From shifting weather patterns that alter food availability to rising sea levels that displace homes and families, climate change is impacting communities and ecosystems all over the world at an unprecedented scale. In 2022 Cornell University launched The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative, to tackle problems like these—bringing together the full breadth of Cornell’s transdisciplinary expertise to transform research, insights, and discovery into impactful, large-scale solutions. Less than a year after its launch, donors have already responded with more than $146 million in support of the project.
Benjamin Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) shared that CALS received a gift of $9.9 million from the Bezos Earth Fund to create virtual fencing systems to reduce the environmental impacts of grazing livestock. Additionally, proceeds from a newly announced Dead & Company benefit concert at Barton Hall will support The 2030 Project.
“The Cornell community is mobilizing the ambitions, expertise, and infrastructure of a top-tier research institution to support climate solutions in this decisive decade for global action,” said Ben Furnas, executive director of The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative, “And we are just getting started.”
Two core values guide the project: climate action that leaves no one behind and scaling local action to global action.
As climate change continues to worsen, dangerous weather events have become more frequent, affecting crop yields and food security. But it’s not just the weather that is impacting crop yields. As the climate continues warming, pests and diseases spread more widely, adding even more unpredictability.
Faculty and students across Cornell’s campuses are working on transdisciplinary and comprehensive climate solutions. They are creating the next generation of climate-resilient crops, preparing cities for extreme weather events, and expediting our transition to cleaner energy alternatives.
Developing a food-secure future
Until about a decade ago, little genetic research had been done on cassava—a tropical root crop that has historically served as a dietary staple for millions of Africans. Unlike other key crops like maize and wheat, the tough, woody shrub is predicted to be one of the few crops that will benefit from climate change—due to its ability to tolerate drought, marginal soils, and long-term underground storage.
In 2012, Cornell was awarded a $25.2 million grant to lead the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project—a five-year research project that used genomic selection to improve cassava productivity. By the end of the project, collaborators had achieved their goal of shortening the breeding cycle for new cassava varieties. They subsequently shared the genomic information with a public database so cassava researchers worldwide could continue to improve breeding programs without duplicating efforts.
Building on the success of the project’s first phase, $35 million in renewed funding, granted in 2018 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, positioned Cornell to expand international efforts to deliver improved varieties of cassava to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
“This grant funds a second five-year phase that will allow us to build on previous work and focus on getting improved varieties into farmers’ fields,” said Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who leads the project.
Cornell’s expertise, resources, and dedication to creating the next generation of climate-resistant crops are exemplars of its commitment to creating solutions that have a positive global impact—a focus of its To Do the Greatest Good Campaign.
Building more equitable and sustainable cities
The growing concentration of people living in cities, coupled with cities’ dense infrastructure, and widening income gaps, are a few factors that make urban areas highly susceptible to climate change and natural disasters. Reimagining how cities and buildings are designed is integral to decarbonizing our societies and supporting sustainable growth.
Faculty and students at the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP) are building a more equitable and sustainable future through intensive research and innovation that’s centered on cities and their resiliency in the face of climate change and extreme weather. The Cornell Mui Ho Center for Cities, bolstered by a $25 million endowed gift from Mui Ho ’62, B.Arch. ’66 in 2022, is leading an initiative that aims to develop new knowledge about how urban-built environments and ecosystems can mitigate and adapt to the challenges of climate change and climate disasters. To that end, the center remains focused on interdisciplinary work that unites expertise from across the university and the world.
“I see the center as an invitation for experts at Cornell and from all over the world to join in advancing AAP’s human values, excellence in design education, and innovative research to effect change in cities now and in the future,” Ho said.
One initial testament to this ideal is the first-ever Global Survey of City Leaders, which gathered insights from more than 240 leaders of cities in every major geographic region. The results provide insights into how the center can co-produce new ideas and understandings with urban leaders, planners, policymakers, architects, and other key stakeholders worldwide. It also highlights the center’s critical role in spurring meaningful transformation among the world’s urban areas.
Accelerating the clean energy transition
Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity through an electrochemical reaction, emitting only water and heat. Although significantly more efficient than the internal combustion engines used by gasoline and diesel vehicles, most current fuel cells depend on expensive materials such as platinum which has largely deterred further exploration.
Héctor Abruña, the Émile M. Chamot Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Energy Materials Center at Cornell, in collaboration with other Cornell researchers, has been exploring the development of alkaline-based fuel cell technology—a much more affordable alternative. Abruña’s interdisciplinary approach to the study of electrochemical systems was supported in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science through a four-year, $10.75 million grant used to create the Center for Alkaline-Based Energy Solutions (CABES), which Abruña leads.
The group’s discoveries over the last four years have advanced the field and have brought us closer to a reality where fuel cells can be used on a large scale to help battle climate change. In 2022, CABES received renewed funding of $12.6 million from the DOE for another four years to continue its efforts toward developing advanced fuel cell technologies in alkaline media.
In 2022, Abruña was awarded an additional $8.3 million in support of his research related to fuel cells and advanced battery technologies. The new funding will help further drive innovation in the field and translate the group’s research into fuel-cell and battery-powered vehicles. It will also help create a small fleet of fuel-cell and battery-powered (EV) cars along with a renewable “green” hydrogen fueling station and EV fast chargers.
“This is much more than fundamental research, but rather a demonstration project that will make these technologies available to the Cornell community,” Abruña said. “It will be a true living laboratory, providing access to both battery and fuel-cell operated cars to the Cornell community.”
Fuel cells offer a promising technology that could be applied to power systems as large as utility power stations or as small as personal laptops.
The examples above are just a few of the university’s many collaborations and advancements toward realizing lasting climate innovations.
“With The 2030 Project we are bringing together all of Cornell’s expertise to move research, insights, and discoveries to large-scale impact and solutions,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell Atkinson. “At home in the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, this initiative is drawing on expertise from every college. Working with university leaders, external partners, alumni, and faculty experts, we are advancing solutions to climate change that bring to bear all that Cornell has to offer.”
To learn more about the 2030 Project, visit climate.cornell.edu.