Campus & Community

Campaign to turn Crimson green

6 min read

Acting locally, Harvard has ramped up energy savings while driving down usage

While the Earth warms, Harvard has warmed to the idea making a difference in climate change.

For years, and in increasing measure, the University’s research in science, policy, business, design, and even divinity involves thinking globally. Meanwhile, Harvard’s students, faculty, and staff are acting locally.

In the last decade, Harvard has upgraded heating and cooling systems, changed the fuel it burns, improved construction guidelines, eased green commuting, reordered purchasing standards, rethought food systems, and encouraged energy conservation on both an institutional and personal scale.

All of this is designed to reduce the University’s output of Earth-warming greenhouse gases (GHG).

In 2008, Harvard’s ethic of energy reduction was memorialized in an ambitious goal articulated by President Drew Faust, to reduce GHG emissions at Harvard 30 percent by 2016, with 2006 as a baseline year. The goal is inclusive of growth in the University’s physical size.

Late last year, each of Harvard’s 12 Schools and divisions, with oversight from an executive committee and the Office for Sustainability, submitted a detailed emissions reduction plan. A University master plan is in the works and will appear later this year.

The results so far are making a difference. From Fiscal Year 2006 to FY 2009, Harvard has reduced its GHG emissions by 7 percent (14 percent if growth is left out of the equation). In some cases, individual progress is remarkable. Harvard Business School, for instance, has already cut its emissions by 29 percent. Reductions at Harvard Kennedy School come in at 16 percent.

On the eve of the 40th Earth Day, here is a timeline of how Harvard has acted locally in the last decade:


  • Commuter Choice Program founded. At the time, 27.4 percent of faculty and staff drove to work; now just 14 percent do. (The national average is 75 percent.) The original T-pass discount, set at 10 percent, was later increased to 40 percent, then to the current 50 percent.


  • Green Campus Initiative founded, giving structure and support to campus sustainability efforts.
  • Green Campus Loan Fund established – capital to Schools for cost-saving resource conservation projects.
  • The University’s first LEED-certified project, the renovation of Landmark Center offices at the Harvard School of Public Health. Harvard now has 23 certified LEED projects, the most of any university. An additional 48 LEED projects are registered.


  • The Resource Efficiency Program is founded at Harvard College, the University’s first peer-to-peer education program.


  • First solar array installed at Harvard, atop Shad Hall at Harvard Business School.


  • Harvard adopts University-wide sustainability principles.


  • First Green Team started, at Harvard Business School. Current total University-wide: 28.
  • The Green Campus Loan Fund doubles, to $12 million. An increasing number of sustainability projects have a payback of less than five years.
  • The first “shut the sash” program, at Harvard Medical School. Left open for a year, the typical laboratory fume hood will consume as much energy as the average New England house.


  • Almost 90 percent of Harvard College students vote “yes” on an Undergraduate Council Ballot referendum asking the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to commit to a GHG reduction goal.
  • Harvard achieves its first Platinum LEED rating — the highest possible – for renovations of 46 Blackstone South.


  • Green building guidelines adopted, required for capital projects of $100,000 or more.
  • Green Building Resource launched online to document Harvard’s green building projects. Partners include the Office for Sustainability, the Schools, and Harvard’s Capital Project Services office.


  • Over 4,500 students University-wide sign a petition, asking Harvard to set a GHG reduction goal.
  • Faust appoints a GHG reduction task force.
  • In July, Harvard adopts its GHG goal for 2016.
  • Office for Sustainability created, using the Green Campus Initiative as a foundation.
  • On Oct. 22, former vice president and environmental leader Al Gore ’69 speaks to a crowd of 15,000 in Harvard Yard. Total trash generated: one bag.
  • Green Office Certification Program launched. Number of certified offices to date: 38.


  • Five GHG working groups – more than 200 students, faculty, and staff – meet throughout the year to develop tools and policies to meet the GHG reduction goal. Topics include energy supply, green building, financial analysis, and community outreach.
  • Harvard’s largest solar array is installed on University-owned property on Arsenal Street in Watertown. With a capacity of 500 kW of power, it is one of the largest solar arrays in the Northeast.
  • University-wide temperature policy adopted. Establishes energy-saving set points for heating and cooling.


  • Harvard Community Garden launched in April, a student-organized initiative in partnership with the University.
  • First annual Green Carpet Awards ceremony scheduled for April 23, a recognition event for student, faculty, and staff contributions to sustainability.
  • While Harvard has adopted broad measures as an institution, separate Schools and divisions have taken their own steps to reduce energy usage, and GHG emissions. Here are a few examples:
  • University Operations upgraded equipment and switched to natural gas at the Blackstone steam operation, which led to the largest cut in GHG emissions so far. It also agreed to purchase more than 10 percent of Harvard’s electricity needs in Cambridge and Allston from a wind farm in Maine. The deal makes the University the largest institutional buyer of wind power in New England.
  • Harvard Medical School’s DePace Lab in the Systems Biology Department is the first University “wet” lab to achieve a LEED Gold ranking. (Wet labs are facilities that use chemicals or biological material.)
  • Harvard Kennedy School upgrades the chiller system in its Littauer Building, eliminating the equivalent of 135 metric tons of greenhouse gases, measured in CDE (carbon dioxide equivalent). The savings are more than $35,000 a year, and are an example of how green standards keep the bottom line black.
  • At Harvard Business School, a cogeneration project at Shad Hall offsets close to 500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

Earth Day was the inspiration of Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.). He chose Denis Hayes, a 25-year-old Wisconsinite who grew up in rural Washington, to organize the event. At the time, Hayes — a onetime Vietnam War protester at Stanford University — was a student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

On the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970 — HBS held an “environmental teach-in,” an event featured two days later on the front page of the Harvard University Gazette. “Scores of groups” across campus discussed pollution and other topics, the 10-line story said. Joining them in similar teach-ins across the country that day were an estimated 20 million people, including participants on 2,000 college campuses.