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Scientist Sees Penn State as a “Living Lab” for Climate Action

With the University working to draw down greenhouse gas emissions and reduce its carbon footprint, plant biologist Charlie Anderson is likewise advancing the cause of a greener, more-sustainable future through research and advocacy
1 November 2022

As Penn State scientist Charlie Anderson sees it, humanity’s sticking point on climate action isn’t so much motivation as it is seeing a clear path to follow.

“The problems associated with climate change, and other sustainability-related challenges, are so big and so multifaceted,” he said. “I think a lot of people are willing to help, they want to help, they're excited to get involved in these kinds of things—they just don't really know exactly what to do.”

Anderson understands. He’s been on this journey for the better part of 20 years. And he’s hoping that the work he’s doing will provide both a model and a roadmap for even broader efforts, at Penn State and beyond.

“It has to happen quickly,” he said, “to avoid climate catastrophe—or should I say even larger climate catastrophes than are already happening. In that context, Penn State can be a kind of living lab for how a large research university decarbonizes, and how society can decarbonize.”

Coast to Coast

Trained as a cell biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Anderson was focused on biomedicine until late in his doctoral research at Stanford when he got interested in “environmentally relevant science.”

“That was really brought home to me by the cultural emergence of climate change as an existential issue,” he said. “And it got me interested in doing something with my scientific skill set that would be relevant to addressing the climate challenge.”

Working with his mentor Chris Somerville at Stanford, and later at the University of California, Berkeley, as a postdoc, Anderson shifted his research focus to bioenergy, putting his skills as a microscopist to use studying plant cell walls—how they are formed, how they change during plant growth, and how they can be broken down for bioenergy production. 

And as he looked for a place to start his lab, Anderson said Penn State’s vibrant community of plant biologists caught his eye, particularly their newly formed, U.S. Department of Energy–funded Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation.

“So I came to Penn State,” he said, “and I’ve done a lot of fundamental research into how plant cell walls are built and modified and recycled during plant growth and development. In my lab, we've also more recently gotten back into studying cell wall degradation, using tools like single-molecule microscopy to try to understand how enzymes are able to break down those tough polymers in the cell wall.”


Charlie Anderson examines plants
Penn State plant biologist Charlie Anderson examines plants in his laboratory. Credit: Michelle Bixby


Green and Blue and White

While Anderson focuses his research on bioenergy production, his sustainability work at Penn State extends well beyond the lab: he serves on the President’s Carbon Emissions Reduction Task Force and also chairs the Eberly College of Science Sustainability Council.

Between them, the President’s task force and the college’s sustainability council have produced, respectively, the University’s first-ever set of recommendations for achieving 100 percent emissions reduction by 2035 and the Eberly college’s first-ever greenhouse gas inventory (just the second such unit-level accounting at Penn State).

For Anderson, the motivation to do this work is deeply personal.

“I have two children, who are seven and nine, and I want them to inherit a world that is recovering from the effects of climate change rather than experiencing worsening symptoms of climate change,” he said. “There's a lot of hopelessness around the climate challenge, where people lack a feeling of empowerment, where they say, ‘You know, things are so bad and they're only going to get worse.’ In my view, things are never so bad that you can't change them for the better. We can make a difference. Individual actions matter and collective action matters, and those two things together can turn the tide.”

Starting Small

At the Eberly college, Anderson was instrumental in establishing the Sustainability Council—which comprises representatives from all the college’s departments—under the leadership of then-Dean Doug Cavener and guidance of the Penn State Sustainability Institute in 2019.

Since then, Anderson explained, the council has been working to establish benchmarks for the college, measured against the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“These deal with all aspects of sustainability,” he said, “not just conservation but also things like addressing poverty, eliminating hunger, providing education to everybody and equality for women and girls.”

One of the council’s biggest accomplishments, according to Anderson, was to inventory the college’s greenhouse gas emissions, which due to energy-intensive research labs and other facilities total roughly 20,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, about 7 percent of the University’s total emissions.

Led by Raymond Friend, a doctoral student in mathematics, Anderson and the council worked closely with the college’s associate dean for administration, Teresa Diehl, as well as facilities managers and representatives from the University’s Office of Physical Plant, to inventory the college’s carbon emissions down to the building level and, in some cases, even down to individual rooms.

“We now have these fine-grained data—which I certainly love, as a scientist,” Anderson said. “And that process has established a benchmark, a gold standard for other units across the University that are interested in doing their own inventories.”

A complementary effort led by then-undergraduate chemistry student Divya Jain began the process of assessing sustainability in areas like study abroad and summer internships.

And current biology undergraduate Fiona McConnell, who also serves on the college’s Student Council and led some of the college’s 2022 Earth Day activities, has formalized a relationship between the two councils, aiming to increase student involvement in the college’s sustainability initiatives.

“People like Raymond and Divya and Fiona, their enthusiasm is infectious,” Anderson said. “And I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to continue that tradition of having really strong student leaders on the Sustainability Council.”


Sustainability council in front of fall trees
The Eberly College of Science Sustainability Council. Credit: Michelle Bixby


Going Big

At the University level, Anderson has worked on several sustainability initiatives, starting in 2020 with serving on the steering committee for Penn State’s thematic priority “Stewarding our Planet’s Resources,” one of five highlighted in the University’s current strategic plan.

That same year, with colleagues Margot Kaye, an associate professor in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management; Tim White, a research professor and sustainability officer in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences; and Tom Richard, then-director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, Anderson organized and co-led a group of faculty, staff, and student volunteers to address the University’s carbon emissions. They called themselves “PSU CaN”—Anderson credits White with the acronym—which stands for “Penn State Carbon Neutral.”

“Over the course of about a year and a half, we had discussions with University leadership—Provost Jones, most notably,” Anderson said, “asking those hard questions about why Penn State isn’t decarbonizing faster, because we know we can; and I think we helped nudge University leaders a little bit to think more seriously about this issue.”

Then, in the summer of 2021, University President Eric Barron convened the President’s Carbon Emissions Reduction Task Force to formulate a plan to significantly lower Penn State’s greenhouse gas emissions on all of its campuses. 

The task force published its report—For the Future—in December 2021 and unveiled its recommendations in April 2022 for the University to achieve 100 percent emissions reduction by 2035.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t beat that date,” Anderson said. “I think it’s a realistic and aspirational goal, but I hope that if we take the right actions now we can actually beat that target.”  

Uniquely Empowered

As the world continues to reckon with climate change, Anderson said he recognizes that the challenges are indeed very large.

“But we’re also uniquely empowered in human history to address those challenges,” he said. “So the message I want to convey is empowerment. Not despair. Not depression. Not powerlessness. People can make positive change, and people can make real differences. It’s about marshaling our scientific expertise, making sure that we have a clear sense of the data, making sure that we have a clear sense of what's possible—and then doing the hard-but-possible things that need to be done to build a better future.”