Salata Institute Funds Eight New Climate Research Projects 

Today, the Salata Institute announced a third round of seed grant awards for work on understudied and emerging topics in climate and sustainability. The projects include research into new methods of direct air capture of carbon dioxide, the role animals play in global carbon cycles, new frameworks for climate migration, and more.
Apr 9, 2024

The Salata Institute Seed Grant Program supports new research, encourages new interdisciplinary partnerships, and enables faculty whose work is not normally in climate and sustainability to apply their expertise to the climate challenge. With the addition of these eight awards, the Salata Institute now supports 27 research projects on understudied and emerging climate topics through this program. 

This program is part of the Salata Institute’s aggressive efforts to expand climate and sustainability research at Harvard University. Since its launch in June 2022, the Institute has awarded over $8.68M in climate and sustainability research funding, supporting the work of 62 faculty from across Harvard University.  

Harvard faculty members interested in the Salata Institute Seed Grant Program, which is supported by a gift from the Troper Wojcicki Foundation, can access the current call for proposals here to learn more about the program. Applications for the Salata Institute Seed Grant Program will be considered three times per year, with deadlines of the second Friday of January, May, and September. 

A gallery of photos shows: an African elephant; a view of Hanoi; roots in soil; a food warehouse; an aerial shot of a farm field.
Direct Air Capture of CO2: Redox-Mediated Salt Splitting 

Principal Investigator: Michael Aziz, Gene and Tracy Sykes Professor of Materials and Energy Technologies, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences 

Despite global efforts, the world is not yet on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert some of the harshest climate change scenarios. In some regions and sectors of the economy, emissions reductions could take decades to materialize. Direct Air Capture (DAC), or the removal of carbon dioxide directly from the air, could work in tandem with emissions reductions to stem climate risks. But current DAC technology can be energy-intensive and expensive, making it difficult or impossible to scale to the degree needed to have a meaningful climate benefit. 

With seed grant funding from the Salata Institute, researchers led by Principal Investigator Michael Aziz will develop a novel electrochemical process, known as redox-mediated salt splitting (RMSS). The researchers envision this process as the centerpiece of a new chemical cycle for the capture and removal of carbon dioxide from the air. “The proposed electrochemical process holds promise as a platform for scalable carbon dioxide capture operating in a continuous cycle, based on entirely sustainable and non-critical materials, powered by potentially inexpensive carbon-free electricity,” said Aziz.  

The seed grant award will support researchers as they work toward a successful demonstration of RMSS at the lab-scale proof-of-concept stage.  

Quantifying the Magnitude of Zoogeochemical Effects on Vegetation Carbon Stocks 

Principal Investigator: Andrew Davies, Assistant Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University 

Currently, most regional and global carbon cycle models – models that are important to our understanding of the trajectory of climate change – leave animals out of the picture. But researchers in the emerging field of zoogeochemistry point out that animals play a critical role in shaping carbon cycles. Take elephants, for example. “Many tree species in Congo forests rely exclusively on forest elephants to disperse seeds over long distances or to locations favorable for germination,” said Davies. “These tree species have large fruits and seeds that can only be handled by elephants, and become tall, large-diameter trees with high carbon storage.” 

Leaving animals out of carbon cycle models can contribute to uncertainties about the role animals could play in natural climate solutions. 

With seed grant funding from the Salata Institute, Principal Investigator Andrew Davies will seek to uncover the role of critically endangered African forest elephants, Loxodonta cyclotis, in determining the amount of carbon that can be stored in vegetation in the Congo Basin. Davies looks to use field plots, Unoccupied Aerial Vehicle-Light Detection and Ranging (UAV-LiDAR) and satellite data combined with forest elephant distribution data and abiotic (climate, geology and elevation) variables to disentangle the role of forest elephants as drivers of spatial variation in aboveground carbon stocks (ACS).  

The Changing Composition of Soil Carbon Inputs: Root Exudate Responses to Climate Change 

Principal Investigator: Benton Taylor, Assistant Professor, Department of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University 

The natural ability of soils to store carbon is one of the most important stages of the global carbon cycle and will play a key role in future climate change mitigation. Root exudates – organic compounds like amino acids and simple sugars secreted from roots into the soil – account for 20% of below-ground carbon allocation. Climate change is having a dramatic impact on this process. Yet most research has focused on how rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is changing exudation rates, rather than changes to the chemical composition of exudates. 

“In recent work, we have shown that differences between common exudate compounds have a larger effect on stable soil carbon formation than even a five-fold change in the amount of exudation. As we develop models of soil carbon dynamics under future climate scenarios, it is critical we consider exudate chemistry,” said Taylor.   

To prepare a proposal for a large-scale study on how climate change will impact the composition of exudates, Taylor will use a Salata Institute seed grant to collect the first data on changing exudate chemistry from in-situ, large-scale global change experiments ongoing in Minnesota and Illinois.  

Adaptive Climate Migration: A Case Study of Resettlement from the Solomon Islands to Canada  

Principal Investigator: Hannah Teicher, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard University Graduate School of Design 

By 2050, the current numbers of climate-related migrants will swell, with estimates ranging from 25 million to 1.2 billion. 

Climate migrants tend to experience a host of negative impacts as they relocate, from declining mental and physical health to the loss of livelihoods. A comprehensive, formal strategy to facilitate climate-related relocation could enhance the well-being of climate migrants and even improve community adaptation.  

But formal recognition of climate migrants as a distinct immigrant or refugee category with its own set of policies and programmatic responses would raise complex challenges and a host of questions: Who qualifies? How would places be deemed uninhabitable? Can current legal frameworks, such as the 1951 Convention on Refugees, be expanded without exacerbating anti-immigrant sentiment?   

“In the context of current migration law, crossing international borders due to climate-related events leaves migrants in legal and administrative limbo. With each passing year of record-breaking climate impacts, filling these institutional and legal gaps takes on greater urgency,” said Teicher.  

With seed grant funding from the Salata Institute, Principal Investigator Hannah Teicher, alongside Co-Principal Investigator Michael Hooper, will study a pilot program in British Columbia that is facilitating migration from the low-lying Solomon Islands. The study will entail semi-structured interviews over the summer of 2024 with three groups: Solomon Islanders relocating to Canada; decision-makers at resettlement-related NGOs and public agencies in Canada; and provincial and federal policymakers with an interest in revising climate migration policy. The researchers intend the findings to inform policy agendas and lay the foundation for more extensive comparative international research on climate-related migration and resettlement.  

Climate Change and Volatility in Food Supply: A New Workshop 

Principal Investigator: Peter Huybers, Department Chair, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University 

Between 1950 and the early 2010s, something remarkable happened: despite a tripling of the human population, the number of people without enough to eat was falling. Over the past decade, that trend has reversed.  Rising food insecurity, driven by many intersecting trends, accelerated during the COVID19 pandemic.  

Looking to the future, the potential for increasingly frequent and severe heat waves, sunlight, flood, and drought variations may lead to more frequent and intense food shocks.  The joint and interacting influence of these climatic factors, however, has never been empirically estimated at the global scale, in part due to data constraints. Similarly, the degree to which farmers have adapted to these individual and interacting shocks is, surprisingly, unknown at the global scale. Together, this leaves large uncertainties in the effect of climate change on future food supply and food security.   

With seed grant funding from the Salata Institute, Peter Huybers and Missy Holbrook are convening a workshop focused on acquiring and deploying the necessary data to better understand the implications of climate change for food production. 

A Meeting of the Macroeconomics Minds on Climate 

Principal Investigator: Adrien Bilal, Assistant Professor of Economics, Harvard University  
The scale of climate change and the transition to a decarbonized economy raises important questions for macroeconomists. Among the questions that demand a closer look are: What are the economic consequences of climate change and extreme events? How will the comparative advantages of sectors, regions and firms in energy use and generation shift and interact with the climate? 
With seed grant funding from the Salata Institute, Adrien Bilal, Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard University, will host a new workshop to bring together macroeconomists considering these and other climate policy and traditional macroeconomic policy questions. At the workshop, taking place in April at Harvard University, researchers will discuss the current research and ways macroeconomists can strengthen and improve the response to climate change, both by society broadly and, more narrowly, by those responsible for climate policy and traditional macroeconomic policy. 

International Workshop on Climate-Resilient Development in Southeast Asia  

Principal Investigator: Michael McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies, 

Harvard Paulson School of Engineering & Applied Sciences (SEAS) and FAS Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University 

Climate change is projected to cause growing loss and damage to societies around the world in the near future, even if current mitigation goals are met. How to maintain and enhance “climate resilience” – the capacity of socio-ecosystems to survive and develop in a changing climate – is of utmost importance.  

Countries in Southeast Asia are developing social and economic systems and building capacity to cope with global warming and the possibility of a climate “overshoot” (a scenario in which the world warms by greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius for some period). Yet several important knowledge gaps persist. Harvard researchers point to a geographical bias to study resilience in big cities and coastal areas; a lack of focus on connections between climate resilience and environmental health; a lack of modeling in developing contexts; and a failure to reconcile the scientific drivers of climate change with planning on how to effectively deliver assistance.  

With seed grant funding from the Salata Institute, Principal Investigator Michael McElroy along with Co-Principal Investigators Dr. Michael VanRooyen and Liang Emlyn Yang will host a two-day workshop in July to promote research exchange among scholars and inform climate resilient development pathways in Southeast Asia.  

“Promoting climate-resilient development is a key priority in fields like civil protection, urban planning, health care and others. This workshop will bring together a diversity of regions, disciplines, methodologies, and scholars at varying career stages to foster international climate resilience research,” said McElroy.  

African Perspectives on International Climate Law – A Symposium 

Principal Investigator: Gerald Neuman, J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, Harvard Law School; Director, Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School 

The number of climate change-related judicial proceedings has increased 2.5-fold globally since 2017. Against the backdrop of ineffective political negotiations, litigation with potentially far-reaching implications on the obligations of states will have bearings on overlapping legal fields including environmental law, law of the sea, trade and investment law, human rights law and, more broadly, the law of state responsibility.  

Yet African perspectives, while crucial and having the potential to shape the world’s response to climate change, are at risk of being overlooked in global norm-making processes due to pre-existing power structures.   

With seed grant funding from the Salata Institute, the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School launched a project that solicits and addresses African perspectives on international and regional legal and policy debates on climate change.  

“In light of the climate change threats in Africa, and the historic underrepresentation of African voices in the development of international law, it is important to work out African perspectives on global developments in climate change law in a way that takes into account regional, sub-regional, state, and local differences,” said Principal Investigator Gerald Neuman, who is working alongside Co-Principal Investigators Alicia Ely Yamin and Abadir M. Ibrahim.  

Consisting of a series of symposia and publications, the project explores African contributions to what can be described as a transnational normative dialogue on international climate law and overlapping legal fields.