Log Lunch: Gavin McCormick '05 on Tracing Global GHG Emissions to their Individual Sources

When Gavin McCormick ‘05 began his PhD in Environmental Economics at Berkeley, he anticipated spending years developing new methods to quantify and evaluate greenhouse gas emissions. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was that his ideas would revolutionize climate science and transform global climate policy. As he spoke to a rapt Log Lunch audience on January 6th, Gavin reflected on the process through which he invented Automated Emissions Reduction technology (AER) and the real-time impact of the technology. When describing the large, diverse team that helped automate the process he envisioned as a grad student, he explained that he believed this “could only have been done by ephs.”

Gavin began by describing how, for years, environmental research relied upon high-level estimates of GHG emissions, data which, more often than not, was generated by polluters themselves. These estimates limited environmental action and contributed to a culture of distrust, between environmentalists and industry, and also between various nations on a global scale. Further, the same inaccurate data sets formed the basis of decades of research, limiting the environmental community’s ability to actually understand the scope of GHGs. AER, however, works to create and automate a map of GHGs through the use of thousands of sensors which are then verified by artificial intelligence — a strategy he first learned of in a Williams philosophy course! With these more accurate measurements, Gavin recognized just how easily various corporations could begin to limit their GHGs. For instance, through simply switching from one high-polluting steel mill to another, a powerful corporation like Tesla could lower their own emissions, while simultaneously incentivizing the steel industry to do the same. This strategy formed the basis of the two organizations using AER technology today: WattTime, a nonprofit seeking to provide AER to over 1 billion devices across the globe, and Climate TRACE, a global coalition of researchers, tech companies, and NGOs seeking to continually improve the accuracy of GHG measurements.

Once AER technology became publicly available, Gavin began to field calls from corporations, government agencies, and even Al Gore, all of whom urged his team to scale up their technology, allowing it to measure practically every type of pollutant right from the source. Stakeholders from all over recognized just how important this technology could be: now, rather than just measuring how bad GHGs are, we could begin to stop them in their tracks. Stunned by just how quickly the technology was taking hold, Gavin and his team found themselves being invited to speak to the United Nations during COP 28. Before presenting, however, Gavin recognized that it was important to make sure the data had no errors, so sought out a scrappy team of Ephs, computer scientists, and friends, who worked tirelessly for about 48 hours to identify dozens of mostly-minor errors through innovative strategies, including directly calling airlines to check whether they were honest about which types of planes they were using . He noted, again, that the interdisciplinary work of his colleagues made this rapid review possible, which in turn made his UN presentation possible. That week, Gavin explained to climate leaders from around the world that, surprisingly, self-reported data from nations on their GHGs featured an “overwhelming display of honesty,” which would allow nations to finally begin to trust one another and cooperate in climate policy. Only one nation — Saudi Arabia — differed significantly from their self-reported data.

Gavin concluded by reflecting on the power of his Williams experience, and his excitement about teaching a winter study course on combining climate science and artificial intelligence. He encouraged students to pursue their own ideas inside and outside of the climate space, and to reach out to him with questions about that often-challenging process.

The Log Lunch community enjoyed a delicious meal of white bean soup, crusty bread, kale salad with roasted root vegetables, and a parsnip cake with cream cheese frosting. Most of the vegetables were from Mighty Food Farms, while the potatoes, turnips, rutabaga and kale came from Peace Valley Farm.

Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.