Piers Park in East Boston offers some of the best views of the city skyline, but, as Prince William and Princess Kate learned on Thursday, it also provides a glimpse into the risks Boston faces from sea level rise and climate change.
By the end of this century, major parts of the city could be swallowed by anywhere from 2 to 6 feet of sea level rise above 2000 levels. The determining factor will be how quickly the world reins in its emissions and by how much, which is why the royal couple is here.
This was day two of the much-watched visit by William and Kate, whose trip will culminate in hosting the glitzy Earthshot Prize ceremony on Friday, which will award five innovators $1.2 million each to help tackle various aspects of the climate crisis. But if that event is about celebrating global innovation, Thursday was all about showcasing the Boston area’s homegrown ingenuity, starting with a tour of Greentown Labs in Somerville — known as the largest climate technology startup incubator in North America — and ending with a visit to Piers Park.
The royal couple was joined by Mayor Michelle Wu and environmental advocates as they walked along the waterfront, learning about the risks the area faces from climate change and about innovative ideas being developed in the region to respond.
A new partnership announced Thursday aims to dampen that effect of a warming climate by bringing new life to Boston Harbor’s seawalls and, possibly, weakening the waves that threaten its shores.
An Australia-based company, Living Seawalls, an Earthshot finalist last year, is working with Boston’s Stone Living Lab to transform two sections of seawall lining the shores of the harbor. In an experiment they hope will show that threatened marine life can again prosper in the harbor and potentially help disperse the power of climate-fueled storm waves in the process, scientists will attach panels with grooves and indentations that make hospitable homes for marine life such as mussels and seaweed. Beyond the ecological impacts, the project will hopefully draw attention and serve as a tool to educate people about the risks of climate change.
If the project succeeds, the groups hope to install them in many places along the state’s coastline.
“The native mussel here is actually quite threatened, so the population has been declining,” said Katherine Dafforn, a marine biologist and the cofounder of Living Seawalls. “One of the things we found with one of our particular designs is that mussels love it.”
Paul Kirshen, research director of the Stone Living Lab and a professor of climate change adaptation at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the beauty of the project is that it’s taking a structure that already exists and adding to it in a way that brings only positive benefits. “Plus they provide this measure of public art,” he said.
The visit to Piers Park was just one of the peeks the royal couple had into the area’s burgeoning climate innovation sector. The day had started with a visit to the high-tech space of Greentown Labs.
Greentown Labs is the crown jewel of the Boston-area’s burgeoning climate-tech industry. Since 2011, it has supported more than 500 companies and raised more than $4 billion in funding, and now has a second operation in the nation’s de facto energy capital, Houston, as well.
William and Kate toured the space with Greentown Labs chief executive Emily Reichert and Joe Curtatone, former mayor of Somerville and now president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, a business association for clean energy stakeholders in the region. The parallels between the work being developed and fostered at Greentown Labs and the aims of the Earthshot Prize were apparent.
Earthshot, which was founded by Prince William and the Royal Foundation in 2020, is a global environmental prize to discover, accelerate, and scale innovative ideas that can help the planet. The five awards awarded on Friday will draw from a pool of 15 finalists that were announced earlier this year.
The royal couple met with five current or former Greentown Labs-affiliated companies that are innovating in different areas. One biotech company, c16 Biosciences, will soon announce a product launch with a sustainable alternative to palm oil made from fungi. Palm oil production methods often cause the destruction of carbon-rich tropical forests and peatlands and so are major contributors to climate change.
Another startup, Sublime Systems, is developing low-carbon cement, taking aim at an industry responsible for 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to its cofounder. William seemed particularly taken with Open Ocean Robotics, which is developing self-driving solar-powered boats that can collect data about the ocean.
“Can it monitor the storage of carbon?” William asked its cofounder, Julie Angus. He suggested she meet a past Earthshot winner, Coral Vita, which uses cutting-edge methods to grow coral and restore reefs.
Not long after, the royals walked into Greentown Labs’ dining area, where some of last year’s Earthshot winners and finalists were waiting, including Sam Teicher, cofounder of Coral Vita. William referred to Angus’s autonomous boats, wondering if the two companies might find inspiration in one another.
Whether in conversation with Greentown Labs companies or last year’s Earthshot competitors, William again and again wanted to know how each planned to scale up, how quickly it could grow, and what barriers stood in the way.
Dafforn, of Living Seawalls, was among the past finalists there to meet with William and Kate. As they chatted about the company’s growth, the prince spoke to the urgency of responding to climate change.
“For all of us, time is ticking,” William said.