Yale investments director shifts focus to developing climate solutions
Dean Takahashi, the longtime senior director of the Yale Investments Office, will spearhead a new multidisciplinary Yale laboratory that will develop and support innovative solutions to the challenge of climate change.
The Yale Carbon Offset Laboratory (COLab) will engage faculty and students from across campus — as well as innovators and scientists from outside the university — who are developing technologies that sequester and store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will focus on methods designed to succeed on a large scale and that can be tested and validated quickly and inexpensively.
The COLab’s administrative home will be the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), but it will seek participation from across campus, taking advantage of the university’s strength in natural and social sciences. (Learn about the broad range of climate-change research at Yale.)
The lab will aim to offset more than 1 billion tons of global carbon dioxide emissions over the long term, and it will target more than 10 million tons in emissions offsets by 2030 — or about 50 times Yale’s current net emissions. By demonstrating the value of the technologies essential to this endeavor, Takahashi hopes the COLab will also strengthen the global market for carbon offsets, promoting further innovation.
“I know it is ambitious, but I think it is important to set aggressive goals for the COLab so that we do something significant and worthy of Yale,” Takahashi said last week. “To meet these targets, it is essential that we solicit and collect great ideas from the Yale community and externally.”
“Yale is a place where we should be coming up with big ideas that have global impact,” he added. “We want to find the kinds of projects that could reduce global carbon emissions safely at a large scale but at a low cost.”
“Dean has long been devoted to finding solutions to climate change, and he has an impressive record of exceeding expectations to ensure a bright future for Yale. His work at the Investments Office for the last three decades has significantly strengthened our ability to fulfill our mission,” said President Peter Salovey. “Through the COLab, he will focus his considerable expertise and creativity on building a more sustainable future. He will foster multidisciplinary collaborations and champion innovation boldly.” Salovey has appointed a task force to determine how quickly Yale can meet its goal of net zero carbon emissions.
Takahashi takes on this new challenge following more than 33 years with the Yale Investments Office, where he worked alongside David Swensen, Yale’s chief investment officer, in developing the widely emulated “Yale model” of endowment management. During Takahashi’s tenure, Yale’s endowment grew from $1.5 billion to $30 billion, and annual spending increased from $50 million to $1.4 billion.
The COLab will identify a handful of projects with the long-term potential to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, with a focus on those that take advantage of the carbon-storage potential of natural ecosystems. Land-based plants and the world’s oceans currently store approximately half of global fossil fuel emissions. Unfortunately, global land use change is reducing the capacity of terrestrial systems to store carbon, increasing the release of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Natural ecosystems also produce methane and other greenhouse gases. The COLab will investigate technologies that reduce harmful emissions and increase carbon storage. In addition, it will examine techniques that reduce the absorption of incoming radiation by increasing the reflectivity of land surfaces.
The COLab, which will be located on the Yale campus, will provide funding and work space for project managers and assistants, as well as research fellows and interns working in collaboration with Yale faculty and external partners. (The COLab will have a general and administrative staff of five to eight people, and project teams with up to three members focused on developing specific technologies.) Selected projects will be eligible for funding commitments of three to five years, with possible extensions. The lab will also cover the costs of analytical studies, workshops with outside experts, technical instruments, pilot projects, and other direct operating expenses.
Integrating Takahashi’s expertise in investments with the scholarship being produced across Yale provides a critical opportunity to support new climate solutions, said Indy Burke, the Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean at F&ES. A closer relationship between Takahashi and F&ES, she added, is a “fantastic” match.
“Our mission at F&ES is to provide knowledge and leadership for a sustainable future, and I think that Dean is an absolutely perfect representative of that,” she said. “Through the COLab, Dean will work with scholars and practitioners from across campus, including those working on issues related to biology, ecosystems science, engineering, investments, health, and many others. This matters, because working across disciplines is critical to every solution for sustainability.”
Over the past several years, Takahashi has supported and collaborated on research at F&ES, including with professors Mark Bradford and Peter Raymond on the potential for managing peat bogs to reduce carbon emissions.
Also, working alongside Brad Gentry, the Frederick K. Weyerhaeuser Professor in the Practice of Forest Resources Management and Policy at Yale, Takahashi has helped the university explore how its investments in projects related to the reduction of carbon emissions might help it meet its own short- and long-term emissions reduction targets. Fourteen years ago, Yale committed to a 43% reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions compared with 2005 levels. It has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
Takahashi said he hopes that by developing and proving the viability of emissions reduction technologies, the COLab will not only help Yale achieve these targets, but also demonstrate the value of emissions reductions and bolster the global market for carbon offsets.
“Despite the huge societal value of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there are few proven strategies to achieve it,” he said. “It’s a Catch-22: You cannot create policies and markets for carbon offsets on a large scale without viable negative emission technologies, but people won’t develop those technologies without functioning markets.”
“That change doesn’t happen with a flip of a switch,” he added. “It takes years to devise and test technologies, measure their impact, estimate their cost, and develop standards for quantifying their carbon offset value. We need to start developing and proving the viability of negative emission approaches now.”