Q&A: Sustainability dean talks fossil-fuel funding, student voices

May 9, 2023, 10:57 p.m.

The Doerr School of Sustainability opened its doors this year for students to work on sustainability issues in an interdisciplinary academic setting, and the school recently announced it would designate emissions removal as its first flagship destination: a focus area for the institution at large. In its inaugural year, some students and faculty have criticized the new school for accepting money from fossil fuel companies.

The Daily spoke with Arun Majumdar, the inaugural dean of the Doerr school, to learn about recent developments in the Doerr school and to reflect on the past year.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


The Stanford Daily [TSD]: So the school recently designated emissions removal as its first flagship destination. What was the decision-making process behind this?

Arun Majumdar [AM]: There’s been a huge amount of work that has been done in various reports — national and international — about the fact that if you’re going to address greenhouse gas emissions, or if you’re going to address two degrees Celsius global average temperature rise, decarbonization is not enough. You need to have greenhouse gas removal at the gigaton scale. And most people think it’s CO2, but it’s actually CO2 plus methane and N2O. From the work that we have seen — and I’ve been in this field for the last 15 years or so — there are some big gaps in our knowledge and in how we approach this to get to the gigaton scale.

We also have a faculty council with members from across campus, which is chaired by our own Steven Chu [Professor in Energy Science and Engineering and former U.S. Secretary of Energy], who understands this very well. And we said that, you know, we need to make some decisions and we’ll go ahead and launch this with simultaneously launching a process of getting feedback for the second, third and fourth flagship destinations so that we get a bottom-up process going with something that we already know we have to do anyway. So that was the process.

TSD: The Chronicle for Higher Education recently reported that the decision to designate emissions removal as a flagship destination was heavily influenced by members of the oil and gas industry, which are leading investments in emissions removal technologies, especially targeting carbon dioxide and methane. Some may argue that this may be seen as a conflict of interest, what are your thoughts on this?

AM: As I said, this is a huge body of work that goes to the IPCC. The American Physical Society came up with the first report on this back in 2011; I was involved in that as co-chair of the committee. The Department of Energy has come up with reports on this. We had two workshops, which had Strategic Energy Alliance members, plus a lot of other startup companies and other groups, nonprofits, etc. A few of us started a course on this — Chris Field, Rob Jackson, myself, Sally Benson…we taught a course on [Carbon Dioxide and Methane Removal, Utilization, and Sequestration] in the middle of the pandemic, and that was oversubscribed. So there’s a lot of student interest there.

We have now in the Inflation Reduction Act a policy measure for charging for methane emissions, as well as a carve-out for tax credits for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. There’s a payment that you get, but the technology has not scaled up. So there’s a lot of opportunity for innovation out there. The Department of Energy has just launched a Carbon Negative Earthshot for doing exactly this. So if you take it holistically, there’s a lot of literature and understanding and depth of what needs to be done. And that’s part of the reason we felt that we would do it.

Unfortunately, the [Chronicle for Higher Education] article did not do due diligence enough to be able to look into the history of this. And they cherry-picked, frankly, some of the things that they said, but there’s a whole body of literature and sort of momentum behind this and that’s part of the reason behind this.

TSD: Can you talk a little bit more about some of those gaps and what you’re seeing?

AM: So we are seeing, for example, we don’t know how to remove methane from the atmosphere. Methane emissions are largely from agriculture and from natural gas infrastructure, but mostly from agriculture. And for cows burping and rice, they produce methane. And there’s natural gas infrastructure, there’s other wetlands, etc. that produce methane. And then radiative forcing from methane is about 60 to 70 percent of that of CO2. And while we know how to remove CO2 with photosynthesis at scale, we don’t know how to remove methane. So that’s a wide knowledge gap that we have.

Now, there’s research that has been triggered because of this knowledge of the gap that is currently being pursued out here and in other organizations, but it’s very early stage. And how you take that knowledge and get it to the scale that you can remove [atmospheric methane with a concentration of two parts per million], we don’t know how to do that. And for N2O, which is what happens from agricultural runoff, we know N2O lives in the atmosphere for a few hundred years. And we don’t know how to react with N2O from the atmosphere.

So, there are multiple knowledge gaps, and for CO2 removal, one of the fastest ways to do that [is] with the rainforests or crops and all of that, but we need to connect the agricultural sector in the right way with the emission sector so that we actually remove the CO2 from the atmosphere that has been historically emitted. This is not today’s emissions, this is what has been historically emitted: what your parents, my parents and my grandparents emitted. So we have to do that. Otherwise, we’re not going to keep our temperatures below two degrees Celsius. So I just wanted to give you the bigger context of what we’re trying to do.

TSD: I know you completed a listening tour recently as part of your time as dean, and I’d love to hear if your perspective changed after the listening tour or not.

AM: There’s a Stanford Report on that and you may have seen, and what I found, was that there were student groups with and faculty groups with very different opinions. There’s obviously a very vocal group saying that we need to disengage from the fossil fuel industry, energy sector, energy companies or not take any money from them. But there are other groups of students who felt otherwise. And they, as I mentioned in the [Stanford Report] article, felt that they were living in a bit of a hostile environment where their voices are not being included.

Everyone believes that we’ve got to address climate change with urgency. How we do that is where the debate is. And so, one group feels like we should completely disengage, the other group said no, we should work with them and figure out how to help them pivot with technologies so that they can turn around and actually decarbonize the energy industry. And I really think that we should not be having that environment where some of the voices are not being included. So this has become a DEI issue for those students now, so that their voices are actually included. And there is actually good dialogue and civil discourse going on between the student’s groups right now.

TSD: As far as your approach to building programs and working with industry affiliates for the sustainability school, did this listening tour change your perspective on how to do that or what you should do?

AM: Well, it helped me understand the sentiments of all the students. One of our core values of our University is to honor and respect the academic freedom of faculty and students. And I think we have to do that, otherwise, we are violating some of our core values. And, as you know, there’s a campus committee that is co-led by Paul Brest and Debra Satz and they’re trying to understand what the various options are for engagement, and providing pros and cons. So that committee is ongoing right now. And I’ve sent emails to faculty and others to go and engage with them.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: The Daily also reported on an April 6 Roundtable on fossil-free research by the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability. We noticed that you were in attendance for part of that event, and we’d love to hear a little bit about your thoughts on that event.

AM: First of all, I want to thank them for inviting me. I couldn’t attend the whole day because I had other things going on, but I did want to attend some part of it. And at the end of the day, I was sent in a working group with people writing on the whiteboard and making recommendations so I thought that was very well done. And, you know, I’m receptive to all the opinions.

TSD: Were there any opinions or things you learned at that roundtable that stood out to you?

AM: Actually, one of the things that the students came up with is that they need some career counseling. And I said, ‘This is great.’ I mean, we are now thinking about putting a career counseling and placement office so that people who graduate from here in sustainability and frankly, other schools as well, if they want to get a foothold in the industry or in government or nonprofit, my job is to help them get a foothold — and that’s been influenced by that meeting. And so, I want to thank those students who actually suggested that and so now we are, you know, reacting to it and really trying to put this together.

TSD: I’m also curious to hear what you imagine some of your next steps are for the sustainability school after the listening tour and now that you’ve had this full year as the dean of the sustainability school.

AM: Yeah, I mean we are super excited and have lots of things going on. We are hiring faculty, the new curricula being developed and the accelerator. We have a new director now that is Yi Cui and we have a third institute that we are now in a visioning stage of what that would be. And just working on getting our faculty and our students together, and we are blessed to have this mission. And we are also obviously blessed to have this very generous gift and we’re trying to make the best use of this moment to lean into this and we have heard from organizations and countries from businesses, nonprofits, foundations from all around the world, and academic institutions. So we’re trying to figure out how we can engage with the rest of the world and make a positive impact.

Carolyn Stein serves as the Magazine Editor for Vol. 263. She is double majoring in communications and East Asian studies. Her favorite activity is going on unnecessarily long walks. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

Login or create an account