Unlocking the ocean’s secret: Natural carbon capture

Scientists around the world are racing to develop new methods for combating the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that are driving climate change and threatening the health of our planet.

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022Ocean carbon capture, which involves using natural ocean processes to trap and store greenhouse gases out at sea, is one promising method. Two L.A. researchers — William Berelson of USC and Jess Adkins of Caltech — are looking to harness this technology to address the problem.

“Behind every potential solution for a more sustainable world lies a story of hard work and collaboration,” USC President Carol L. Folt said. “This promising research to reduce carbon emissions between USC and Caltech will help us all achieve a more sustainable future — starting right here in Southern California.”

We met up with Berelson, professor of earth sciences, environmental studies and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and Adkins, the Smits Family Professor of Geochemistry and Global Environmental Science at Caltech, at the docks of AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles — one of the largest harbors in the world and a leading gateway for international trade in North America.

How does the shipping industry play a role in climate change?

Berelson: At seaports around the world, huge quantities of goods arrive daily that feed the global economy. Those goods are transported across the ocean on container ships, cargo ships and other vessels that burn diesel fuel. Collectively, all the ships in the world are contributing about 3% of the carbon dioxide that’s being added to our atmosphere every year.

Adkins: Over 90% of the products we use in our daily lives traveled on a ship at some point. If we’re going to think about how to deal with our CO2 problem as a society, we have to be mindful of the fact that we can’t electrify all parts of the industry. Shipping is a good example of an industry that doesn’t electrify well. It’s hard to imagine ships running off batteries, even though we must, as a society, get ourselves onto renewable energy.

(Q&A continues below video)

How do carbon emissions affect our oceans?

Berelson: As carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in ocean water, it increases its acidity thus causing ocean acidification. The rising annual rate of CO2 emissions leads to a corresponding increase in ocean acidification, resulting in dramatic impacts on marine ecosystems like corals and other organisms that use calcium carbonate to build shells.

People care about corals for their beauty, but these organisms are also crucial to biodiversity and sustaining the populations of fish and other marine life that live in and among the coral communities.

Adkins: Exactly. As you acidify the ocean, you make it harder for the main components of the ecosystem to grow. But another reason we should care about ocean acidification over and above the photographic megafauna that are corals is the algae out in the middle of the ocean and far away from the coast. They are the primary producers and bottom of the marine food chain where sunlight is first turned into organic matter and then becomes food for the rest of the system, humans included.

How does the ocean naturally capture carbon?

Adkins: The planet has been capturing carbon for billions of years. As the ocean absorbs excess carbon, the CO2 reacts with calcium carbonate, or limestone, that naturally occurs at the sea floor — this reaction makes the neutral salts of bicarbonate and calcium ions.

Berelson: The natural reaction that happens in the ocean is exactly what happens when you treat an upset stomach. The analogy we like to use is that when you have excess acid in your tummy, you take a little antacid tablet, which is effectively ground up calcium carbonate, to neutralize the acid.

What are you working on now?

Berelson: An idea came about during our research on how the ocean naturally mitigates excess CO2. We discovered that if we could accelerate the dissolution of limestone, it could be a way to mitigate CO2 at a larger scale. We’re developing a startup company that could one day build machinery that would allow this reaction to happen at a fast enough scale and at the right quantity to make a greater impact on CO2 reduction.

Adkins: Right. Although the ocean naturally captures carbon, it does so at a slow rate. We want to find ways of speeding up the neutralization of that extra CO2. All we have to do is follow the natural process of what happens when, say, volcanoes erupt and release CO2 into the atmosphere.

What inspired this collaboration?

Adkins: We’ve known each other for decades as friends in the field and have always talked about finding something to work on together. But it was our shared concern about ocean acidification and the idea that we might be able to make a breakthrough that brought us together to think about joining labs.

Berelson: True, we initially bonded over our common interest in chemical oceanography. That and all things having to do with major league baseball.

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New tool helps students find sustainability courses

Since enrolling at USC in 2019, Brian Tinsley has wanted a simpler way to find courses that address sustainability issues. Now, thanks to his work with USC’s Office of Sustainability, there is one.

After nearly a year in development, the USC Sustainability Course Finder officially launched last month. The new dashboard helps spread awareness of sustainability across various disciplines at the university, but also provides students with a user-friendly way to see how individual classes relate to various sustainability issues.

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022“I’m just super grateful to have been a part of this,” said Tinsley, a quantitative and computational biology major in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“I’m really excited about the direction USC is heading in terms of sustainability.”

Julie Hopper, a sustainability data analyst with USC’s Office of Sustainability, led the project, in collaboration with USC’s Office of Academic Records and Registrar and Office of Institutional Research. Hopper recruited Tinsley to pull data from all course descriptions at USC, categorize that information based on specific keywords used and build the tool around the data collected.

“I think this sustainability course finder tool is important for students today because sustainability is a huge topic and concern across many disciplines and job sectors,” Hopper said. “This tool will hopefully empower students to take control of their curriculum and their lives and feel like they can obtain the necessary knowledge to create positive change in their future and in the futures of all life to come.”

Sustainability Course Finder aligns with U.N. goals

All classes are shown in relation to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda was adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.”

“I hope this tool engages students with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals while helping them to dive into all of USC’s amazing course offerings and thereby become empowered to tailor their curriculum to their interests and career goals,” Hopper said.

Students can filter courses by each individual SDG, course number, college, subject and even general education requirements. The latter was an idea suggested by the education committee on USC’s Presidential Working Group on Sustainability in Education, Research, and Operations. Created by USC President Carol L. Folt, the group’s mission is to “explore approaches for USC to become a model for sustainability in its education, research, and campus operations.”

“We knew that students were interested in being able to find courses that deal with sustainability, but it could be hard to look across schools if students aren’t necessarily in those schools,” said Jill Sohm, co-chair of the PWG’s education committee.

Sustainability Course Finder: What’s ahead

Sohm, who is also an associate professor (teaching) of environmental studies at USC Dornsife, said that it was great to see the development of the course finder over time. As the director of the environmental studies program, Sohm said that she was glad Tinsley and Hopper were able to incorporate the Presidential Working Group’s suggestions and hopes that the tool can continue to improve as new courses are introduced into the curriculum and students provide more feedback about the content of their specific courses.

“In an ideal world, a tool like this would have access to more information about each class and how classes are actually being taught right now, so getting access to more data to improve the results of the tool is probably one of the next steps for it,” Sohm said.

Tinsley is slated to graduate this spring, but will stick around a little longer as a graduate student in applied data science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. He knows he’ll eventually have to pass the reins to someone else, but for now, he’ll continue improving the tool he helped develop. After almost a year of work, he just hopes that students use the course finder as a way to ensure that their course load has sustainability at its core.

“If any student or a friend of mine used it, then came up to me and said, ‘Hey, thanks for making this. I found some use out of it,’ I think I’d be happy,” Tinsley said. “This was never just a resume builder — it’s about raising sustainability awareness in higher education.”

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USC wins best fan engagement in Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge for 2022 football season

USC Wins Best Fan Engagement in Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge for 2022 Football Season

USC Trojans Football game at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Football | May 03, 2023

Story LinksLOS ANGELES–USC has been named the winner of the Best Fan Engagement sub-category in the Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge for the 2022 football season in the league-wide competition. This challenge began in 2016 to divert waste at home football games from landfills to recycling or composting.

This is USC’s seventh overall or category victory across football and men’s basketball.

In the 2022 football season, USC achieved 91.3% diversion rate for its Zero Waste game against Arizona State, including over three tons of recycling and over five tons of compost.

USC President Dr. Carol L. Folt was involved in the campaign and created a video message highlighting the Zero Waste Game, calling on all members of the Trojan community to do their part to help achieve the goal of zero waste.

The campaign included campus signage, website content, and social media posts, including “Waste Ed Wednesday,” which provided waste disposal instructions to game attendees and campus tailgaters. A gameday central page was also created with Green tailgating tips and sustainability resources, as well as expectations for the Zero Waste Game.

Sustainability highlights were displayed at all concession stands and on premium suite digital screens, and Zero Waste content and single-use plastic elimination information were showcased on the video board.

Colorado won the overall award in the Zero Waste Challenge for the 2022 football season, and earning other sub-category recognitions were Utah (Rising Star) and Arizona State (Innovation).

This is Colorado’s third football Zero Waste Challenge overall win (also winning in 2018 and 2019), which ties USC’s record for most overall wins during football season (2016, 2017 and 2021).

All four schools will be recognized for their victories during a special awards ceremony at the 2023 Pac-12 Sustainability Conference, hosted by Stanford from June 21-22. For more information on the conference and to register, visit Pac-12.com/sustainability.

More information on the Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge is available at Pac-12.com/teamgreen.

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$50 million gift commitment establishes USC Dornsife environmental initiative

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$50 million gift commitment establishes The Ronald and Leslie Sherwin Initiative for environmental protection at USC Dornsife

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$50 million gift commitment establishes The Ronald and Leslie Sherwin Initiative for environmental protection at USC Dornsife

Pioneering initiative aims to unite diverse academic disciplines for ecosystem conservation.

The Ronald and Leslie Sherwin Initiative for environmental protection aims to unite diverse academic disciplines for ecosystem conservation.

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The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences today announced a landmark $50 million gift commitment by Ronald and Leslie Sherwin. When funded, the gift will establish the Ronald and Leslie Sherwin Initiative, which will focus on protecting the environment through research, education, and practice. It’s the largest single commitment to date to support USC’s environmental initiatives, a top priority for USC President Carol L. Folt.
“We’re grateful to Ron and Leslie Sherwin for their commitment to environmental sustainability efforts at USC,” Folt said. “Our Assignment Earth initiatives are having tangible results, including eliminating single-use plastic bottles and moving 25% of our electricity to renewable energy sources. This transformative gift ensures USC Dornsife will attract innovative leaders dedicated to creating a sustainable future.”
Ron and Leslie Sherwin, native Angelenos, are nature lovers who believe in the promise of research across academic disciplines to help protect the planet. Their previous gifts to USC Dornsife include a $1 million student research support fund.
“What’s important to me is that this gift will promote interdisciplinary research tied to environmental issues,” said Ron Sherwin, president of Sherwin Inc. “It’s going to take many academic disciplines working together to help protect our environment, including psychology, spatial sciences, political science … even philosophy. So, giving to USC Dornsife, which includes all of those as well as the Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability, just makes sense.”
When fully funded, the Sherwin Initiative will be the second largest gift to USC Dornsife after the naming gift from Dana and David Dornsife in 2011. It will fund 10 USC Dornsife faculty chairs focused on ecosystem conservation, half of whom will have research expertise related to ecosystem diversity and species preservation, including everything from coral reef restoration to the development of alternative fuels. The other half will have expertise in the many human factors associated with environmental protection, including environmental economics, behavorial science and political science.
This initiative will also fund research, educational programs, graduate fellowships, conferences and related activities.
“This generous gift will have a profound and lasting impact on USC Dornsife’s ability to address the critical challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss,” said USC Dornsife Dean Amber D. Miller. “By supporting endowed faculty chairs, research, and educational programming, the Sherwin Initiative will not only establish Dornsife as a leader in ecosystem conservation, but also inspire the next generation of environmental champions who will shape a sustainable future for our planet.”
USC Dornsife, home to USC’s renowned environmental studies program, has longstanding strengths in materials chemistry, biophysics and microbiology with researchers who are at the cutting edge of developing renewable sources of energy. It’s also home to the Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability and its marine science center on Catalina Island. Nestled in a pristine natural environment yet connected to one of the world’s largest and busiest urban areas, it’s a coastal campus that’s ideal for testing sustainable solutions and renowned for its environmental research. Wrigley Institute scholars are working on research ranging from solutions for plastic waste to saving pollinators.
Additionally, because the future of the planet depends not just on innovation but on the choices that humans make, Dean Miller launched USC Dornsife’s Human Factors Initiative five years ago. Experts in economics, politics, and human behavior collaborate with scholars of history, culture, writing and more to learn how society can implement available technology more quickly, equitably, and at scale. Together with USC Dornsife’s Center for the Political Future and Public Exchange, they’re also learning how to overcome mindsets that inhibit environmental progress.
The Sherwin Initiative will not only add significant faculty expertise to USC Dornsife’s environmental conservation efforts, it will also provide meaningful support for research and student programming — all of which are particularly important to Leslie Sherwin, who serves on the board of directors of the Shelter Art Foundation.
“I want to see some positive science and research come out of this donation,” she said. “I want to see people get excited about the changes we can make to improve the environment and avoid climate catastrophes.”
Ron Sherwin, a third-generation USC Trojan, earned a master’s and PhD from USC Dornsife in international relations. “It will take more than money for these initiatives to be successful and self-perpetuating,” he said. “But we’re confident the USC Dornsife faculty, staff and students have what it takes.”
The Sherwin’s personal connection to the environment and to USC also plays a role in their decision to give. “While in high school I spent a lot of time surfing, sailing and playing beach volleyball,” Ron Sherwin said. “I’ve always loved the beach and the outdoors, so preserving and restoring nature is very personal for me. I’m glad society has largely awakened to the fact that we need to take big action to protect our environment. We hope our gift will inspire others to say, ‘Hey, I want to make a difference, too!'”
The gift is personally meaningful in other ways. “When I wanted to go to grad school, USC helped me with financial aid,” Ron Sherwin said. “I’m happy to be able to give back now.”

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Colorado River water plan could trigger unprecedented supply cuts, ripple effects on key industries

Earlier this month, the Biden administration proposed a plan to distribute cuts from the Colorado River and resolve the centurylong legal dispute between states across the American Southwest that share its water supplies.

Decades of drought and overuse have brought the river’s water levels to historic lows. States in the Lower Colorado River Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — now must choose between one of three options proposed by the federal government.

The outcome of these talks will have far-reaching implications for agriculture and energy in the region. The Colorado River provides water for over 40 million Americans and 30 Tribal Nations, fuels hydropower resources in eight states and supports agriculture across the region.

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“Food, energy and water tend to be regulated separately, which can be problematic. You can’t change policy in one of these areas without impacting the others,” says Robin Craig, professor of law at the USC Gould School of Law.

“The Biden administration’s proposed options for dealing with the continuing Colorado River shortages capture the essential water dilemma for the West as a whole: Do we continue to honor historical patterns of water use in the West, or do we invoke principles of equity and a need to reassess what the Southwest is doing with that water?”

Option 1: Equal cuts across the Lower Basin states

Equal cuts to water allocations across the Lower Basin states would represent an unprecedented break with legal tradition that has served as the bedrock of water law in the West for over a century.

The region follows what is known as prior appropriation law, which stipulates that whoever first accessed the water and put it to beneficial use is granted senior water rights. California is the senior water rights holder on the Colorado River system and is first in line to receive its annual allotment, much to the chagrin of the other states.

“These water rights endure forever, and in the southwestern U.S., they tend to be locked up in agriculture,” says Craig. “In fact, about 80% of the water rights in the Southwest are for agriculture, and that plays into how flexible you can be in the Colorado River water distribution.

“Cutbacks across the board might work for the Colorado River itself, but within the states we will still have prior appropriation to deal with. A large pot of money to spend on transitioning the entire system seems not to be on the table.”

California officials have spoken out against this plan, arguing that it sidesteps existing water laws that respect the state’s status as senior water rights holder.

Under this plan, California farmers — particularly those in the Imperial Valley — and consumers would be hit hardest.

The Imperial Valley is the largest producer of alfalfa, or hay forage, for California dairy cows and an important source of nutrients during the winter months, explains Shon Hiatt, an associate professor of business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business. A drop in the state’s water allocation would reduce the amount of alfalfa produced since it is the least profitable crop.

Hiatt, an expert in global energy and agribusiness, says that an across-the-board cut to water supplies would mean higher prices for dairy products.

“California dairies have been struggling due to increased regulatory costs and the destruction of 60% of grazing pasture this winter due to flooding. The situation will be made worse if less alfalfa is grown and would result in higher dairy product prices in the state.”

Option 2: Cuts based on water rights seniority

Under this plan, California would retain its senior water rights to Colorado River water, with the strictest cuts imposed on Arizona and Nevada.

“In this scenario, California wins in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River — but the entire Lower Basin needs to get creative about how to free up water from agriculture without putting farmers out of business or losing food security. In other words, become more efficient about agriculture,” says Craig.

Option 3: Do nothing

The U.S. Department of the Interior lists this “No Action Alternative” as one of three options in its recent proposal.

Experts warn that doing nothing would prove disastrous for the Colorado River and the regional economy.

Regardless of how the states and federal government decide to move forward, doing nothing would mean keeping the Colorado River on the fast track to dead pool, or levels where water would no longer flow downstream and through the major dams, which generate enough hydroelectricity to power the homes of 1.3 million Americans in the region.

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EPA looks to accelerate the EV transition, but California sets the pace

The Biden administration is getting tough on carbon by steering the nation’s automakers to build more electric vehicles, but USC experts predict the road to a cleaner, greener future will have plenty of obstacles.

For one, supplies for powering EVs do not come cheap, nor are they readily available. Lithium is favored for batteries because it is rechargeable, making it the most powerful and renewable energy source available today. But lithium-ion batteries are used to power nearly every device — from smartphones to cars. Demand for these batteries is sure to surge if the EPA adopts its newly proposed emission standards to put more EVs on the road.

The EPA proposal rolled out last week somewhat resembles California’s rules because it puts pressure on automakers to ramp up EV production with tougher restrictions on tailpipe emissions. The agency is hoping two-thirds of all new U.S. cars will be electric by 2032; California is aiming for all-EV fleets by 2035.

The European Union also has adopted plans to incentivize manufacturing and sales of zero-emission cars, as have several other countries. Consequently, the World Bank anticipates a 500% spike in demand for lithium by 2050.

“To enable sustainable future production from local resources, the U.S. needs to reduce the amount of lithium used in batteries and/or seek alternative local sources of lithium,” said Greys Sosic, the E. Morgan Stanley Chair in business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business. “While recycling is widely considered a potential alternative source of lithium, it would not be enough to fulfill such steep increases in demand.”

Geothermal brine lithium recovery is one alternative. The process involves extracting battery-grade lithium from concentrated, mineral-rich saline solutions — natural geothermal brines — found in hot springs.

California, ready to launch its own tailpipe rules to reduce pollution in 2026, has already started exploring that option in the Imperial Valley’s Salton Sea.

EV transition: Success requires changes to transportation, the grid and supply chains

To global supply chain expert Nick Vyas, the transition to electric vehicles and meeting the EPA’s emission standards by 2032 are ambitious goals that face significant infrastructure constraints.

“We have to think of this as an ecosystem with coordinated efforts between governments, industries and other stakeholders working to support the production, recycling and manufacturing of batteries and computer chips, along with the necessary investment in infrastructure,” said Vyas, an associate professor of clinical data sciences and operations at USC Marshall.

“The need for significant changes to the existing transportation infrastructure and upgrades to the power grid to support the increased demand for electricity also highlights the enormity of the task.”

Buyers might be ready for EV transition, but power grids need a tune-up

More EVs on the road means more chargers will have to be installed across the country. That could further strain regional power grids.

As its name implies, the Golden State has the unique advantage of abundant resources for solar generation that keep the grid clean during the daytime. But as the sun goes down, the grid’s natural gas-fired generators have to come online quickly to meet electricity demand — so choosing when we charge our EVs will be of growing importance for both emissions goals and grid reliability as more of these cars enter the market, said Kelly Sanders, the Dr. Teh Fu Yen Early Career Chair and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“If done well, EVs could be an important tool for transitioning to a cleaner grid since well-timed charging can help us support more variable renewable sources like wind and solar,” Sanders said. “If done poorly, EVs could add a lot of stress to a system that is already challenged by weather extremes.”

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USC cuts waste and water use in efforts to fulfill Assignment: Earth

USC has significantly ramped up waste reduction and awareness of pollution under USC President Carol L. Folt and her Assignment: Earth initiative.

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022Since Folt’s arrival, the university has become home to an infrastructure of people, organizations, resources, research, outreach and communication dedicated to sustainability. This effort and its results are front and center in the newly released “Sustainability Progress Report” for fiscal year 2022.

Collecting data in several strategic areas — water use, transportation, sustainable purchasing and others — the report details the progress made from July 2021 to June 2022. Compared to the benchmarks set in 2014, the university has reduced its environmental impact — sometimes dramatically.

Some highlights:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions are down 31 percentage points since 2014.
  • Waste diversion is nearly 50%, a 100% improvement from 2019.
  • Potable water usage has decreased by 15% since 2014.
  • Single-passenger car usage dropped 7%.

The numbers, initiatives and progress are overseen by Mick Dalrymple, USC’s first chief sustainability officer. After two years at the helm, he has a clear pilot’s view of university’s wins and challenges. We spoke to him about this year’s report, some sustainability misconceptions and how the university will meet the goals set out by Assignment: Earth.

What’s the message you take from this report?

The key takeaway from this report is that USC is making meaningful sustainability progress across all seven of these categories. Fiscal year 2022 was about establishing a solid foundation to build on to achieve our ambitious Assignment: Earth goals. We know where we need to go, it’s ambitious, and we’re learning how to accelerate our pace to get there.

The best news is that we’ve reduced our scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 31% since 2014, despite USC continuing to grow. The flip side is that we have so much further to go, and the road gets harder the further we get. But the atmosphere doesn’t care about our challenges. It just responds to our level of success or failure in getting to zero emissions.

What other achievements stand out?

The greenhouse gas reduction is definitely a big one. It has been made possible by the L.A. Department of Water and Power providing cleaner electricity and by making our campus buildings more energy efficient. And this year, we’re reaping the added benefits of the renewable energy deal we made with LADWP last fall. Meanwhile, USC Facilities Planning and Management is also implementing more LED lighting retrofits. The results from those accomplishments will show up in the numbers within next year’s report.

Another big accomplishment has been USC Hospitality purchasing a higher percentage of food from sustainable sources: 55%, up from 41% in 2020. This success has largely been driven by improvements in sourcing sustainable produce, dairy and seafood.

What are the most common misconceptions about USC’s status as a sustainability-minded institution?

Most people outside of USC don’t generally think of USC as a hotbed for sustainability. That is beginning to change, particularly because sustainability is such a high priority of President Carol L. Folt and we are doing more to talk about the vast number of things we are doing.

As the president has said, sustainability will become a backbone for everything we do, like diversity and artificial intelligence. As people begin to learn more about all the significant progress we are making operationally and some of the great sustainability research and teaching happening here, that misconception will fade away. Reputation lags reality. It will take time, more bold leadership and continued hard work.

When students, staff or members of the community reach out to you, what do they want to talk about? What are their questions, concerns and criticisms?

Students mostly inquire about USC’s commitment to recycling and composting. Waste is very tangible, and waste infrastructure is highly visible and not yet deployed consistently across campuses. Everyone touches waste every day, whereas energy and water are much less visible. I also hear about solar power and decorative fountains from students. Faculty and staff talk to me about waste, but I hear more from them about climate action, sustainable investing options in retirement plans, fossil fuel divestment, and native and drought-tolerant landscaping.

Do our sustainability challenges tend to be more visible than our achievements?

A lot of sustainability wins and challenges are not readily visible. This becomes a daily balancing act when working in sustainability. You’ve got heavy-lifting work that requires major investment but is behind the scenes, so it is hard to get people excited about it. And you’ve got other opportunities that are not necessarily going to move the numbers, but are very important to motivate people and for other reasons.

What sustainability investments are hiding in plain sight?

Compostable utensils and food containers used on campus cost far more than plastic and foam containers. Also, glass and aluminum single-use beverage bottles can be significantly more expensive than plastic. USC absorbs most of these costs and shares some with the end user because we are committed to making the right choices, even if they’re painful. We’re just not pushing costs off onto society or other species or future generations.

What are the highest hurdles in achieving zero waste (defined as 90% diverted from landfill)?

Eliminating plastic bottles has been a huge win, and it was a big lift made possible by many people working together. It was a leadership move, and we get questions about it regularly from other interested universities. But it is also one piece of a very complex puzzle. We’re at 47% diversion from landfill, and we need to get to 90% by 2028.

Ultimately, we need to do what is within our capacity to help build the circular economy. Things like building a robust surplus operation, modifying contracts to include what is called “extended producer responsibility,” exploring the purchase of services as an alternative to paying for the equipment that provides those services and changing the characteristics of what we buy.

All Trojans have a role to play here: We all have to commit to rethinking waste as a resource — first reduce and reuse, and then recycle and compost.

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Looking beyond the beauty of coral reefs

The beauty of coral reefs belies their importance to oceanic ecosystems. They protect coastlines from erosion, but they’re also the “rainforests of the sea,” hosting a vast number of species.

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022Today at 6 p.m., with an artist’s stunning re-creation of a coral reef as a backdrop, the USC Fisher Museum of Art will host a conversation about climate change and its impact on coral reefs. The featured speakers are Carly Kenkel, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biological Science in Marine and Environmental Biology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and doctoral student Adib Mustofa.

Kenkel has traveled the world exploring coral and its adaptability to a changing climate. Mustofa, originally from Indonesia, is a Fulbright Scholar at USC and is interested in the genetics of reef-building corals that have resiliency to rising temperatures. The knitted coral reef art piece, Modular Utopia” by the artist Mulyana, is on display at the museum on the USC University Park Campus through April 13.

We spoke with Kenkel and Mustofa about the coral reef ecosystem, its importance for biodiversity and why they’re hopeful for the long-term survival of coral.

Why are corals so important?

Kenkel: Corals are incredibly important ecosystem builders and are the foundation for tropical coral reefs, which are some of the most biodiverse habitats in the ocean. The reason there are so many fish, turtles and invertebrates — all the things you really love to look at — is because of the coral. It provides a three-dimensional structure that provides this habitat for other organisms to live in. It’s the difference between a spread-out neighborhood in suburbia and a skyrise in the city, in terms of the number of things you can cram into that space.

Mustofa: Very little is known about the genetic diversity of corals in Indonesia. It’s one of the most biologically diverse regions of coral in the world. However, most research there looks at coral health from a morphological perspective, not genetic diversity. That information is really important for knowing whether the coral can adapt to climate change or not. When we farm coral using fragmentation, we’re sort of making a clone — they’ll behave in a similar way. One of my big questions is, does fragmenting of coral for restoration change the genetic diversity of the reef as a whole?

Kenkel: Another feature of coral that is less known is that reefs serve as natural breakwater. If you’ve ever noticed the cement structures off the beach, the point of those is to prevent beach erosion in the event of storms. Big waves will cause damage and wash away sand, but those manmade breakwater structures protect your coastline. Reefs do that naturally. In the event of a tropical cyclone or hurricane, any place that is surrounded by a reef has an incredible resource that will reduce damage to the shoreline.

What is the biggest threat facing coral?

Kenkel: To understand the threats coral face, you need to know a bit about its biology. Corals are related to anemones and jellyfish: If you imagine an anemone, shrink it down and make a carpet of anemones stuck together and you pretty much have the surface of a coral. But coral has this extra superpower in that it can secrete a calcium carbonate skeleton. Corals are a soft, squishy tissue layer that sits on top of a skeleton. That process of skeletonization is what builds up the structure of the reef.

The extra energy to produce these massive skeletons comes from the algae that live inside the coral animal’s body. The algae produce sugar that goes straight to the coral animal, which then takes that energy to invest in its metabolism including the calcification process. That symbiosis between the animal and the algae is essential for reefs. That relationship is also very sensitive to temperature or other environmental changes. If it’s too hot or too cold, or if it’s too salty or not salty enough — all these things can cause that relationship to break down.

When these algae, or symbions, are lost, the coral begins to look white, what we call “bleaching.” It’s a stress response for the coral, but it is also an indication the coral is starting to starve. In losing those algae, it hasn’t just lost its color — it’s also lost its primary food source. If the corals don’t get those algae back, they’re starving to death. With climate change, we’re seeing these extreme increases in temperatures so we’re seeing increasingly intense mass bleaching events worldwide. Corals are primarily bleaching because it’s too hot, and that means they are starving to death.

Why should we be optimistic about the future of coral?

Mustofa: I’m pretty optimistic about our restoration efforts in Indonesia, but there’s a lot of homework still to be done. Especially from a genetics perspective. Researchers in the U.S. are trying to restore coral, and they are considering the genetic diversity of that coral. That genetic diversity is the fuel for continued adaptation to climate change. In Indonesia, we have no idea about existing genetic diversity, or very little. I’m trying to fill that knowledge gap. I hope the results of my research will inform improved management of coral restoration in Indonesia.

Kenkel: There are a lot of very good minds thinking about reef restoration. In the last decade, the knowledge and resources available for folks working on reef restoration have increased exponentially. From the scientific side, we’re doing everything we can to keep them going.

But I liken it to performing CPR on a critical patient in an emergency. The coral scientists and restoration practitioners are all pumping the chest of the patient — the coral — we don’t have time to also put out the environmental fire that’s raging at the same time. We need the help of other researchers, institutions and political entities, as well as every citizen of this planet, to address the fire, or global climate change. In the meantime, we’re going to work our hardest to keep reefs going so they can still be there when conditions get better. Then, the ecosystem can start restoring itself.

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USC’s ‘Assignment: Earth’ initiative takes center stage during Earth Month

Environmental research’s top prize returns home. Zero waste zones have debuted at campuses. And USC scientists are experimenting with novel approaches to reduce carbon emissions and making groundbreaking discoveries.

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022These are just some of the university’s numerous achievements in sustainability over the past year that are under the USC “Assignment: Earth” banner. For the first time, USC is designating April as Earth Month to further all efforts to reduce pollution, inspire innovation and drive engagement to help the planet.

“Earth Month is a special opportunity to show our gratitude and affection for our beautiful, living, breathing home that’s the source of all life,” USC President Carol L. Folt said.

“At USC, we’re matching our appreciation with concrete action: Since announcing Assignment: Earth last April, we’ve moved an additional 25% of our electricity usage to renewable energy sources and kept more than 1.5 million single-use plastic bottles from entering the waste stream. Across our diverse 22 schools, we’re ensuring sustainability is a part of our curricula and our daily conversations. And soon, we’ll open a beautiful Sustainability Hub right at the center of UPC — it will be a place to convene, to learn and to share ideas. USC is really on the move here, and I can’t wait to see all the new things on the horizon,” she said.

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The university is one year into Assignment: Earth, the universitywide framework to achieve climate neutrality by 2025 and zero waste by 2028. The March release of the USC Office of Sustainability’s annual USC Sustainability Progress Report documented the improvements made since the university established baselines in 2014.

“USC is making meaningful sustainability progress across numerous categories — energy conservation, water efficiency, diverting waste from landfills and integrating sustainability into more classes, for example,” USC Chief Sustainability Officer Mick Dalrymple said. “This past year was about establishing a solid foundation to build on in order to achieve our ambitious Assignment: Earth goals. We know where we need to go — it’s ambitious, and we’re learning how to accelerate our pace to get there.”

Assignment: Operations

A year ago, the university launched Assignment: Earth and announced it would no longer purchase plastic single-use bottles. A year later, the results are stunning: Over 1.5 million single-use plastic beverage bottles were diverted from entering the waste stream. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum also set a new high-water mark in waste reduction, successfully diverting 91.7% of trash collected during the 2022 USC Trojan football season.

Dalrymple noted the accomplishments are impressive, but there are many more challenges ahead for the Trojan community to address together.

“Achieving zero waste at a university like USC is a complex equation,” Dalrymple said. “You need the proper infrastructure and the ability to manage what materials enter campus. The challenge increases dramatically because it involves influencing purchasing behaviors in a decentralized environment. Success will hinge on behavioral change. All Trojans have a part to play: We have to commit to rethinking waste as a resource — first reduce and reuse, and then recycle and compost.”

The university also reduced its greenhouse gas emissions dramatically thanks to a new agreement with the L.A. Department of Water and Power for renewable energy. With this agreement, 70% of the electricity that USC receives from LADWP is now carbon-free and campus energy efficiency has improved by more than 15%.

Greenhouse gas emissions controlled by the university (scope 1 and 2) dropped 31% since 2014.

“Even as USC continues to grow, its operations are becoming more efficient,” Dalrymple said. “Also, LADWP is providing cleaner electricity options. Continued progress on both these fronts is key for USC to achieve our 2025 climate neutrality goal.”

Assignment: Engagement

Visitors to USC’s campuses will immediately notice the central role sustainability plays in the daily life of the university. Hundreds of campus hydration stations at both University Park and Health Sciences campuses encourage the use of reusable and refillable containers. Clear signage for multi-stream waste bins aid in identifying where to dispose of your trash to assure it doesn’t end up in landfill unnecessarily.

Signage and events about new sustainable practices are all part of community engagement, a key tentpole in Assignment: Earth. The Office of Sustainability has found that increased engagement is positively correlated to improved sustainability literacy and increased self-reported behavior.

“Interest in learning about sustainability at USC is high,” Dalrymple said. “However, a lot of sustainability wins and challenges are not readily visible. You’ve got heavy lifting behind the scenes, for example, for energy efficiency and water conservation, about which it is challenging for people to get excited.

We receive many inquiries about recycling and composting from students, faculty and staff. Why? Everyone touches waste every day.

Mick Dalrymple, USC chief sustainability officer

“On the other hand, we receive many inquiries about recycling and composting from students, faculty and staff. Why? Everyone touches waste every day. Energy and water are much less tangible. Waste infrastructure, while still being deployed for consistency across campuses, is highly visible and brings attention to the issue, as well,” he said.

To better understand the sustainability IQ of the USC community, the Office of Sustainability recently launched its annual sustainability survey. The 2023 survey measures sustainability literacy, culture and behavior across the university and helps guide programming and planning. It is available online through April 16.

Signifying sustainability’s rising importance to the university, the USC Sustainability Hub is set to open in fall 2023 in the Gwynn Wilson Student Union building. Designed to facilitate collaborations across disciplines, the hub will host meetings, events, workshops, networking and the university’s first group of interdisciplinary postdoctoral fellows specifically focused on finding solutions to climate-related issues.

The university will also debut its first zero waste zone at the Little Galen dining hall during Earth Month. Each zone — more are planned to be installed throughout the year — will solely feature containers and packaging that are compostable or recyclable.

To commemorate Earth Month, the university and its 22 schools will hold dozens of events to educate and entertain, including:

The latter event is supported by the newly created Community Accessibility Restoration & Ecology, or CARE Grant, a program to highlight the intersection of sustainability and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. Developed by the USC Office of Inclusion and Diversity, the grant also will co-fund The Art and Climate Collective’s Annual Sustainability Fair and a Land Back Arts symposium.

Assignment: Research

Research geared toward identifying, analyzing and developing solutions for a world facing climate change and other environmental issues continues to flourish at USC. Since the beginning of 2023, USC researchers have published peer-reviewed studies or reports on:

  • The adoption of electric vehicles being tied to reduced air pollution and improved health, from the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
  • Plastic waste’s potential to be converted into valuable products, such as pharmaceuticals and agricultural products, from USC Dornsife and the USC Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
  • The impact of DDT in the Pacific Ocean waters near L.A., funded by the USC Sea Grant.
  • The plight of the Nile River Delta, which may predict the fate of the Colorado River if it continues to be overused, signaled in research by the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

These studies represent only a handful of the climate- and sustainability-related research projects underway across USC. The pace of discovery is set to increase, according to Ishwar K. Puri, senior vice president for research and innovation.

USC-led innovation can develop the human solutions necessary to make progress on these challenges, Puri said in a recent interview.

“Sustainability-related research taking place at USC continues to provide new insights and present potential paths toward a more equitable world,” Puri said. “USC experts have made important discoveries that address some of the most difficult challenges our world faces. Rapidly accumulating plastic waste, increasingly toxic air pollution in our cities and declining trust in science are just a sample of the problems our researchers are taking on.”

The post USC’s ‘Assignment: Earth’ initiative takes center stage during Earth Month appeared first on USC News.

Crafting a superstar enzyme that turns CO2 emissions into useful products

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Crafting a Superstar Enzyme that turns CO2 Emissions into Useful Products

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Crafting a Superstar Enzyme that turns CO2 Emissions into Useful Products

Mork Family Department Assistant Professor Shaama Sharada was recently awarded a Sloan Fellowship and a Scialog grant for her CO2 reduction research.
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In 2021, the USA released over six million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions — an increase of 6% on the previous year. With the global average temperature rising two degrees Fahrenheit since the pre-industrial era, greenhouse gas emissions must be urgently addressed to avoid catastrophic climate consequences. But what if these emissions could be removed from the atmosphere and converted into useful polymer-based products like paint, adhesives, detergents, and wastewater treatment chemicals?

Assistant Professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Shaama Mallikarjun Sharada will tackle this challenge in her latest project.

Sharada, who was awarded a 2023 Sloan Fellowship for her research, has turned her attention to a useful little enzyme known as RuBisCO, which is the powerhouse that fixes atmospheric CO2. Sharada and her collaborators are aiming to engineer the enzyme so that it can convert captured C02 into glycerate and then acrylate — the basis for a myriad of polymer-based products.

The latest research — a collaboration with Ahmed Badran at Scripps Research Institute and Jimmy Jiang at the University of Cincinnati — has been awarded a $50,000 Scialog: Negative Emissions Science grant from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and ClimateWorks Foundation.

RuBisCO, otherwise known as Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase-oxygenase, is one of the most abundant enzymes on the earth, converting CO2 into fuel for organisms like plants.

“Plants fix CO2 every day – the way they do that is largely through this enzyme called RuBisCO,” Sharada said. “CO2 is a linear molecule. It’s very stable, and it’s the highest oxidized form of carbon — you can’t oxidize it further. You can only reduce it by pushing electrons onto it.”

Sharada said that RuBisCO worked by doing precisely that — binding to a component of the enzyme known as RuBP and adding an electron to it to form carboxylic acid.

“Scaling up RuBisCO to the amount of carbon capture that we need is difficult because it is a slow reaction, and it is not very selective. So if the enzyme sees oxygen — which is more abundant than the atmosphere — instead of CO2, it will bind to oxygen instead.”

The challenge for Sharada and her collaborators will be to understand the reaction mechanism to tailor it to target CO2 rather than oxygen. Sharada said this would be the first step in creating a process to convert CO2 from the atmosphere at a large scale.

“The dream that we want to achieve is to not rely on fossil fuels, but to take CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it into a carbon feedstock to create the products you want,” Sharada said.

“I will do the computations to try to figure out the best tweak we can make to the enzyme. Then Ahmed Badran makes those enzymes to create glycerate, and Jimmy Jiang takes the glycerate and electrochemically converts it into acrylate — a monomer that can make polyacrylate, which is a widely used product,” Sharada said.

This is the second time Sharada has received a Scialog grant for her negative emissions research, having also won in 2020. Sharada said that a benefit of Scialog was that it encouraged multidisciplinary collaborations between researchers who may not otherwise cross paths. She and her colleagues will use the one-year project grant to create a proof of concept and pursue further federal funding options. Sharada hopes this will enable the team to impact future CO2 reduction technology in a significant way.

“Global acceptance of climate change and strong efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may not be enough to prevent further warming of the planet,” said Research Corporation for Science Advancement President and CEO Daniel Linzer. “We’re going to need fundamental new science that leads to much more efficient technologies to remove CO2 from Earth’s atmosphere and oceans to help bring things back into balance.”

The post Crafting a superstar enzyme that turns CO2 emissions into useful products appeared first on USC News.

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