From carbon capture to infectious disease: Planetary Solutions Project seed grants span disciplines to address global environmental challenges

Lena River Delta
May 27, 2022

In April, Yale University awarded nearly $1.5 million to 21 proposals in its inaugural round of Planetary Solutions Project seed grants; here, for the first time, these proposals are described in detail. These newly established grants support the Yale community’s work in addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, and climate-linked health and justice issues.

The projects are supported by the Climate Impact Innovation Fund, which was launched in January; by the Gordon Data and Environmental Sciences Research Grants; and by the university’s Science Catalyst Fund. The Seed Grant program will provide support for additional pilot projects for the next several years.

The 21 descriptions below, grouped thematically, address the Planetary Solutions Project framework of “Mitigate, Adapt, and Engage.” This year’s awards include projects focused on carbon capture and storage, climate action and policy, energy alternatives, biodiversity and evolution science, disease prevention, and environmental justice. The projects involve at least 18 departments across Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and nine professional schools.

Carbon capture and storage

Fundamental Studies to Enable Carbon Dioxide Utilization

Participants: Nilay Hazari, Chemistry; Mingjiang Zhong, Chemical and Environmental Engineering

Themes: Carbon dioxide utilization, industrial products, catalysts

While the potential impact of carbon dioxide utilization technologies is immense — commanding as much as $800 billion by the end of the decade and using 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year — technical challenges such as the lack of efficient catalysts mean that there are few commercial processes in use to convert carbon dioxide into products like building materials, fuels, and plastics. This project seeks to understand how transition metal catalysts can be tuned to selectively form a single product from carbon dioxide. Over the long term, this could lead to new and improved catalysts to produce fuels, such as methanol, or commodity chemicals, such as formic acid, from carbon dioxide.

Atomically Resolved Single Molecule Microscopy of Catalytic Intermediates in CO2 Reduction

Participants: Udo Schwarz, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science; Eric Altman, Chemical and Environmental Engineering; Hailiang Wang, Chemistry

Themes: Carbon dioxide utilization, liquid fuels, energy storage

To better enable renewable energy conversion to liquid fuels, we need to improve the efficiency of methanol synthesis from carbon dioxide (CO2). Synthesizing methanol from carbon dioxide (CO2) often requires generating carbon monoxide (CO) as an intermediate substance; for efficient methanol production it is critical that CO binding is neither too strong nor too weak. Current spectroscopic methods are inadequate for understanding CO binding strength on a single-molecule basis. To alleviate this shortcoming, this project will apply advanced scanning probe microscopy methods to locally measure the CO adsorption strength as a function of catalyst structure and support, which will enable rational catalyst optimization. This work will help in efforts toward creating a reliable, carbon-neutral energy supply.

Innovative Wood-Product as a Nature-Based Solution to Planetary Challenges

Participants: Yuan Yao, Yale School of the Environment, Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Systems; Robert Mendelsohn, Yale School of the Environment, Forestry and Environmental Studies

Themes: Industrial ecology and sustainable systems, forest policy, life-cycle assessment

Using innovative wood products to replace carbon-intensive materials such as steel and concrete is a nature-based solution to climate change and global resource challenges. However, concerns about the impact of wood products on forest carbon stock and ecosystems is a major barrier to their wide adoption. This project will develop an integrated assessment tool to help evaluate the net carbon consequences of innovative wood products across their lifecycle (from forests to wood product manufacturing, use, and end of life) and the effect on ecosystems when new wood products are adopted at a large scale. This can assist in policy and decision-making and may also support biodiversity through its study of ecosystems.

How Does Tree-Mediated Methane Emission Affect the Climate Mitigation Potential of Forests?

Participants: Jordan Peccia, Chemical and Environmental Engineering; Peter Raymond, Yale School of the Environment, Ecosystem Ecology

Themes: Methane emissions, carbon accounting, forestry, microbial ecology

The production and uptake of methane in forests is poorly described and represents a central uncertainty in global methane budgets. The goal of this research is to quantify the magnitude of microbial methane production and uptake (i.e., oxidation) in trees, and their net effect on the greenhouse gas budget and carbon sequestration potential of forests. Proposed studies include gene expression tool development for the high-resolution tracking of in situ methane production and oxidation rates, and field-based studies in northeastern temperate forests to explore methane microbial metabolisms in a variety of tree species, tree tissues, and surrounding soils. Results from this collaborative work will fundamentally support new forest management approaches for mitigating methane emissions in a changing climate and improve the carbon accounting on which global climate models, carbon markets, and emission targets are based.

Climate action and engagement

Understanding the Psychological Drivers of Teenagers’ Pro-Climate Behavior

Participants: Julia Leonard, Psychology; Luke Sanford, Yale School of the Environment, Environmental Policy and Governance

Themes: Behavior change, environmental policy and governance

Any solution to climate change will involve behavior change — both in energy consumption and at the ballot box. Yet there is an incomplete understanding of the psychological drivers of the people who will define and be most impacted by the future of the earth’s climate: youth. This project will uncover knowledge and beliefs that drive teens towards climate activism or climate apathy. To reveal how teens are currently learning about climate change this project will analyze the topics, tone, and motivating features of common textbooks using computational text analysis. Concurrently, through large-scale survey research, it will assess the psychological factors that dictate whether teens adopt pro-climate behavior. This knowledge will inform interventions targeted at advancing public understanding of climate change to motivate future leaders.

Health Care Organization Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accounting Tool for Strategic Management

Participants: Jodi Sherman, Yale School of Medicine, Anesthesiology; Michael Oristaglio, Earth and Planetary Sciences; Robert Klee, Yale School of the Environment; Matthew Eckelman, Yale School of Public Health, Environmental Health

Themes: Carbon emissions reduction, healthcare

The health care sector has critical roles to play in addressing climate change, through serving affected populations, and by tackling its own contributions to emissions. Health care represents 8.5% of carbon emissions in the United States, and nearly 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (a quarter of which stems from the U.S. alone). However, there is currently no granular accounting around specific health care activities, necessary to identify and re-design carbon-intensive clinical service, while maintaining or improving quality and safety. And there is no current open platform in place for tracking and reporting health care supply chain emissions. The aim of this project is to address these gaps by developing a carbon accounting tool to aid health care organizations in tracking and strategically managing their carbon emissions. Given the size of the health care industry — 18% of U.S. gross domestic product — success in this area has the potential to transform other industries as well.

Climate Engagement through Art in Cities

Participants: Karen Seto, Yale School of the Environment; Kymberly Pinder, Yale School of Art; Aicha Woods, Executive Director City Plan Department City of New Haven; Adriane Jefferson, Director of Cultural Affairs City of New Haven; Anna Dyson, Yale School of Architecture; Elihu Rubin, School of Architecture; Xuhui Lee, Yale School of the Environment; David Vlahov, Yale School of Nursing; Angela Chen, Yale School of Art; Colleen Murphy-Dunning, Director Urban Resources Initiative, Yale School of the Environment; Asha Ghosh, Urban Program Manager, Yale School of the Environment

Themes: Cities, climate change and health, public art, community engagement

Cities are often hot. The most recent IPCC report concludes that climate change amplifies the urban heat island effect. Extreme heat causes more deaths than any other weather-related hazard, so cities around the world must adapt quickly to a warming climate. There is growing evidence that solving climate change will require educating all members of the public and mobilizing them to take action. However, public engagement with and understanding of climate change action is relatively low, and many urban residents have had limited opportunities to share strategies to adapt to climate change, even though they are among the most vulnerable. This project brings together art, civic engagement, and new technological innovations with cooling paint to develop art installations that raise awareness about climate change while simultaneously helping cities adapt to it. In addition to its work in climate action and engagement, this project will reach out to civic partners in New Haven.

Climate policy

A Global, High-Resolution, Integrated Model of the Economy, Climate, and Weather

Participants: Tony Smith, Economics; Costas Arkolakis, Economics; Samuel Kortum, Economics; Trude Storelvmo, University of Oslo

Themes: Climate policy, modeling, integrated assessment models

The goal of this interdisciplinary project is to build a computational model of the interactions between the economy, climate, and weather at a high degree of geographic resolution. This model will integrate a spatial model of the economic impacts of climate change with the Norwegian Earth System Model, which makes predictions about temperature, precipitation, wind, and extreme weather events at a high degree of geographic resolution as the climate changes. Capturing such interactions is critical for understanding how the economic impacts of climate change vary across space and time and for devising government policies that can ameliorate these impacts.

Remaking the Global Trading System for a Sustainable Future

Participants: Dan Esty, Yale Law School and Yale School of the Environment; Diana Van Patten, Yale School of Management

Themes: Climate policy, international trade

This multi-year project brings together international trade thought leaders from different backgrounds, countries, disciplines, and perspectives to explore how the global trading system might better align with the international commitment to climate change action, and sustainable development more broadly. Starting with a deep dive on critical issues illuminated through a series of academically rigorous white papers, the project will host a sequence of workshops to frame options and pathways for reforming the World Trade Organization rules and procedures. This will provide a new foundation for international commerce that meets the diverse needs of nations and peoples across the world and provides a pathway to a sustainable future. 

Spatial Economic Models to Evaluate Climate Policy

Participants: Steven Berry, Economics; Costas Arkolakis, Economics

Themes: Climate policy, economic modeling, biology, geophysics

The problem of climate change has fundamentally economic origins, driven by the private economic incentives of firms and households around the world. Solutions to climate change therefore must consider economic forces alongside physical and biological processes. Governments and regulatory agencies use complex economic models, often with an important spatial dimension, to evaluate climate policies related to transportation, biofuels, deforestation, and land use. Unfortunately, the models used in practice are often outdated and have poor empirical foundations. This project seeks to improve the theoretical and empirical dimensions of the spatial economic models that drive real-world policy by building on recent work at Yale and elsewhere to produce a class of models that are well-grounded in up-to-date spatial economics and credible empirical estimates and well-integrated with biological and geophysical insights.

Simulating Pliocene Climate as a Blueprint for Future Warming: From Cloud Physics and Ocean Circulation to Extreme Precipitation and Droughts

Participants: Alexey Federov, Earth and Planetary Sciences; Harvey Weiss, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations; Pincelli Hull, Earth and Planetary Sciences; Juan Lora, Earth and Planetary Sciences; Noah Planavsky, Earth and Planetary Sciences

Themes: Climate modeling, projections, policy, and adaptation

Three to five million years ago, during the Pliocene epoch—the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were similar to those we will be experiencing in the upcoming decades—Earth’s climate was much warmer than today. The goal of this project is to simulate this past climate as an analogue of future warming using, for the first time, the novel Super-Parameterized Community Earth System Model (SP-CESM). Understanding and realistically simulating Pliocene climate, the closest analogue for future global warming, is critical to trusting future climate projections and to implementing climate policy solutions and adaptation strategies.

Energy alternatives

New Paradigm for Solar Energy Harvesting Based on the Bulk Photovoltaic Effect: A Proof of Principle

Participants: Diana Qiu, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science; Charles Ahn, Applied Physics; Peijun Guo, Chemical and Environmental Engineering

Themes: Climate change mitigation, solar energy

The mitigation of climate change requires new, more efficient sources of clean, renewable energy. Sunlight is the most abundant and easily accessible source of energy on earth, but current technology is approaching the limit of its maximum theoretical efficiency. This seed project will develop a proof of principle for a new tandem solar cell based on the bulk photovoltaic effect (BPVE), a potentially transformative technology that would bypass fundamental efficiency limits of conventional photovoltaics by harvesting more of the solar spectrum. This solar technology has the potential to create twice as much current as a conventional solar panel, and be more readily miniaturized, helping to mitigate the climate impact of energy generation.


The Yale Bird-Friendly Building Initiative

Participants: Viveca Morris, Executive Director Yale Law School Law, Ethics and Animals Program, Yale Law School; Ginger Chapman, Director Yale Office of Sustainability; Kristof Zyskowski, Collections Manager for Vertebrate Zoology, Mammalogy, Ornithology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History; Doug Kysar, Yale Law School

Themes: Biodiversity, built environment, public engagement

Scientists estimate that up to one billion birds are killed by window collisions every year in North America. Building collisions are among the leading causes of bird deaths, but the staggering severity of this problem is not yet widely recognized or acted upon by the public, by policymakers, or by large institutions. The Yale Bird-Friendly Building Initiative aims to accelerate the adoption of bird-safe building design on Yale’s campus and beyond through two initial research projects. The first will focus on monitoring and developing a plan to significantly reduce bird-window collisions on Yale’s campus, providing a helpful model for other institutions to follow. The second project will focus on researching and developing innovative public policy proposals at the city, state, and national levels to accelerate the adoption of bird-friendly design nationwide.

Building Capacity for Early Detection of Emerging Infectious Diseases in Chad – a One Health Approach to Protect Human, Livestock, and Wildlife Health

Participants: Amy Bei, Yale School of Public Health, Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases); Adalgisa Caccone, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Dawn Zimmerman, Yale School of Public Health, Epidemiology; Mahamat Fayiz Abakar, Institut de Recherche en Elevage pour le Developpment

Themes: Human health, biodiversity, zoonotic disease

Emerging infectious diseases are on the rise across the world and represent a significant threat to human, livestock, and wildlife health; as seen with the current pandemic, one virus from one country can spread across the world, causing unprecedented effects on human health and livelihoods. It is critical that countries where persistent infectious diseases are endemic, such as Chad, have the capacity not only to deal with such diseases but also to detect and rapidly respond to emergent diseases of pandemic potential. This project will develop a One Health bio surveillance system in Chad to track zoonoses of concern for human and animal health.

Development of a Non-Invasive Surveillance Tool for Wildlife Health: A New Generation of Sensing Technologies for Planetary Solutions

Participants: Serap Aksoy, Yale School of Public Health, Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases); Dawn Zimmerman, Yale School of Public Health, Epidemiology; Aaron Dollar, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science; Vanessa Ezenwa, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and from the University of São Paulo, Brazil: Maristela Martins de Camargo, Dept of Immunology, Institute of Biomedical Sciences; João Paulo do Carmo, Dept of Electrical Engineering, School of Engineering; Thiago Paixão, Dept of Chemistry, Institute of Chemistry

Themes: Biodiversity, human health, infectious disease, robotics

Emerging infectious diseases are not unique to humans; in fact, many pathogens infect a broad range of vertebrates, including wildlife species and domesticated animals; nearly 50% of emerging and re-emerging diseases of humans are classified as zoonotic. In other cases, humans serve as sources of pathogens to wildlife. This project seeks to develop an innovative and unique method to safely acquire biological samples from wildlife, to track the emergence of infectious diseases without risk to animals or people. The autonomous nature of the device means that data can be acquired and transmitted in near real time, and the data then integrated with geospatial information on the movement patterns of humans, livestock, and wildlife. This non-invasive surveillance tool represents the next big step in combating emerging infectious disease threats at the ever-expanding animal-human interface.

The New Haven Harbor Living Laboratory

Participants: James Nikkel, Physics; Peter Raymond, Yale School of the Environment

Themes: Biodiversity, water quality, carbon storage, public engagement

Oyster reefs are critically important for improving and maintaining water quality and reducing turbidity through nutrient uptake, sequestration, and filtration. They also create a valuable habitat for other species and improve coastal resiliency through wave attenuation and generate local “green” economy jobs.  This project is a collaboration between the Yale School of the Environment, the Wright Lab Advanced Instrumentation Development Group, and the New Haven Sound School to expand the Sound School’s artificial oyster reef project and develop enhanced monitoring of water quality through a networked sensor approach. The creation of this artificial reef will provide a “living laboratory” that both Sound School and Yale students and scientists will use to study the impacts of artificial reef building on carbon dioxide chemistry, biodiversity, and eutrophication in the New Haven Harbor.

Evolution science

Improving Drought Tolerance in Plants Through Gene Editing

Participants: Erika Edwards, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Vivian Irish, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology

Themes: Climate adaptation

New gene editing technology has catalyzed the ability to improve global food production via the engineering of crops that can be more productive, more resilient to climate change, and require fewer resources by harnessing and manipulating their photosynthetic potential. This project seeks to understand the functional significance of a newly described photosynthetic metabolism in purslane, which combines two kinds of photosynthesis, C4 and crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). By turning off CAM photosynthesis, the team will be able to test the hypothesis that this mechanism produces high drought tolerance. This work exemplifies a new approach in testing hypotheses of evolutionary adaptation and take the first essential step toward engineering a CAM cycle into C4 crop species such as corn or sugarcane, resulting in more drought-resistant plants.

Environmental justice

Heat-Related Mortality, Air Conditioning and Inequality in the US

Participants: Kai Chen, Yale School of Public Health, Epidemiology; Narasimha Rao, Yale School of the Environment

Themes: Energy systems, climate adaptation, air pollution, inequality

Excess heat, made worse by climate change, kills thousands of people each year in the U.S. Air conditioning (AC) is highly effective in preventing heat-related mortality, but also conveys appreciable harms, including emissions of greenhouse gases and fine particulate matter from power generation, power outages due to high AC use on hot days, and contributions to the urban heat island effect. This project aims to make the first county-level estimate of air conditioning use across the United States and to reveal the extent to which air conditioning use reduces heat-related mortality, and among whom. The project will also begin to examine AC use with an aim of informing policy about the trade-offs between the benefits and harms of increased AC use as a public health measure, geographically and among different populations.

Activating Tenants to Advocate for Energy Justice: Barriers and Solutions

Participants: Annie Harper, Yale School of Medicine, Psychiatry; Laura Bozzi, Director of Programs Center on Climate Change and Health, Yale School of Public Health; Narasimha Rao, Yale School of the Environment; Krystal Pollitt, Yale School of Public Health

Themes: Environmental justice, energy systems, health impacts, public engagement

There is an urgent need to identify strategies to overcome barriers to low-income rental housing energy efficiency, given high associated climate change, racial equity, economic and health justice costs. A major barrier is the landlord-tenant split incentive problem, in which landlords, who do not pay energy bills, and tenants, who by not owning their homes cannot capture the full value of energy-saving investments, have low incentives to invest in energy efficiency. While prior research has focused on addressing barriers to this problem, little attention has been paid to the potential for tenants to work collectively to push for energy efficiency upgrades, so shifting the tenant-landlord balance of power. This community-based, qualitative study will identify mechanisms to engage tenants with residential energy efficiency, advocacy for identified solutions, and the imagining of new solutions.

Building a Digital Repository to Strengthen the Structure for Community-Engaged Research on People and the Environment in New Haven

Participants: Gerald Torres, Yale School of the Environment; Laura Bozzi, Director of Programs Center on Climate Change and Health, Yale School of Public Health; Paul Sabin, History; Colleen Murphy-Dunning, Director Urban Resources Initiative, Yale School of the Environment; Kristin Barendregt-Ludwig, Program Manager Yale Center for Environmental Justice

Themes: Climate change and health, environmental justice, urban ecology, community-engaged research

The benefits of Yale’s research on people and the environment in New Haven are not equally shared between the Yale community and the New Haven community. This project will create a repository of Yale faculty and student research on people and the environment in New Haven communities for the last 10 years. It will measure research impact and develop an accessible platform for New Haven residents as well as faculty and students to build on existing research and avoid duplicating efforts.  This project is an important first step to strengthen the structures for Yale faculty and students to carry out the principles of community-engaged research to support more equitable, impactful, and visible Yale/New Haven research partnerships, and allow faculty and students to build on existing research and avoid duplicating efforts.

Advancement of public understanding of global environmental threats and solutions

Energy Humanities Project

Paul Sabin, History; Doug Rogers, Anthropology; Sunil Amrith, History; Jennifer Raab, History of Art; Deborah Coen, History of Science and Medicine; Gerald Torres, Yale School of the Environment; Narasimha Rao, Yale School of the Environment; Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan, Anthropology; Katja Lindskog, English; Lisa Messeri, Anthropology; Cajetan Iheka, English; Doug Kysar, Yale Law School; Michael Warner, English; John Durham Peters, English; Bill Rankin, History

Themes: Energy systems, environmental justice, public engagement

Remaking energy systems and developing solutions to climate change require understanding the complex social and cultural forces that shape people’s relationships with each other and to energy. This project seeks to deepen understanding of the histories and cultures of energy, across geographic regions and temporal scales, with lessons to guide future energy transitions. Through research, teaching, and public engagement, the Energy Humanities Project will examine past and current efforts to shape energy systems, identify important cultural barriers to change, and share vital lessons for future policy and societal change.