From cooling strategies to methane reduction, second annual seed grant awardees continue to build planetary solutions

Collage of climate, health and biodiversity-related images
May 1, 2023

In its second year, the Planetary Solutions Project seed grant program distributed over $1.5 million to 23 projects building novel solutions to improve human health in a changing climate, capture carbon more efficiently, cool our cities, and enhance the ability of plants and animals to thrive.

These projects focus on mitigating harm, adapting to change, and engaging the public, as described in the Planetary Solutions Project Framework. Awarded projects this year clustered around biodiversity, carbon capture, emissions mitigation, climate policy & action, and human health.

These grants were made possible by the Climate Impact Innovation Fund, the Gordon Data and Environmental Sciences Research Grants, the Natural Carbon Solutions Fund, and the Science Catalyst Fund for Planetary Solutions. The awarded projects are described below.

Climate and Biodiversity-Linked Human Health

High Ambient Temperatures During Pregnancy and Risk of Offspring Cerebral Palsy

Participants: Tormod Rogne, Yale School of Public Health, Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology; Zeyan Liew, Yale School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health Sciences; Kai Chen, Yale School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health Sciences; Joshua Warren, Yale School of Public Health, Department of Biostatistics

As the Earth gets hotter, we will see a host of problems. An increase in cerebral palsy may be among them. Cerebral palsy is the most common and severe motor disability in childhood, with disproportionally higher rates among non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic children in the United States. There are reasons to believe high ambient temperatures during pregnancy may increase the risk of cerebral palsy among the offspring, although no research has addressed this question yet. In this study, the team will evaluate all people with cerebral palsy born in California between 2000 and 2015 (about 10,000 people), comparing them with 20% of the California birth cohort in the same years (about 1.6 million people). This research could significantly impact the way we understand cerebral palsy, providing new insights that could lead to a shift in approaches to preventing the condition.

Addressing Urban Heat in the Dwight Neighborhood of New Haven: A Prototype for Neighborhood-Level Planning

Participants: Andrei Harwell, School of Architecture, Yale Urban Design Workshop; Robert Dubrow, Yale School of Public Health; Alan Plattus, School of Architecture, Yale Urban Design Workshop; Laura Bozzi, Yale Center on Climate Change and Health

Heat has disproportionate economic and health effects on low-income communities of color in inner-city neighborhoods. Climate change is worsening this inequity. In response, faculty from the School of Public Health and the School of Architecture will develop and test a model methodology to analyze environmental heat exposure, its health and other impacts, and potential solutions in New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood. The researchers will test the hypothesis that there is meaningful heterogeneity in temperature exposure even within a small neighborhood. They will provide a model transferable to other neighborhoods and other cities. The primary data collected will be used as scientific input into a Dwight neighborhood planning process, contributing directly to the development and siting of specific strategies and project proposals to mitigate the impacts of urban heat.

New Consortium to Understand and Mitigate Public Health Threats That Emerge from Accelerating Environmental Change in Africa [planning grant]

Participants: James Hassell, Yale School of Public Health, and Smithsonian’s Global Health Program; Serap Aksoy and Albert Ko, Yale School of Public Health; Eli Fenichel and Karen Seto, Yale School of the Environment; Vanessa Ezenwa, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Joseph Kamau, Institute of Primate Research, Kenya

Human impacts on the environment—such as shifts in land-use and changes to food systems—can produce public health threats. Think of air pollution and infectious disease. Yet, the processes driving these threats are often poorly understood, which makes it difficult for companies, governments, and institutions to forecast and mitigate health crises. Yale University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Institute of Primate Research and other international partners are launching a new US-Africa consortium to better understand the science that underlies these threats and to provide stakeholders with new epidemiological and financial tools to forecast and mitigate their impacts on people’s health. About 40 US-, Africa- and Europe-based scientists, practitioners and donors will gather for a workshop to frame, prioritize and map challenges and opportunities, and develop a ten-year, fully costed knowledge-to-action roadmap in preparation for a significant external funding request.

Breathing Inequality: Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Health in the US

Participants: Kai Chen, Yale School of Public Health; Yuan Lu, Yale School of Medicine

This research aims to address the inequalities in air pollution exposure, health risk, and cardiovascular disease burden in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the U.S. Such communities have a higher burden of exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution, face greater risk of related cardiovascular disease, and are disproportionately burdened by that cardiovascular disease. The pilot project brings together faculty from different fields to understand, and to find strategies to eliminate, these disparities. The first phase will determine the variability of PM2.5 exposure by neighborhood, assess if cardiovascular disease risks are higher in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and finally, identify which neighborhoods face the largest disease burden from PM2.5. The team will use the results to design location-specific strategies to eliminate these inequalities.

Deployment of a Low-Cost Sensor Network to Measure CO2 Emissions and Pollution Exposure Across the City of New Haven

Participants: Xuhui Lee, Yale School of the Environment; Drew Gentner, Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering; Peter Raymond, Yale School of the Environment; James Nikkel, Wright Laboratory; Ravish Dubey, Yale School of the Environment

Cities are hotspots for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which drive climate change, and particulate matter air pollution, which causes respiratory and heart problems. In cities, these two types of pollution are highly correlated due to fossil fuel combustion. CO2 emissions are generally measured at the country level, making the data too coarse to inform local climate mitigation actions. This team is developing low-cost Internet-of-Things sensors to measure outdoor air. They will monitor CO2 and particulate emissions in and around New Haven, quantifying air pollution exposure in different neighborhoods and examining correlations between exposure, demographics, and socioeconomics. Their technical innovations could be deployed in cities worldwide, providing useful data to help city planners understand the sources and effects of emissions.

Climate Policy

Measuring Carbon Leakage and Spillover Effects in Environmental Impact Evaluations

Participants: Fredrik Savje, Political Science/Statistics and Data Science; Luke Sanford, Yale School of the Environment, Political Science, Environmental Policy and Governance

Carbon credits are a popular and potentially useful financial technology to help decarbonize the global economy, but their efficacy and general trustworthiness are unclear at best. One barrier to understanding the effectiveness of carbon credits is that reducing emissions in one place can increase emissions in another. This is known as leakage. To estimate leakage resulting from carbon credit markets this team will use randomized field experiments and causal inference methods to measure how programs and policies in certain places shift the burden of carbon emissions to other parts of the world. The goal of the project is to enable accurate measurement of the effectiveness of carbon credits in reducing emissions.

Transportation Electrification at Scale: Catalyzing a Sustained Strategy for Planetary Solutions Research-to-Impact

Participants: Ken Gillingham, Yale School of the Environment; David Wilkinson, Tobin Center for Economic Policy; Barbara Suzi Ruhl, Yale School of Public Health, Elevate Policy Lab, Yale Child Studies Center; Nathanael McLaughlin, Tobin Center for Economic Policy

Transportation is the largest contributor to carbon emissions in Connecticut. To reduce those emissions, this project will help Connecticut electrify its transportation system effectively, equitably, and affordably, while advancing essential research on this national and global challenge. A research fellow will join Connecticut’s state government, working closely with Yale researchers, to provide necessary analytical capacity, develop practical policy solutions, and advance novel research on the complex problems of transportation system electrification at scale. The project addresses several policy and technology deployment hurdles that need to be overcome to achieve successful transportation electrification in the state, including affordability, planning at scale, and contextual impact on the economy and environment.

The Future of Growth in the Climate Transition [planning grant]

Participants: Rohini Pande, Department of Economics; Costas Arkolakis, Department of Economics; Nicholas Ryan, Department of Economics

To meet climate targets and combat the inequality exacerbated by climate change, countries like China, India, and those in sub-Saharan Africa will need to pursue growth that is decoupled from carbon dioxide emissions. This path differs significantly from the growth models of high-income countries. While technological advancements and lower renewable energy costs may enable “green” growth, achieving it will require solving for institutional and state capacity, political economy factors, and international climate financing, all while reducing poverty and inequality. To help address these issues, the Yale Economic Growth Center is launching a policy-oriented research program that will bring together academic researchers from several fields, as well as public and private sector stakeholders from low- and middle-income countries.

Protecting biodiversity

Enhancing Capacity of Wildlife GPS Collars for Environmental Health

Participants: Nyeema Harris, Yale School of the Environment; Xuhui Lee, Yale School of the Environment; Amal El-Ghazaly, Cornell University School of Engineering

Urban wildlife, such as coyotes, foxes, skunks, and raccoons, face risks from chemical and drug bioaccumulation and from traffic. They also carry zoonotic diseases, which exacerbate risks to human and animal health. Most animal tracking collars focus almost exclusively on collecting movement data for precise animal location. This project team includes a wildlife ecologist, atmospheric scientist, and electronic engineer, focusing on urban carnivores in Detroit, Michigan, one of the most polluted cities in the US. The project will develop an enhanced GPS collar that, in addition to biometric information, collects ambient environmental data including temperature, humidity, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds. These collars could lead to improvements in public health by providing data to better track and predict dangers for both animals and humans.

Detecting Early-Warning Signals of Animal Disease from Space

Participants: Vanessa Ezenwa, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Steve Chang, Department of Psychology.

The biodiversity crisis is being driven by climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, and emerging infectious diseases. Disease outbreaks are an existential threat to wild animal populations, creating both direct and indirect risks for human health. However, our ability to detect these threats early, and to mitigate them, is limited. This project uses satellite imagery to detect changes in wild animal behavior as early warning signals of disease. By integrating approaches from infectious disease ecology, animal cognition, and remote sensing, the team will test whether satellite imagery can help identify how pathogen infection changes animal behavior, which could enable early detection of infectious diseases in animal populations.

Drought Resilience Mechanisms in Ancient Egyptian Wheats and Implications for Modern Crop Strategies

Participants: Craig Brodersen, Yale School of the Environment; Stephen Wood, Yale School of the Environment and The Nature Conservancy; Kate Birney, Wesleyan University

As climate change increases the prevalence and severity of drought, common agricultural crop varieties may yield less, driving food scarcity. This team will study the drought tolerance traits of two ancient wheat cultivars from Egypt that were selected and bred by regional farmers for multiple generations. The team will identify the key traits that confer drought tolerance in wheat to inform current agricultural practices and breeding programs and help arid parts of the world grow drought-tolerant grains. The team hopes to understand the cultural and societal implications of abandoning indigenous agricultural practices and biodiverse seed sources within the historical context of ancient Egypt.

Developing Interdisciplinary Plant Sciences at Yale [planning grant]

Participants: Vivian Irish, Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; Craig Brodersen, Yale School of the Environment; Liza Comita, Yale School of the Environment; Jennifer Coughlan, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Erika Edwards, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Joshua Gendron, Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; Tamas Horvath, Yale School of Medicine; Yannick Jacob, Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology

At Yale, there is growing interest and investment in basic and applied research in the plant sciences, ranging from synthetic biology to understanding ecosystems. This team is establishing a new working group, Interdisciplinary Plant Sciences at Yale, focused on bringing together researchers from various programs to collaborate on projects and forge new relationships between research programs. The team is organizing a kick-off symposium in Fall 2023, followed by workshops each semester. The aim is to identify and establish interdisciplinary projects involving 4-6 research groups to address urgent priorities related to biodiversity and climate.

Yale Bird-Friendly Building Initiative

Participants: Viveca Morris, Law, Ethics & Animals Program; Richard Prum, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Cathy Jackson, Office of Facilities; Kristof Zyskowski, Peabody Museum of Natural History; Amber Garrard, Office of Sustainability

Scientists estimate that up to one billion birds are killed by window collisions every year in North America. These deaths are preventable, but the severity of this problem is not yet widely recognized or acted upon by the public, by policymakers, by architects, or by large institutions. Launched in 2022 with the support of the Yale Planetary Solutions Project, the Yale Bird-Friendly Building Initiative aims to accelerate the adoption of bird-safe building design and materials on Yale’s campus and beyond. So far, the initiative has identified, mapped, and catalogued over 1900 bird collisions and has helped the university implement bird-safe building designs in five buildings. In 2023-2024, the initiative will expand its monitoring work, test the efficacy of Yale’s current retrofit mitigation efforts on specific buildings, and publish a data-driven action plan for how Yale can make its campus safer for birds. The initiative will also publish a first-of-its-kind report on the effectiveness of emerging city policies aimed at accelerating the adoption of bird-friendly design at greater scale.

Using Thermal Performance Data to Improve Forecasts of Extinction Risk and Global Diversity Under Climate Change [planning grant]

Participants: David Vasseur, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Martha Munoz, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Carling Bieg, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Climate change threatens global biodiversity. However, the tools to forecast extinction risk for populations of species are limited. These tools are unequipped to consider the necessary evolutionary, organismal and ecological factors that determine thermal performance—a species’ response to changing temperatures. Using thermal performance to yield viable estimates of extinction risk for a population or species requires linking ideas in organismal biology to those in population ecology, and then grounding those inferences using an appropriate evolutionary framework. These topics typically represent separate disciplines within the field of ecology and evolutionary biology. This project team will host a symposium and working group to identify and evaluate the tools and assumptions needed to improve our understanding of the impact of temperature change when estimating extinction risk.

Carbon Emissions Mitigation

Advancing Electrocatalytic Dehalogenation Reactions for Carbon-Neutral Water Treatment

Participants: Hailiang Wang, Department of Chemistry; Jaehong Kim, Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering

Halogenated organic compounds are prevalent in managed waters, which poses threats to human health. These compounds include chlorinated and fluorinated chemicals, such as the persistent pollutants known as PFAS. Treating these compounds is challenging and current water decontamination methods rely on fossil fuel-based chemicals, production of which emits carbon. This project aims to generate carbon-neutral approaches to remove halogenated organic contaminants from water by developing electrocatalytic decontamination methods that use renewable energy and produce clean water.

Healthcare Organization Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accounting Tool for Strategic Management

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

Healthcare represents 8.5% of US carbon emissions and over 5% of emissions globally. Given the size and complexity of the healthcare industry, and that the main “product is a clinical outcome,” measuring and managing those emissions is difficult. But it is necessary to meet emissions reduction targets. This project, now funded for a second year, is developing a carbon accounting tool to assist healthcare organizations with this challenge. The tool will be designed to accurately measure and track greenhouse gas emissions for healthcare organizations, including the especially elusive emissions from supply chain activities. Though many emissions tracking tools exist, none provide the granularity required for the many activities and products involved in safe healthcare provision.

Reducing Global Temperatures by Lowering Atmospheric Methane Produced by Syntrophic Microbial Consortia Exchanging Electrons via Cytochrome Nanowires

Participants: Nikhil Malvankar, Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry; Sibel Ebru Yalcin, Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry; Gunter Wegener, University of Bremen, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology

As the second most abundant hydrocarbon in earth’s atmosphere, methane is a major driver of increasing global temperatures. Over 50% of atmospheric methane comes from microbial respiration. This team aims to harness a method of microbial respiration they have discovered to inhibit methane production and promote methane consumption. The team has developed methods to measure and image extracellular electron transfer in living microbial communities and has discovered a novel form of microbial respiration called direct interspecies electron transfer (DIET) involving nanowires made of polymerized cytochromes. This project employs genomics, imaging, and modelling tools to identify strategies to control the microbial activity responsible for methane production.

Natural Carbon Capture, Storage, and Utilization

Reactive Electrified Membrane for Natural Surface Water Carbon Utilization and Storage Pump

Participants: Lea Winter, Chemical and Environmental Engineering; Sparkle Malone, Yale School of the Environment

Scientists are striving to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere affordably and at scale. Carbon dioxide naturally dissolves into surface waters to form high-concentration solutions of inorganic carbon. In fact, carbon in surface water is roughly an order of magnitude more concentrated than in the atmosphere. Starting with canal-based water distribution systems in Florida, the objective of this project is to create a novel electrified filtration system capable of extracting dissolved carbon from surface water and converting it into valuable replacements for certain fossil-based chemicals and fuels.

Coupling Enhanced Weathering and Silvopasture in the American Midwest

Participants: Alexis Weintraub, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; Noah Planavsky, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; Mark Ashton, Yale School of the Environment

Agriculture is a significant source of carbon emissions. The use of basalt rock dust, a byproduct of mining and hydroponic industries, as a low-cost soil amendment could provide a solution. However, further experiments are needed to determine the economic viability and scalability of this farming method. This project team aims to demonstrate the viability of carbon-negative agricultural production in the Midwestern United States. They will transition conventional fields in a corn-soy rotation to silvopasture, an approach incorporating trees and forages into a grazing system. They will also apply waste basalt rock dust to the fields to accelerate the natural carbon sequestration process, a method known as enhanced rock weathering. With these techniques, the team hopes to create a biodiverse, scalable, financially viable model for carbon-negative agriculture that can be applied on a larger scale.

Carbon Dioxide Storage Through Mineralization: From Pore-Scale to Formation-Scale

Participants: Amir Pahlavan, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science; John Wettlaufer, Department of Geophysics, Mathematics and Physics

Capturing and storing carbon dioxide is one of many approaches necessary to avoid the worst risks of climate change. But we know relatively little about how to store carbon in underground rock formations such that it will not leak. Pilot field tests confirm that injecting carbon dioxide into reactive subsurface environments can lead it to form solids and become trapped. However, injection can also lead to dissolution, subsequent fracturing, and the creation of flow pathways that could reduce storage capacity and even cause leakage. This project aims to improve our understanding of dissolution/precipitation reactions and transport in porous media. Using microfluidic and bench-top experiments, numerical simulations, and theoretical modeling, the team hopes to create predictive models for effective storage of carbon dioxide in subsurface formations.

Flow Photocatalysis to Boost Organic Carbon Synthesis from Methane and CO2 for Soil Restoration  

Participants: Shu Hu, Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering; Yuan Yao, Yale School of the Environment; Nanette Boyle, Colorado State University

Coal mines leak methane, which drives climate change and pollutes local air. Coal mines also degrade soils, limiting local habitat for plants and animals. This team is developing a photocatalysis technology to convert methane and carbon dioxide to acetic acids, which can be fed to microbes to generate organic matter and applied to degraded soil to improve its fertility. The team will optimize the photon energy that drives selective photocatalysis to minimize the energy input required to drive catalytic reactions. They will also investigate the lifecycle carbon/energy balances and the economic feasibility of this carbon conversion method, developing pathways for biomass-based soil restoration at remote mining sites.

Climate Change Adaptation

Climate Engagement through Art in Cities

Participants: Annie Lin, Project Specialist, Yale School of Art; Asha Ghosh, Yale School of the Environment; Karen Seto, Yale School of the Environment; Kymberly Pinder, Yale School of Art; Elihu Rubin, Yale School of Architecture

A recent IPCC report concludes that climate change amplifies the urban heat island effect, making cities hotter. 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 and mobilizing the public to take action. However, many urban residents have had limited opportunities to share strategies to adapt to climate change, even though they are among the most vulnerable. Entering its second year, this collaboration with civic partners in New Haven brings together art, civic engagement, and new technological innovations with cooling paint to develop murals that raise awareness about climate change while helping cities adapt to it.

Passive Cooling with Terracotta and Hydrogel

Participants: Celia Toche and Susana La Porta Drago, Yale School of Architecture; Jeannette Ickovics and Kai Chen, Yale School of Public Health

Building systems play a crucial role in climate adaptation, but they can be expensive and inaccessible to many communities. This team is developing adaptable prototypes of exterior walls designed to provide passive cooling in diverse climates. The project tests two different terracotta and hydrogel wall prototypes in Mexico City and Jujuy, Argentina using local variations of construction methods employed in almost every part of the world. Once the cooling performance of these adapted walls is confirmed, the method will be made accessible to self-builders and DIYers in an affordable and achievable way.