When you’re faced with a narrowly defined problem, you ask an expert to help find a solution. If your dilemma is a legal one, you’ll ask lawyers. If you’re stuck with an engineering issue, you’ll hire engineers. But when you’re faced with the complications of climate change — the long shift in weather patterns and temperatures that the World Health Organization has called “the single biggest threat facing humanity” — the problem is no longer one that belongs to an expert. It simply belongs to everyone on our planet because it affects everyone on our planet.
In an interview with U of T News, David Sinton, a professor of mechanical engineering at U of T’s department of mechanical & industrial engineering, offered the above explanation of the climate change crisis. Sinton ended the interview by expressing that climate change is an “all-profession, all-social sciences, all-natural sciences and all-humanities problem.”
Sinton is inarguably correct; the effects of the problem he speaks of have already proven to be deadly. This year alone, Yale University has estimated that the weather catastrophes that have rocked our planet have caused about $29 billion in damage. These severe weather events have included six floods, five droughts, three tropical cyclones, and one European windstorm. More important than their monetary value is the fatality of these events — if left untreated, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from 2030 to 2050.
Here in Toronto, 2050 is also a critical year; it’s the benchmark for U of T to achieve their climate-positive goal of reducing 80 per cent of absolute carbon on campus. To achieve that goal, the university promises to manage the expansion of UTSG to mitigate that growth’s environmental impacts, renew its existing and ageing utility infrastructure, and build systems to change how UTSG produces, distributes, and consumes energy.
Hand in hand with this initiative is Sinton, who, in 2022, founded the Climate Positive Energy (CPE) Initiative. He currently serves as CPE’s academic director. Made up of more than 100 faculty members, the CPE harnesses U of T expertise to develop clean-energy solutions that are guided by political, human, and societal considerations. Through research grants, workshops, and a mentorship program, the CPE encourages U of T undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students to get involved too.
“Putting social aspects, community, first — that differentiates our approach,” said Sinton in an interview with The Varsity.
Will putting the community first be enough to combat the defining issue of our time? The CPE is hopeful — at their Inaugural Research Day event, CPE participants presented their research projects to a panel of industry experts, who awarded prizes to the most promising projects. The Varsity spoke with three of the winners about their research and why the key to fighting climate change lies in the next generation.
Building organic solar cells
Nina Farac has always described herself as being geared toward making something with a purpose. This gearing, Farac estimates, manifested through her studying, she delved into the world of sustainable chemistry, a scientific field that looks to use natural resources to meet human needs for chemical products and services.
Eventually, Farac’s passion grew; she is now a fifth-year PhD student at U of T’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry. The idea for her dissertation, named “Harnessing More Solar Energy: The Sustainable Design of Hybrid Organic Materials for Next-Generation Organic Solar Cells,” originally stemmed from a research supervisor. The supervisor introduced her to hybrid organic materials, molecules that contained the potential to benefit solar cells or other organic devices.
“He planted this seed of [how these] molecules exist, and they have potential to be beneficial materials in either organic solar cells or other organic devices,” Farac explained. After that revelation, Farac and her professor further brainstormed these materials, which had the “promising capacity to actually absorb more of the solar energy.”
Eventually, Farac and her supervisor came up with the idea to program these cells to function as solar panels. During the day, the panel would charge by absorbing the sun’s energy, which could then be used throughout the day. Though the panel’s main use is to generate usable energy from the sun, a renewable energy source, Farac added that with more sophistication, it could be used as an energy storage system for future use.
The first step of her project, Farac explained, was to brainstorm with device engineers about what type of device would best enable these molecules to capture sunlight to their full potential. That stage is completed; now, Farac and her team are working on actually fashioning the devices to see how efficient they are. In the coming stages, Farac and her team will test their device’s performance, and refine it to increase its effectiveness.
“Sometimes, you can make the material and it looks promising,” Farac expressed. “We have to also think when it translates into a panel the size of your laptop… for now, [we] have to see how it performs even on the small scale and then grow it from there.”
While making these crucial changes to her project, Farac knows that she’ll be supported. Her supervisor was part of the first cohort of professors to promote the organization — shortly after its creation, the professor encouraged her to apply. Since Farac became involved, her professor has offered her consistent feedback, which has helped Farac find the motivation to make her work the best it can be.
“Being propelled with the ethos that CPE shares, [it]… helps drive the project forward,” Farac admitted. She added that she also values the initiative for emphasizing the importance of not only its participants’ findings but the necessity of their research for educating members of the public.
“It’s not just about the science,” Farac explained. “It’s also about: how do people actually implement that science in terms of policy?”
From a fossil fuel past to clean energy future
An idea that Charlie Bain has always maintained is that “Climate change is as much a political challenge as it is a technological challenge.”
Five years ago, it was this idea that pushed Bain to apply for postgraduate school at U of T. Though he had a general idea of exploring the role of business in climate change politics, Bain’s thinking began to take shape when he stumbled across a paper co-written by Jessica Green, a professor in U of T’s political science department. Green’s paper explored the climate stances of some of the world’s largest oil companies over a period of 20 years.
While reading this paper, Bain began to consider the impact of these oil companies. “When we think about… purely fossil fuel firms like oil majors, or coal mining companies, these are companies which are fully invested in maintaining the fossil fuel status quo,” Bain said. “They’re going to act in a way to slow down ambitious climate regulation.”
Bain pointed out the contrast between these companies and ones which use clean energy, such as manufacturers of wind turbines and solar panels. The latter, he explained, are “going to be supporting… really ambitious climate policies because they benefit from them and they have nothing to lose from supporting those policies.”
Eventually, this revelation pushed Bain to explore firms that didn’t have this immediate bias. These companies, which Bain called convertible firms, “straddle the fossil fuel past and the clean energy future.”
Now a fifth-year PhD student, Bain is supervised by the co-author of the article that inspired his work. His dissertation project, named “The Political Economy of Convertible Firms: Electric Utilities and Automakers in Climate Politics,” studies the differences between and changes in behaviour in electric utility and car makers between 2005 and 2021.
The basic aim of his project, Bain explained, is twofold. His first step is to track how these companies have historically behaved with regard to climate politics. His second step is to examine why these companies were supportive or disapproving of climate regulation. Currently, Bain has been reading through such companies’ quarterly reports to manually collect data about their investing histories.
Though Bain hasn’t started to formally analyze his data, he’s observed that most companies have been transparent with their shareholders. Bain is optimistic that this will be his research’s status quo: “In theory, they’re going to be punished if they lie to their investors and say… ‘We’re really concerned about climate,’ and then don’t do anything about it.”
In the next few years, Bain hypothesizes, the global solution to climate change will shift to building coalitions of people “that might not necessarily normally work together, but might have aligned interests and in particular fields.” Bain hopes that his work will help identify potential alliances which should or shouldn’t have influence in addressing the fight. This step, Bain said, is crucial, because he’s unhappy with the progress thus far.
“[Climate change is] this huge threat, but the actual response has been pretty weak in comparison to the size of the threat,” Bain confirmed.
Mining our way out of crisis
Though Bain’s research evaluates institutional responses to climate change, other students argue that it’s more important to evaluate the quality of our solutions. “It’s very easy to point out the problems with our current global system and our current global environment — it’s much harder to come to consensus on the solutions,” insisted Amalie Wilkinson, third-year international relations and peace, conflict and justice studies major.
Before joining the CPE, Wilkinson had been researching lithium for one year. Last year, she was a member of a research opportunities program group at U of T that studied the social and ecological implications of lithium mining for the clean energy transition. Through the connections she made through that group, Wilkinson was recruited to be part of a research team that operated at U of T, the University of Guelph, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Sydney. The group received a federal grant to study lithium mining as a source of raw materials for the development of technologies against climate change.
The CPE grant, Wilkinson explained, allowed her to conduct research that was independent of the groups she was part of. Wilkinson’s individual project, titled, “The Dynamics of Lithium Mining for a Clean Energy Transition in Québec, Canada,” focuses on how Canadian lithium mining affects local communities and stakeholders. Lithium is present in most household electronics, batteries, and energy storage units for renewable energy. Some experts argue that lithium is integral to our sustainable development because our adoption of sustainable technologies relies on its use. However, the methods of acquiring lithium — ore mining and brine extraction — can damage local environments.
“Governments are selling lithium and critical minerals as a solution to the climate crisis… these clean energy technologies demand a really high volume of minerals,” Wilkinson explained. “We’re looking at what that means for people on the ground.”
“Is this the way out of climate change? Can we mine our way out of an extractive crisis? [These] are the kinds of questions we’ve been exploring,” Wilkinson added.
Though Wilkinson has only recently started working for the CPE, she has already seen a noticeable difference between its working environment and the environment of initiatives she was formerly involved with. In her past experiences, Wilkinson found that researchers would only interact with professionals in their fields; while working with the CPE, she has already spoken with lithium stakeholders, university researchers, and biologists who specialized in hydrogeology.
“CPE [brings] together researchers that normally wouldn’t be talking and [it creates] more nuanced solutions because of that,” Wilkinson explained. She added that collaborating with researchers from different disciplines was a push for her to regularly work with those outside her “departmental bubble.”
The importance of collaboration isn’t the only takeaway that Wilkinson, who is one of the program’s summer students, took from her involvement with the CPE — she is writing a personal paper from her CPE research, which she plans to submit to an academic journal. Wilkinson is also co-authoring an article with one of the professors working on her overseas project. However, Wilkinson stressed that this personal work is not enough; she cited her coworkers’ activism, some of which involved submitting proposals to federal climate change initiatives. That activism, Wilkinson noted, “is something that I need to be working on more.”
Wilkinson is equally critical of U of T. As a globally ranked institution, she explained, the university has an obligation to invest its money into solutions to combat climate change, a phenomenon that she described as “the most pressing and most important crisis that’s facing all of humanity.” Wilkinson stressed that, although internal initiatives like the CPE are important, “there’s got to be more” to the university’s involvement than simply creating such initiatives.
“As Canada’s largest research university, we have a critical role to play in meeting the urgent challenge of climate change,” acknowledged a U of T spokesperson in a statement to The Varsity.
Apart from CPE, the spokesperson highlighted the university’s commitment to divest its endowment portfolio from direct holdings with fossil fuel companies by October 27, and indirect holdings by 2030. They added, “the University of Toronto was the first university in the world to join the UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, which compels signatories to achieve progressively demanding time-based targets (every five years) en route to net-zero.”
The next step after CPE, in Wilkinson’s opinion, is to focus on educating the general public about how to incorporate the findings of these initiatives into day-to-day activities.
“CPE does a great job of creating knowledge,” Wilkinson said. “Now, we need to be thinking about how we’re disseminating that knowledge to people who aren’t specifically working on the topics.”
With files from Alexa DiFrancesco and Maeve Ellis.