Scaling up Impact

To reach ‘net zero,’ partnerships between engineering and business are key to bringing affordable climate solutions to scale worldwide

Jun 03 2021 | By Amanda Waldron

University Leadership Series: Climate Change and the Transition to Net Zero with Dean Boyce and Dean Costis Maglaras

To mitigate the effects of climate change, the world needs not only innovative technological solutions to reduce emissions, but economic and business incentives to ensure widespread global adoption and implementation.

This natural alignment between engineering and business in the fight against climate change was the inspiration behind a recent conversation on “Climate Change and the Transition to Net Zero,” hosted by the Columbia Global Centers and featuring Engineering School Dean Mary Boyce and Columbia Business School Dean Costis Maglaras. The discussion—which also included Safwan Masri, executive vice president for Global Centers and global development, and Julie Kornfeld, vice provost for academic programs—highlighted the collaborative, pan-disciplinary work taking place at Columbia around this era-defining issue, and looked forward to the future engineering, business, and policy breakthroughs needed to facilitate a transition to carbon neutrality.

Safwan Masri opened the discussion by underscoring the urgency with which scientists and policymakers must take up the challenge of addressing climate change. “We must acknowledge that we are actually talking about survival, for ourselves and for the planet,” he said, citing the growing incidence of severe drought, flooding, and natural disasters worldwide, as well as their harmful effects on global migration, food supply, and housing. “Where once we focused on sustainable practices, we now inquire about planning, design, and resilience--because this issue is no longer one we can confine to future generations. It has collapsed into one that is immediate,” he warned.

Solutions exist and are being developed daily, weekly, monthly in breakthroughs in academic and corporate labs. Capital exists in abundance to implement these solutions at scale. We should be optimistic, but we need to work.

Costis Maglaras
Dean of Columbia Business School

Both Dean Boyce and Dean Maglaras began by emphasizing that climate change is a core issue for both the Engineering and Business Schools, and that their students and faculty are naturally suited to tackle these issues. Citing the “Engineering for Humanity” ethos, Dean Boyce underscored that the Engineering School’s focus on climate solutions—from decarbonization to clean chemicals processing—derives from its guiding mission to produce a more sustainable, connected, healthy, secure, and creative world. Dean Maglaras, meanwhile, stressed that the Business School views climate change as one of the most important challenges facing this world—one that will transform virtually every industry and impact every Business student’s career path.

The sheer number of collaborations taking place at Columbia across academic disciplines is reflective of the truly interconnected nature of the challenges and solutions around climate change, Dean Boyce and Dean Maglaras emphasized. As an example, Dean Boyce noted how partnerships on climate modeling research have brought together physics- and chemistry-based researchers with computer science experts to produce artificial intelligence-powered predictions on our changing climate. That modeling, she said, is used to guide policymakers and business leaders looking to drive solutions. “As all of these pieces start to knit together, it creates more and more collaborations from one school to another to another.” The recently announced Climate School, she said, will act as a force multiplier to these existing collaborations by bringing together even more disparate climate initiatives across the broader University to dramatically accelerate their impact. And, deepening the Engineering and Business Schools’ commitment to interdisciplinary climate research, Dean Boyce highlighted a forthcoming degree program at Columbia that will combine a Master of Science in Engineering with an MBA and empower students to maximize their impact on sustainability studies.

Dean Boyce (left) and Dean Costis Maglaras (right).

Beyond collaborations at the University, driving climate solutions requires translating academic developments into real-world impact. “Producing and distributing innovative sustainable technologies at scale and at low cost is still a pending problem if we’re going to do it in a timely manner, in a way that is equitable, and in a way that the world’s population can absorb,” Dean Maglaras said. That’s where initiatives like Columbia Technology Ventures—which helps to transfer inventions from academic research to outside organizations—can play an integral role in transforming engineering ideas and technologies into new businesses. Dean Boyce also highlighted the Engineering School’s efforts to provide more support to “tough tech” by accelerating the licensing of intellectual property into start-up companies—or license it to existing companies—in order to help some of the school’s best innovations get off the ground.

In addition to this partnership between engineering and business to bring solutions to scale, widespread adoption of sustainable technology will also require bold commitments at the policy level, including transformative changes in regulatory frameworks. As an example, Dean Maglaras noted that the cost of producing solar energy has fallen by a factor of 100 in the last 20 years and by tenfold in the last ten years. “That happened because we had engineering breakthroughs and because there were incentives put down by governments, in Europe and then in the U.S., to support the installation,” he stressed. “We need to do that in other areas of climate change as well.”

I think Columbia attracts socially minded students. No matter what field a student is pursuing, there’s a sense of wanting to have a positive impact on society.

Mary C. Boyce
Dean of Columbia Engineering

Policies to provide greater support for engineering research, Dean Boyce and Dean Maglaras said, are also a scientific and economic imperative for the United States. Given the potential for job creation, investing in green infrastructure is “strategically important” for the U.S., Dean Malgaras said. “It’s smart policy for climate change, but it’s also smart policy domestically.” Another policy imperative is the need to bring down prices of sustainable technologies so that it becomes feasible to deploy them worldwide. “Policy at the global level will be key to facilitate that,” Dean Maglaras said.

This focus on ensuring academic breakthroughs are translated into real-world impact is one of the ways Columbia attracts students and faculty with a passion for social responsibility, the panel noted. “No matter what field a student is pursuing, there’s a sense of wanting to have a positive impact on society,” Dean Boyce said. In that regard, she highlighted an Engineering School initiative that produces decentralized solar energy grids to bring energy to developing parts of the world. “[This project] really brought together policy and business solutions to make this sustainable over the long-term in small villages,” she said. “We need to do this at a bigger scale….to bring people out of poverty.” But aside from working on readily deployable climate solutions, Dean Boyce said one of the most important ways students can prepare to have a long-term impact on climate change is by working on the scientific foundations that may one day lead to revolutionary technology. “Just as we were prepared globally to create these [COVID-19] vaccines because of all the foundational work on mRNA and lipid bilayers,” she said, students today can help lay the groundwork for future breakthroughs.

The Business School, Dean Maglaras said, also seeks to produce socially responsible business leaders who will “pursue economic opportunity with a transformative impact.” Take Ethan Brown (MBA ‘08), the founder of Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat substitute company valued at over $10 billion. Maglaras said Brown had a vision to attack what he viewed as climate change’s “cattle problem,” and ended up producing one of the most successful climate companies to have come out of Columbia. “We need hundreds of these socially-minded leaders to attack other questions” related to climate change, Dean Maglaras said.

The bottom line about the world’s transition to net zero, according to Dean Maglaras? “Solutions exist and are being developed daily, weekly, monthly in breakthroughs in academic and corporate labs. Capital exists in abundance to implement these solutions at scale. We should be optimistic, but we need to work.”