Campus & Community

Harvard makes climate pledge to end fossil fuel use

Leaders of task force explain how they arrived at ambitious energy goals for campus

long read

Video courtesy of Maggie McFee/Harvard FAS Research Computing

A new Harvard University climate action plan, announced by Harvard President Drew Faust today, clears an ambitious path forward to shift campus operations further away from fossil fuels. The plan includes two significant science-based targets to reduce emissions dramatically: a long-term goal to be fossil-fuel-free by 2050, and a short-term one to be fossil-fuel-neutral by 2026.

The plan builds on Harvard’s previous 10-year climate goal, achieved in 2016, to reduce on-campus greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent, despite a square footage increase of 12 percent during that period. Following this milestone, Faust appointed a climate change task force composed of a multidisciplinary group of faculty experts, senior administrators, and students to help the University envision a new set of climate commitments to define its work on campus over the next several decades.

The task force was co-chaired by Rebecca Henderson, the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard Business School; Bill Clark, the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development at Harvard Kennedy School; and Harvard Executive Vice President Katie Lapp. The task force recently completed its work and delivered its recommendations to Faust. These recommendations provided the blueprint for the new plan.

In an interview, Henderson, Clark, and Lapp talked with the Gazette about the recommendations, the research and thinking behind them, and some highlights of the plan.

GAZETTE: The climate change task force recently delivered its report to President Faust, outlining its recommendations for the next stage of Harvard’s climate commitment. Before we dive into the specific recommendations, can you touch on the broader scientific and societal context in which the group considered them?

HENDERSON: I think the most direct answer is that the world is in crisis, that the climate is changing faster than scientists hoped it would. All the projections suggested that there would be impacts, but everything’s happening at the high end of the original scientific consensus. What’s most dramatic, and perhaps most salient, is the huge storms that hit the Caribbean and Texas last summer. And while one can’t ascribe any single storm to the effects of climate change, what the scientists said is these kinds of events would become more frequent and more severe.

CLARK: We seem to be edging up on a pivot point in the notion that fossil fuels are an inevitable, necessary evil that you have to stay with. We are facing a time when the notion of shifting the world’s foundations for energy choices in a more sustainable, life-friendly direction is feasible technologically, economically, and politically.

Bill Clark and Rebecca Henderson.

Bill Clark of the Kennedy School and Rebecca Henderson of the Business School are faculty co-chairs of the Climate Change Task Force that made recommendations for the next stage of the University’s climate commitment. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Harvard University

GAZETTE: So, given this context, can you describe some of the task force’s central findings that were the foundation of the recommendations?

CLARK: For any energy choice Harvard makes, the task force found that while there are substantial climate implications, there are also substantial implications through other pollutants for health, ecosystem, agriculture, productivity, and materials. Not only are there climate reasons to shift away from fossil fuels, but there are other reasons that are important to consider when you realize that the same choices you make are going to have broader implications.

An analysis done by the task force found that the full scope of damages associated with Harvard using fossil fuels to provide the energy services it needs to perform its mission are at least $25 million a year. Of that total, perhaps three-quarters is due to the impact of fossil fuels on the climate, and the rest is associated with costs related to the human health effects of other pollutants. Nobody questions Harvard’s need for energy services to fulfill its mission, but we found it extremely sobering to think that we’re getting our energy in ways that are creating that much damage to society. Surely, we should be looking for ways to meet our energy needs while reducing those associated damages to the climate, public health, and the environment.

“We are facing a time when the notion of shifting the world’s foundations for energy choices in a more sustainable, life-friendly direction is feasible technologically, economically, and politically.”

Bill Clark

GAZETTE: One of the task force’s core mandates was to recommend a new set of emissions-reductions targets for the University. What were those goals?

HENDERSON: The last 10 years have seen enormous progress on campus. Emissions have gone down by 30 percent overall, including campus growth, which is fantastic and absolutely the leading edge of what most other institutions and firms have accomplished.

So, what next? The task force focused hard on the question of what Harvard could continue to do on campus in terms of a short-term goal and a long-term goal. The long-term goal is to make the campus fossil-fuel-free by 2050. That means, to the maximum extent possible, our operations will not rely on the use of fossil fuels.

Now, why do we say “go to zero” by 2050? Well, the most immediate reason is both Boston and Cambridge have announced that that’s the standard they’re expecting of institutions and companies by 2050. The second reason is that we know from the science that that’s at least what we need to do if we’re going to help solve the problems that we as a society face.

And, in fact, we thought we needed to do more than that. So, we also recommended a short-term goal that Harvard become fossil-fuel-neutral by 2026. What we mean by fossil-fuel-neutral is that we invest in other projects — things like power purchase agreements, things like buying renewable energy certificates — so that, although we will continue to be responsible for fossil-fuel emissions here in Cambridge, we will be making sufficient investments that would take our net use of fossil fuels to zero by 2026.

GAZETTE: How do you see these goals and the task force’s other recommendations mixing with the extensive research and teaching on climate change and sustainability that’s going on at the University?

HENDERSON: We think this is one of the most exciting aspects of this new commitment. It is a very real opportunity to use Harvard’s campus to engage our faculty, our researchers, and our students in tackling the very toughest challenge we face in the necessary transition to a fossil-fuel-free future. The task force’s recommendations present research questions, which our faculty can use to further their research and engage students as part of the teaching and learning experience.

CLARK: It’s worth emphasizing that, yes, our recommendations are fundamentally about how we might engage our entire community in figuring out solutions to the global problems society faces when it comes to sustainable development and climate change. These are topics in which Harvard has in the past and needs to in the future play a really fundamental role.

Climate goals graphic.

Graphic by Kate Hammer/Harvard Staff

LAPP: In addition to prioritizing institutional action on climate over the past decade, President Faust has made a strong commitment to funding climate change research with an eye toward long-term global solutions. For example, since 2014, more than $11 million has been invested in 41 multidisciplinary research projects through the Climate Change Solutions Fund and the Harvard Global Institute. Additionally, a new Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund is supporting faculty research that uses our campus or surrounding communities to test or prove promising new solutions.

GAZETTE: Why did the committee feel it was important to set the short-term, fossil-fuel-neutral goal, and what would you say to people who say we will just be buying our way out of the problem?

HENDERSON: The first and most important reason is because we now have an even better sense of the damages — the very real damages — that our energy choices are causing. We are directly contributing to the burning of fossil fuels, and that’s causing very real damages. We believe we have a moral duty to stop doing that as soon as we can. The second reason we made this recommendation is that we think that Harvard adopting this target will have real effects on the world around us, and that is consistent with our goal to be a leader in the world and in our community.

There are really two kinds of impacts that we’re hoping that this move can have. First, we can contribute to generating real demand for fossil-fuel-free energy, which in turn will drive down the costs. My own research explores the effect of strong demand signals on technical innovation, and one of the things I think economists are most certain about is that if consumers want it, they will build it. Second, and very importantly, we think that in Harvard making this commitment, we can learn more about what it means to make this transition and develop the kind of research and analysis that will support other institutions in making the choice to accelerate this change.

To those who say Harvard’s going to buy its way out of our trouble, I would reiterate that our first and most central recommendation is that Harvard should pursue all available opportunities to reduce fossil fuel use on campus, and that we should get to zero by 2050.

GAZETTE: How would you address concerns about the cost of reaching these commitments, especially the short-term, fossil-fuel-neutral goal?

HENDERSON: We believe that the current state of technology and science suggests that we could become fossil-fuel-neutral for relatively small amounts of money, on the order of 1 to 3 percent of energy costs. We have every reason to believe that those costs will go down over time. We think the other nice thing about this is that these small percentages are within the margin of the natural variability of energy prices. So just as energy prices rise when oil prices rise or there are geopolitical events, what this would look like to the community is a small increase in the price of energy.

People are sometimes concerned that there are poor-quality offsets out there, or that our money might go down a drain. Clearly, investing these funds in a way that helps us reduce damages and ultimately achieve fossil-fuel neutrality while ensuring our money isn’t wasted is an important task. Our hope is to use some of these issues and discussions as input to active research leading to insights into how organizations can optimally reach fossil-fuel neutrality in the way that has the most impact for the lowest cost.

GAZETTE: Beyond the emissions directly associated with energy production or use on campus, there are a host of so-called Scope 3 emissions, those emissions that are associated with purchased goods or services that support campus operations. How did the task force think about these emissions?

CLARK: It’s not a surprise to people that the purchase of food or of transportation services is responsible for emissions. What surprised us, as the Office for Sustainability began to actually calculate the magnitude of those emissions using preliminary estimates, was that they were far larger than most of us had expected.

We believe the University needs to move forward, in conjunction with other groups doing this work, to ensure that we have scientifically grounded, reliable metrics that can give us insights into the climate, health, and environmental impacts of purchased services, particularly for air travel, food, investment, and the like. As part of the process of getting more accurate measurements, we can then better understand what the options are for reducing those impacts, and begin to pursue those options consistent with Harvard’s mission. As part of the fossil-fuel-free by 2050 goal, we suggest that the University make more than due-diligence efforts to ensure that the purchased goods and services are also purchased from sources that are fossil-fuel-free. Because we don’t completely control what outside companies do, we’re going to work as hard as we can to send signals and create demand for such goods and services.

“We think that in Harvard making this commitment, we can learn more about what it means to make this transition and develop the kind of research and analysis that will support other institutions in making the choice to accelerate this change.”

Rebecca Henderson

GAZETTE: How do you imagine Harvard might begin to operationalize these new goals?

HENDERSON: The committee recommended that the University implement a surcharge on fossil-fuel consumption on the campus in order to fund becoming fossil-fuel-neutral by 2026. A surcharge is conceptually equivalent to what many people have talked about as a carbon tax. One way to think about it is: Every time I turn on a light, I’m not only lighting the room, but I’m creating some damages. The goal of a surcharge or a carbon tax would be to ask you to pay a little bit toward that.

Now, if you simply were to impose a surcharge on fossil-fuel use that was equivalent to the damages we were causing, that’s a very big number — we’re certainly not recommending anything like that.

CLARK: In terms of how to implement a surcharge on campus, there are a set of questions that will need to be answered through ongoing research and in close coordination with the University’s Schools and departments. These include what the size of this surcharge should be and how the revenues might be used, for example, in stimulating or incentivizing the development of low-fossil-fuel, low-emissions technologies and practices on campus. There are many faculty experts on our campus who are well-positioned to contribute to this research endeavor.

GAZETTE: Katie, the University faces competing demands on shrinking resources, especially in light of the tax on endowments included in the recent federal tax bill. How will these new climate goals fit into the difficult decisions that Harvard administrators are making and will need to make about how to spend our limited resources?

Harvard Executive Vice President Katie Lapp. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Harvard University

LAPP: As with any major goals set by the University, we will strive to meet the commitments set forth in the task force’s recommendations. While ambitious, I think they are achievable. The fact is, we met our previous climate goal through smart investments in energy conservation that reduced emissions and resulted in millions of dollars of cost savings to the University. We will continue our focus on energy efficiency, particularly as new technology becomes available. And as we did with the previous goal, we will undergo a process of quadrennial reviews that will allow us to explore the question of whether or not it is still viable to meet our goals and what adjustments may need to be made given the demands on our resources.

GAZETTE: The findings and recommendations of the climate change task force were unanimously agreed upon, and while you three served as co-chairs, it was composed of many other members. Can you tell us a little bit about the dynamic of the full group?

CLARK: The task force was named to include a broad cross-section of faculty, students, and senior administrative staff from around the University — they were spectacular. I think we came out of this in a place that was quite unlike what anybody walked in expecting. Almost everybody at the table gave a little on something they might have liked to see featured more. But, crucially, we simply came out with a view or vision of what was achievable and what the motivations were for achieving it. And that, to put it mildly, is not something that always happens in this society.

HENDERSON: Conversations were lively, sometimes difficult, but always productive. I gained so much respect for the diversity of expertise across the campus.

GAZETTE: I’d like to wrap it up by asking you how you individually take action to reduce the climate impact of your own lifestyles?

LAPP: As many people who interact with me on campus know, I’m always turning off lights, adjusting the thermostat, and I try to avoid drinking bottled water. I also walk to work, drive a Prius, compost, and try in my small way to reduce my carbon footprint wherever possible.

CLARK: I try to keep up with Katie, but bike rather than walk to work. And for the last decade, I’ve been running the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, which has brought in several hundred sharp young researchers and early career professionals. I have worked very hard to bring down by a factor of at least 60 percent my air travel over that period, simply in response to these folks saying: Really, how much of that travel is essential to you achieving your mission? How much of it can you do in other ways? How much of it do you need to do at all?

HENDERSON: I don’t eat beef. If you were to identify one single element in the food chain that generates disproportionate carbon emissions, beef would be it. When I construct my own carbon portfolio, it’s overwhelmingly the flights I take, so, like Bill, I’ve been very much trying to cut down my amount of flying. And, last but not least, I’ve invested in insulation in my house. The numbers are very striking. The easiest way to make money usually is to insulate your house. And that’s had a very positive rate of return and makes a big difference.