1 December 2021

An EPIC institute in Chicago

Last November, one could at last travel back to the USA comfortably. We took the occasion to refresh some contacts and visit ao Robbert Dijkgraaf in IAS Princeton and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

Although a successor of Robbert Dijkgraaf had already been nominated at the IAS (starting H1 2022), his own new position as Minister of higher education, culture and science (OCW, in the Netherlands) was not in the news yet. Given the status of the government negotiations in the Netherlands at the time, it was maybe not even in the minds. Anyway, the debate we had in Princeton, ao on the concept of “University Colleges” in the Netherlands, has now become all the more interesting (subject of a later blog).

Because one of the 2022 LIAS projects is on climate change, we were also very pleased with, and impressed by, a meeting with Sam Ori, MD of EPIC, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. The institute is actively contributing to democratizing insight and rationalizing policies on climate change and air quality, using a Chicago-style approach : fact-based, analytically comprehensive and with an international perspective.

The precondition is cheap affordable energy for all, with the aim of “decarbonising” it as quickly as possible. Given the nature of the carbon problem, this has to be tackled on a global scale. About seven years after EPIC was founded, there are branches in India (2014), China (2019, with the Chinese Academy of Science) and hopefully soon also in Europe. Based on databases of time series spanning decades (often more than 100 years) for 25,000 locations around the world, estimates are made of the evolution of the consequences of global climate change. On the basis of satellite information, among other things, Air Quality Indices are also measured annually. These receive a lot of attention from the local press when published, eg in India. As a preliminary conclusion, it seemed to me that China’s air quality is improving, India remains sluggish and SE Asia is deteriorating.

In the USA, a social cost of carbon (50 USD per ton) has been calculated by EPIC, using the same thorough approach, ao based on shorter life expectancy and more expensive agriculture and housing due to climate change. This is now used to evaluate climate policy (after the Trump administration put that carbon cost back to a few USD per ton, thereby effectively taking away any stimulus for improvement). As another example, in India a cap-and-trade system has been set up for 100 large industrial companies in the state of Gujarat, which has led to halving of local CO2e emissions.

Finally, EPIC organizes quite some conferences and live-streamed panels with big corporate and politicians and active work is being done on publications in the popular press (specialized but also NY Times, WSJ, Economist). With 12 academic faculty and 20 support staff, EPIC appears to be one of the most prominent and impactful academic institutions for climate change. An example of how the academic world can and, because of its complexity and multidisciplinarity, should make a real contribution to societal challenges. We strongly recommend anyone who has major responsibilities and/or interest in climate change to check out EPIC : https://epic.uchicago.edu .

The success of EPIC made the University of Chicago decide to bring two other institutes, named after 2 of its many Nobel Prize winners, under the same directorship. Thus the Becker Friedman Institute was integrated, with a focus on economics (ao social/behavioral and macro, after its “fathers”). In total these institutes now consist of around 250 multidisciplinar economists. The institutes have an international advanced study way-of-working with many visiting fellows per year, engaging on relevant projects with their Chicago counterparts.

It seems obvious to have important decisions regarding climate change (and society’s support therefor) substantiated in the same solid way down here as well, whether or not making use of the expertise of institutes such as EPIC. The Belgian “decision” process on the possible closure of the nuclear power plants, for example, does not seem to correspond to such an approach, so far. In addition, such “key climate decisions” should be part of an overall plan over several decades that compares the costs and benefits of different paths to the zero-carbon ultimate goal. Again, a scientific, multi-disciplinary and non-ideological approach is absolutely required to have any chance of success in this.

Author: Joost Van Meerbeeck

An EPIC institute in Chicago

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