part of the agenda. For example, Joe Fargione (Nature Conservancy) presented a fascinating talk on the need to understand alternatives to biochar as a way to sequester carbon in agricultural soils. Nina Axelson (Grid Catalyst) suggested that we focus on energy technologies that are suited for cold climates and how to operationalize existing technology in cold conditions. Ian Adams (Evergreen Climate Innovations) argued that we’re missing key ingredients in the pipeline for new business creation in renewable energy and thus are undersupplying alternative, innovative goods and services in the marketplace.
But other knowledge gaps are equally important outside the tech space, and talks in these areas were some of the hottest break out tickets. Bob Blake (Solar Bear) suggested that we’re missing a language to strive for carbon neutrality and alternative approaches to the way we do business, with a diction too focused on short-term returns and human-focused needs. Joe Árvai (University of Southern California) argued that we lack an understanding of key parts of human psychology, notably how people decide to change their mind. And Laura Hannah (MISO) explained that despite a plethora of distributed technology and major efforts to build-out our energy grid, we lack policies and procedures for managing the energy system as a whole – for filling missing puzzle pieces as energy producers and consumers place new puzzle pieces on the board.
In total, MWCLP participants scoped 11 knowledge gaps associated with energy or agriculture, critical greenhouse gas sources in the Midwest. We also were buoyed by Dipender Saluja’s (Capricorn Investment Group) observations that knowledge gaps lie across the entire energy economy – giving the MWCLP reason to push forward. Saluja argued that uncapped tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act primes the US for new business creation and American manufacturing; businesses that industry and academia can attract to and build in the Midwest region.
What’s next? Taking action by moving forward
The MWCLP is just getting started. Our first of three gatherings placed flags in the sand around critical gaps in our knowledge toward decarbonization. Problem specification is just one part of striving toward collective action, however; what happens next matters, too. The MWCLP will meet again in 2023, with an emphasis on growing participation and expanding the knowledge gaps that receive a hearing and discussion. We’ll also begin to turn from specifying critical knowledge gaps to methods of filling them.
Meanwhile, the MWCLP will soon share the learnings from its first gathering and update and expand the MWCLP’s founding white paper. The span of possible participants and contributors to the MWCLP literally won’t fit in one room or one conference venue. We have to find ways to share our findings, our actions, and our journey to inspire others. We do know that future gatherings of the MWCLP will affirm the commitment of academia and industry to work together, in service to all who depend on the future economy in our region and the global community that bears the consequences of a changing climate.
If our emphasis and strategy inspires you, please let us know that you are interested in following along and/or joining us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.Together, we take not only the initial steps we need to a sustainable future, but also smooth the longer path toward meaningful, equitable, and deep decarbonization.
The MWCLP is made possible with financial support from Ecolab. Ecolab’s commitment to achieving ambitious corporate sustainability – and building a business around creating a sustainable future – inspires all MWCLP participants. Thank you also to the MWCLP Steering Committee who proposed topics for speakers and attendees and helped locate an inspiring and committed group of initial participants.