Campus & Community

‘Green’ University celebration commences

7 min read

Harvard accelerates its commitment to sustainability

If you flew over Harvard University in a small plane, you would see only a few outward and obvious signs of sustainability.

You would see a glittering solar array on Shad Hall at Harvard Business School, a landscaped green roof on Gund Hall, home of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and you would see a lot of zero-emission bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

Sustainability in action is hard to notice. For instance, Harvard buildings that are LEED-certified and registered — 49 so far — look like any other buildings. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the recognized industry standard for sustainable building and upgrades.)

But for the rest of this month, sustainability in action will be easy to notice. Events University-wide will celebrate Harvard’s accelerating commitment to environmental ideals.

The celebration is also a call to action — an expression of the need for Harvard’s citizens to help accomplish the University’s environmental goals. (They were outlined this summer in a report by the Greenhouse Gas Task Force.)

“What is at stake is nothing less than a change in the culture of how we work and live,” said President Drew Faust. “Every member of the Harvard community has a role to play in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions — by conserving energy ourselves, by motivating others to do so, and by envisioning and implementing new ideas that will contribute to our progress.

“Taken together, the habits, the attitudes, and the creativity of every one of us have the potential to make a difference,” she said, “not just for Harvard in the here and now, but for the larger world and its future well-being.”

Harvard’s first fall sustainability celebration includes panels, tours, fairs, film screenings, coffee house-style discussions, and weeklong challenges — like trayless dining, which limits the amount of wasted food in the dining halls and reduces washing costs.

But the centerpiece of the October sustainability events is an Oct. 22 visit by former vice president Al Gore ’69. His 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” explored the good science and bad policy behind what Gore calls “the ticking bomb” of global warming.

Faust invited the Nobel Peace Prize laureate (and Oscar winner) to deliver the keynote address for Harvard’s sustainability celebration, which will also be this year’s “Robert Coles Call of Service Lecture,” sponsored by the Phillip Brooks House Association.

In an invitation she issued to the entire University in September, Faust framed Gore’s Oct. 22 visit as the official launch of the University’s pledge to dramatically reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases. These gases, chiefly carbon dioxide (CO2), are from both manmade and natural sources. (Anthropogenic sources predominate.)

In June, the Greenhouse Gas Task Force report — requested by Faust just four months before — noted “the clear and present danger to society” of the Earth’s warming trends. The chief recommendation of the task force was to reduce planet-warming emissions at Harvard 30 percent by 2016, using 2006 as a baseline. (Such emissions have been growing at the University at the rate of 4 percent per year, the report said.)

Reaching the 2016 goal will mean reducing Harvard’s energy consumption, estimated by the task force to cost about $100 million a year. It will also mean improving energy efficiency in University buildings, changing individual behavior, and investing in clean-energy technologies — all of which may require capital outlays of $10 million to $20 million a year. Harvard will also develop strategies for investing in renewable energy projects to help offset emissions the University cannot reduce.

The reduction goal takes into account prospective growth at Harvard, including new construction in Allston.

The Allston Science Complex is a great example of sustainability in action. It is dominated by laboratory facilities, which are traditionally energy intensive — but it will produce about half the greenhouse gases of conventional laboratory buildings, and use less energy and potable water.

In a Pforzheimer House lecture this month, biologist and task force member James J. McCarthy called Harvard’s greenhouse gas reduction goals both “very aggressive” and admirable. (McCarthy, the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography, is a one-time co-chair of the working group on impacts for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

Harvard Executive Vice President Edward C. Forst, who will oversee University sustainability efforts, agreed that the University’s reduction goals are aggressive. But they are necessary, he said, given that climate change is one of the most urgent global challenges.

Making big strides in sustainability “is going to take all of us working together,” said Forst. “But the Harvard community is creative and solutions-oriented.”

The task force recommendations include enhancing energy efficiency and managing energy demand. Faust acknowledged that this will require effort from Harvard students, staff, and faculty as they learn ways to use less, reuse more, and reduce waste in energy and materials.

“Sustainability goals will not work if they stay at the levels of deans and department heads,” she said of the Greenhouse Gas Task Force recommendations. “Goals conceived at the top have to be achieved from the bottom up.”

To facilitate this, Harvard recently created the University-wide Office for Sustainability, successor to the Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI). Reporting to Forst, the office will continue (and widen) the HGCI mission. It will provide vision and oversight for implementation of the greenhouse gas reduction goals. The office will also help realize other sustainability goals for the University: changing behavior and improving efficiency measures in buildings, as well as better procurement practices, improved waste reduction, and more.

The office’s director is Heather Henriksen, a member of the Greenhouse Gas Task Force and a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School.

Former HGCI co-chairs Jack Spengler and Thomas Vautin have already put Harvard well on its way along the sustainability path, and made the University a living laboratory for sustainability practices. (Spengler is Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Habitation at the Harvard School of Public Health. Vautin is Harvard’s associate vice president for facilities and environmental services.)

Under their guidance and with support from the Schools, Harvard has instituted a variety of projects and programs: converting shuttle buses to biodiesel, broadening renewable energy projects, instituting organic landscaping, providing growing technical support for waste reduction, and continuing to implement environmental education programs.

Harvard this month received the highest ranking (A-) in a “College Sustainability Report Card” that graded 300 U.S. colleges and universities.

“We have made great strides,” said Vautin. “This new office will build on an impressive record and deepen the University’s growing commitment to living and working in a way that will sustain our planet.”

Harvard will also use its considerable intellectual weight to pursue research and teaching that explores solutions to the planet’s pressing environmental needs. Both new policy options and new discoveries in science and technology can help create a sustainable environment for future generations.

The obligation to be stewards of the environment, said Faust, is “especially true of a university community.”

Addressing climate change is important, as are pathways to sustainable living, said Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment. And along the way, he agreed, it’s important for Harvard to walk the sustainability walk.

But Harvard’s real impact will come through its scholarship, teaching, and its influential power as one of the world’s largest research universities.

“The influence of our faculty — and of our students, by ultimately becoming world leaders — is enormous,” said Schrag.

As for the climate change message, look at the influence of just one Harvard graduate, he said. “Al Gore learned about this problem at Harvard.”