The Sustainability Accelerator serves as a launch pad to leverage knowledge and expertise at Stanford and co-develop potentially scalable sustainability technology and policy solutions with external partners worldwide, with the goal to substantially and measurably improve the quality of human life and our planet.
Interim Director for Policy Engagement, Sustainability Accelerator
"The sustainability challenge is not going to be solved just by technology – technology is critical, but we also need policy change. We need to work with policymakers, to co-create questions and produce answers on a time frame that’s generally faster than the academic research time frame."
The challenge of scaling
Examples of addressing sustainability at scale include reducing emissions by 0.5 billion tons of CO2 per year, adaptation measures for 1 billion people against the risks of climate-induced weather extremes, or achieving the protection of 30 percent of Earth's land and ocean by 2030.
Many industrial processes including chemicals, cement, and steel manufacturing, all crucial to modern developed economies, require large quantities of high-quality heat at various temperatures. Today, this need is met by burning fossil fuels—mostly natural gas and coal. Developing scalable methods for producing zero-carbon industrial heat is thus a key challenge for dramatically reducing emissions while maintaining quality of life. Multiple funded Accelerator projects at Stanford are exploring new, potentially transformative approaches to this problem. Stanford scientists and engineers, with support from the Sustainability Accelerator, are involved in intensive external engagement to fully understand steel industry constraints and needs with respect to the problem—ensuring that future planned work targeting zero-carbon steel manufacture doesn’t pursue inadequate solutions. At the same time, the Sustainability Accelerator is supporting the scale-up of a promising new inductive-heat-based chemical manufacturing approach. This technology harnesses recent advances in power electronics and materials science to provide much more efficient delivery of heat to catalysts than is typically possible in current chemical manufacturing. This approach, if it scales, has the potential not only to allow for decarbonization of multiple industrial processes, but also to change their economies of scale in ways that could significantly increase rates of productivity improvement in these industries.
Protecting and restoring marine fisheries is one of the keys to future food security. After centuries of poor management and wishful thinking, solutions are starting to emerge and a substantial number of once-imperiled fisheries are now sustainable or recovered. The paths to recovery are diverse, with issues, actors, and solutions that vary with location and fish stock. Stanford scholars, especially in the Center for Ocean Solutions, have played a key role in the protection and recovery of imperiled fisheries, and there is much more to do in the future. Paths to scaling can involve partnerships with the large fish companies to address illegal fishing, with national governments to help establish marine protected areas, or with local fishers to facilitate access to markets and efficient market transactions. In each kind of case, the role of Stanford scholars is catalytic. Stanford scholars help identify a viable entry point to the fishery or location, test and build diverse partnerships with entities that have the potential to take solutions to the global scale, and deliver action plans that deliver on the promise. Especially in the open ocean, where norms and enforcement are both weak, scalable solutions depend heavily on the vitality of the partnerships driving the solutions. Stanford brings the combination of top-level scholarship, experience with partnership building, and credibility to catalyze results at a scale that would otherwise be impossible.
Markets to allow trading between entities that emit CO2 and those that verifiably and permanently remove atmospheric CO2 would create incentives for reducing carbon emissions and also allow trillions of dollars of transactions to support climate solutions. However, widely accepted methods for carbon accounting don’t currently exist, making those transactions mistrusted and unviable. Carbon accounting needs to be based on the science of removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it on land and in oceans. This requires rigorous quantification, uncertainty estimation, and measuring changes over time. Decades’ worth of research at Stanford’s Natural Capital Project provides such a scientific foundation. The Accelerator is ideally suited to leverage this science; convene various business, government, and nonprofit stakeholders; and help develop relevant methods and risk metrics to create carbon accounting standards. However, Stanford would not be best positioned to oversee a novel carbon accounting framework. Instead, to scale this approach, the Accelerator could potentially launch an international nonprofit organization to enable international trade in carbon-focused transactions.
Elements of the accelerator
To successfully achieve the goals of the Accelerator, we envision programs that provide access to the network, funding, training, and expertise necessary to drive and scale solutions at a speed the world urgently needs.
We are creating a network of partners that will continuously catalyze and stimulate Stanford’s research and education mission by uncovering fundamental, unanswered questions that are critical for solving the world’s sustainability challenges.
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The Sustainability Accelerator has funded its first cohort of 30 teams whose multidisciplinary projects are intended to advance sustainability solutions through partnerships on local, regional, and global scales. Topics of the funded grants include clean-energy technologies, environmental justice, human health and community well-being, sustainable manufacturing, policy, finance, technology development, biodiversity, and more. About half the funded projects are focused primarily on technology and half on policy or finance.
The Accelerator will develop programs and resources that will offer students, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, mid-career fellows, current and aspiring policy makers, and corporate executives a framework to address sustainability challenges with the necessary breadth and depth needed for sound decision making.
Our solutions teams will benefit from guidance by project mentors as well as domain experts with backgrounds in science, engineering, industry, finance, policy, and other relevant areas who can help mentors and solutions teams with the necessary expertise, as well as connections with business, finance, NGO, government, and other partners, or who can provide expertise in areas not commonly found in academia.
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