Science & Tech

Controlling greenhouse gases, universities, individuals matter

5 min read

From 1850 to 2000, the use of fossil fuels worldwide grew 140-fold, a practice that has gradually filled the Earth’s atmosphere with warming gases.

In 2006, emissions from burning fossil fuels pumped 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the planet’s thin shell of air. Emissions from coal, just one source of CO2, rise by 2.4 percent a year.

If that and other trends are left unchecked, the density of CO2 in the atmosphere will reach 1,000 parts per million (ppm) at the end of this century. (It’s 350 ppm now.) At that level, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will catastrophically disrupt global patterns of temperature, precipitation, oceanic heat exchange, storm activity, and coastal sea levels.

The numbers are big, and the consequences are global and scary. So what can Harvard — a mere dot on the globe — possibly do?

That was the question five University experts addressed this week (Oct. 20) in a panel titled “Reducing Carbon, Promoting Sustainability: The Role of Individuals and Institutions.” About 65 listeners were at Boylston Hall’s Fong Auditorium for the event, one of a series this month celebrating Harvard’s commitment to sustainability.

The panel has a backstory. This July, President Drew Faust pledged that by 2016 Harvard will reduce its greenhouse gases by 30 percent compared with 2006 levels. Harvard has also stepped up its efforts to educate students, staff, and faculty about what individual action can do to reduce energy usage and take other steps toward sustainability.

The Monday evening panel was moderated by Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment. He started with an overview of the big numbers that underscore any discussion of climate change.

“By any standard,” he said of CO2 levels at 1,000 ppm, “that is a catastrophe.” (Holding concentrations this century to about 550 ppm is what law, policy, and action should target, said Schrag.)

In the meantime, he asked, does individual commitment matter in the face of global climate challenges so big? Will a commitment to sustainability from a town-size institution like Harvard make any difference?

Yes, and yes, said panelist William C. Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

“Individual behaviors matter,” he said, though it’s a research pathway that needs more attention.

Households account for about 30 percent of energy use, said Clark, and reductions in personal energy use for light, heat, and transportation could trim 10 percent off the energy savings that need to be made worldwide. That “cheapest 10 percent,” he added, would make “a modest hunk of difference.”

As for Harvard, Clark expressed a sentiment echoed by all the panelists: What the University does — through teaching, research, and the influence of its name — matters.

“Our product” — top research, talented students, and outreach to the policy community — matters a great deal, said panelist Robert N. Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at HKS and director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

But more broadly, he said, the role of individuals and even large institutions in affecting climate change pales in comparison to the power of decisions made by companies — and in comparison to the issue-shifting power of governments.

The problem is so big, said Stavins, that solving it requires not only “strong governmental action,” but also significant changes to the world economy, including changes in what things cost. He favors, for one, a tax on carbon.

Individual action has a small effect on the issue, said panelist Kelly Sims Gallagher, “but individuals add up.” (Gallagher directs the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group at HKS.)

Significant reductions in U.S. per capita energy use would have a powerful “demonstration effect” on other nations, said Gallagher, and would restore America’s “moral accountability” on global climate change. But at the moment, she said, U.S. per capita energy use is five times higher than in China, and 20 times higher than India’s.

As for Harvard’s sustainability actions, “the demonstration effect is very large,” said Gallagher. “What Harvard does is paid attention to — not just in the United States but around the world.”

Harvard is a “cheap diffusion technology” for spreading ideas worldwide, but could do even more than keep its sustainability pledges and educate its work force, said panelist Richard J. Zeckhauser, Frank Plumpton Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at HKS. For one, it could offer eco-tours that show the University’s bricks-and-mortar commitment to sustainability.

At the individual scale, said Zeckhauser, it is important to teach people that paybacks for taking action — upgrading storm windows, say — may take only a few years. On a grander scale, “broad energy use” simply has to cost more, he said. (Zeckhauser called the recent gas crisis “a pretty good natural experiment” in how high prices can lower energy use.)

Still, individuals can make a difference, he said, like the pioneers in solar research, who will soon lower the cost of getting energy from the sun. Or even individuals who have personal “eco-projects” under way at home, like the storm windows.

Then there are the individuals whose actions can sway whole nations, or change the culture of energy use. In that respect, said Zeckhauser, “Al Gore is like a billion people. Maybe 2 billion.”