David McCollum: Leading efforts to build Net Zero World
David McCollum uses his interdisciplinary expertise, international networks and boundless enthusiasm to lead Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s contributions to the Net Zero World initiative.
The Principal R&D Scientist’s broad expertise and interests lie at the intersection of technology and society – where engineering, economics and politics come together to peer deeply into the future. Scenario analysis, multi-sector modeling and decision science are the tools of his trade. His skills and experience play a key role in ORNL’s research and deployment of global energy and climate solutions.
“The world is so interconnected: socially, economically, institutionally, technologically and geophysically,” McCollum said. “All these chapters that I spent living, working and studying in different places have cemented this idea in my head and my heart that we are all really in the same boat. Solving the great societal challenges of our time means building bridges across society. I see science as a powerful force to unite us, not only here in our own country, but also with our fellow citizens abroad.
McCollum has already made an impact in some high-priority areas since joining ORNL in the fall of 2021, including serving as ORNL’s participation lead for Net Zero World. The initiative is a flagship collaborative effort between all national laboratories, the US Department of Energy and other government agencies, as well as major philanthropic organizations and other partners. The initiative aims to accelerate the adoption of resilient and equitable clean energy technologies and strategies in countries around the world.
Over the next several years, ORNL and national laboratories will work with partner countries to develop customized and actionable technologies and investment strategies. The goal is to move the global energy system to net zero carbon emissions by mid-century – the ambitious goal identified by scientists as necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change. So far, the countries active in the initiative are Argentina, Chile, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa and Ukraine; more are expected to join over the next two years.
“This is a unique effort between science and society. We harness the deep and diverse expertise of the DOE’s laboratory complex to lead equitable decarbonization efforts overseas; we do this by providing technical and analytical assistance where needed,” McCollum said. “Among other things, we aim to support enabling environments that catalyze low-carbon investments, whether from governments, the private sector, development banks or other organisations. The process is driven by countries’ own priorities; it’s really important.
McCollum has worked in the international science and policy space for most of his career, particularly within the global climate, energy and transportation communities. He currently serves in the Technical Support Unit of Working Group III of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This working group focuses on climate change mitigation: assessment of the scientific literature regarding methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and removing them from the atmosphere. WG III’s contribution to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, or AR6, was released on April 4, 2022.
“As a scientist, it is extremely gratifying to see the work of an entire global research community, underpinned by a body of literature accumulated over the years, receiving such overwhelming attention,” said McCollum. “IPCC reports are hugely influential, from government capitals to local town halls, and from corporate boardrooms to community organizations.”
McCollum was a lead author of the IPCC WG III contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, as well as a contributing author to the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C in 2018, among various other intergovernmental projects related to climate and energy. activities in recent years.
Back to his Knoxville roots
McCollum grew up in Knoxville, attended Bearden High School, and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Later he ventured into economics and political analysis as a way to explore the globally interconnected nature of energy, environmental and human systems, with a particular interest in how these systems can evolve together over time. time. An undergraduate study abroad experience in South Korea and a stint teaching English in Japan cemented McCollum’s interest in pursuing a career that was also, in a way, internationally oriented.
McCollum went on to earn two master’s degrees, in agricultural and resource economics and in transportation technology and policy, and then a doctorate in the latter at the University of California, Davis. So far, he has spent most of his career at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis near Vienna, Austria, where he was a senior researcher. He continues to be a Visiting Fellow for the institute, as well as an Honorary Senior Fellow for the Center for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London and an Energy and Environment Fellow for the Baker Center for Public Policy at UT Knoxville. Early in his career, McCollum was exposed to the National Laboratory environment, first as an intern at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and later as a research assistant at Argonne National Laboratory.
McCollum said one thing that drew him to ORNL was the opportunity to help shape new programs and develop new capabilities at a world-class institution. “The breadth and depth of ORNL is truly incredible, spanning from basic science to applied R&D. Better integrating these two sides of the research coin is the future if we are to solve grand challenges holistically. ORNL is the perfect place for that. Everyone is so open, supportive and collaborative. I literally meet new colleagues every day – and that’s even before I moved to Tennessee.
McCollum recently resided in California, where he worked as a senior technical manager for the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto. After nearly two decades away from Knoxville, he, his wife and two young daughters are coming “home” — and of course bringing their bikes with them, McCollum said.
“We’re looking to new adventure and all that East Tennessee has to offer: mountains and rivers, sweet tea and eclairs, maybe snow and definitely humidity, and most importantly, the family,” he said. “Girls will love it. Our bikes are tuned and ready to explore.
The opportunity to build diverse teams and mentor and mentor early-career staff was also very attractive to McCollum coming to ORNL, given his “big science team” approach.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate in my career to have had exceptional mentors who have helped shape my thinking and provided hard-hitting advice when I needed it,” he said. he declares. “I really enjoy the time I spend with early career researchers. And there are a lot of talented, creative and ambitious junior staff at ORNL who I found fantastic to work with. It’s always much more fun to work in a team than alone.
A challenge bigger and more complex than a person, a discipline or a nation
McCollum, who sits in the Mobility and Energy Transitions Analysis Group in the Building and Transportation Sciences Division, is leading an internal effort called [email protected] Its mission is to connect researchers and laboratory expertise in order to develop knowledge and collaborations around a wide range of decision science and analysis methodologies.
He is directly applying his own expertise in scenario analysis and multi-sector modeling to an ongoing project with Peter Thornton, John Field and other ORNL colleagues exploring the long-term impact of removing atmospheric carbon dioxide. on natural carbon sinks.
As McCollum puts it, “We need to better understand how forests and croplands behave when global carbon dioxide concentrations peak and then decline within decades. Will these natural systems continue to suck up carbon at the same rate as today? If not, what implications might this have on the necessary speed and scale of decarbonization efforts elsewhere, namely in the energy supply, electricity, transport, buildings and industry? »
Tackling the climate crisis isn’t just about cutting carbon emissions, McCollum said. Ambitious decarbonization efforts, both locally and globally, will bring many other benefits, such as cleaner air and water, high-quality jobs, and increased security and resilience. “It’s something that often gets lost in conservation. From a scientific point of view, we try to ensure that any transformation of energy systems leaves people and the environment better than before. If we can put factual information in the hands of decision makers and they then use that information to create a healthier, more liveable and more equitable world, then we have done our job.
McCollum suggests that young people interested in solving the great societal challenges of our time think about things holistically and with an integrated, systemic mindset. “It’s not just technology that will get us there. It’s the economy, it’s the politics, it’s the lifestyles and the culture. We need all hands, all disciplines, on deck if we’re going to crack these really tough nuts.
“That’s why I’m happy to be in the lab at this critical moment in history,” he said. “Global challenges like climate change are simply too big and too complex for any discipline or nation to solve alone.”