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.
Rebecca Henderson, Bill Clark & Katie Lapp
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.
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.
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.
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.