Science & Tech

Earth Week emphasizes notion of human stewardship

5 min read

Earth is shielded by a film of air barely 6 miles high. About 10 million species of plants and animals, including 6 billion humans, reside within this thin skin of gases.

The atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with a dash of argon and carbon dioxide. It’s a finite, permeable membrane increasingly threatened by greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

Ergo: Earth Day (April 22), a celebration since 1970 of the layer of air that protects us; the water and land that sustain us; and the nonhuman species that enrich us.

At Harvard, and many other places, Earth Day has grown into a week energized by students who remind us that our planet is vulnerable and that our actions upon it are increasingly important.

From April 21 to 25, there will be dozens of Earth Week events Harvard-wide — enough to make your head tilt at 23 degrees, Earth-like, and spin around at 1,526 feet per second.

There will be displays on the top-10 individual sustainability actions. (Change your incandescent bulbs yet? Turn off that unused computer?)

Other events — workshops, lectures, film screenings, displays, and tabling — will highlight recycling, trash awareness, bicycle commuting, reusable mugs, and sustainable food.

The capstone Earth Week event, a student-run celebration at the MAC Quad on April 25, will include a model dorm room display, a green tour of Harvard Yard, and a bottled-water taste test. (A no-waste, good-taste tip: Go tap. Americans gulped through 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. At 167 bottles per person, that’s a mountain of trash.)

Harvard’s Earth Week celebration has an atmosphere of its own, too — a context that gives this month’s events special meaning. Last year, President Drew Faust announced an overarching pledge to reduce University-wide emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) 30 percent by 2016.

As soon as the pledge was announced, Harvard’s Schools and divisions got to work on local-scale plans to make it happen.

“Sustainability is one of our very highest priorities,” said Faust this week. “As a community we have the opportunity and an obligation to put knowledge into action.”

All 10 Schools are working on energy audits: snapshots of how much energy buildings and laboratories currently use, along with strategies for using less.

Buildings are a good place to start. Lighting, heating, and cooling them accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. energy expenditures.

“Our office is working with all of the Schools and units to identify conservation measures,” said Heather Henriksen, director of Harvard’s Office for Sustainability (O.F.S.).

Her office is coordinating the GHG implementation plans, providing technical assistance, assembling best practices, writing case studies, measuring progress, and boosting communications. A new Web site — — will be up early next week, and will include a list of Earth Week events.

Many energy-saving steps can be deployed quickly, said Henriksen, and can be paid back in as little as three years.

Among these fast energy conservation measures are daylight and motion sensors that control lighting; energy-efficient compact fluorescents to replace incandescent bulbs; and building systems that are reset to minimize energy usage for heating, cooling, and ventilation.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has started a three-phase energy audit. (Each phase will look at 3 million square feet of buildings.)

To start off phase one, an energy team — led by Jay Phillips, FAS director of energy, sustainability, and infrastructure — vetted 15 buildings covering 1 million square feet. Included were three buildings that represent common kinds of University real estate: a science building (Francis Birch Hoffman Laboratory), an office building (Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts), and a Harvard Yard residence (Thayer Hall).

The audit uncovered conservation measures that could be done fast, for little or no money, said O.F.S. team member Gosia Sklodowska. Included are door seals; nighttime equipment shutdowns; and control adjustments for heating, cooling, and ventilation.

Audits are not all. Earlier this year, FAS Dean Michael D. Smith endorsed a new temperature policy: Heating “set points” — control parameters — were lowered to 68 degrees Fahrenheit; cooling set points were increased to 75 degrees.

Estimates are that a few simple measures will save FAS $600,000 this year in heating and cooling costs — and energy dollars saved mean GHG emissions avoided.

The temperature policy works, said Phillips, because of support from building users — “the essential factor in attaining our GHG reduction goal.”

More is in the works as Schools help implement the GHG reduction. Harvard Medical School started its own temperature policy. Harvard Divinity School’s Rockefeller Hall, a 1970 structure, was refurbished last year to use about 30 percent less energy than a standard building.

And Harvard Law School has just retrofitted Griswold Hall with energy-saving daylight sensors and low-flow water fixtures. It’s the University’s first LEED Platinum interior renovation. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a standard for U.S. green buildings ranked like precious metals. Platinum is the highest rating.)

“We’ve made progress on campus,” said Faust. “But continued collaboration between faculty, students, and staff is essential to making the types of changes that will have real, lasting impacts on our environmental footprint.”

Harvard Real Estate Services, which manages about 25 percent of University buildings, is rolling out 50-Plus, an ambitious, multiyear program designed to reduce energy usage at both its commercial and residential holdings (including 2,900 student apartments).

In residences, space heaters will be banned and low-flow shower systems installed. Capital projects are scheduled for new lighting controls, roof and window upgrades, and energy-saving washing machines.

About 21 percent of Harvard’s energy usage comes from buildings managed by HRES.

“All these efforts make sense for the planet,” said Henriksen, “and for the budget.”