James Stock.

James Stock, Harvard’s new vice provost for climate and sustainability, identifies two areas where the University can make an immediate difference.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Science & Tech

More climate research, teaching to make greater impact

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Vice Provost for Climate and Sustainability James Stock looks ahead

International climate-change experts have issued increasingly dire warnings about the need for deep emissions cuts in the years to come. The nations of the world will consider their individual commitments and plan the path ahead when they gather for the latest global climate summit in November in Scotland. Harvard, meanwhile, has signaled its intent to further boost its diverse and long-running climate-change efforts, creating a new position of vice provost for climate and sustainability and naming energy and environmental policy expert James Stock to the post in September. Stock, the Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy, spoke to the Gazette about the challenge ahead, for both the globe and Harvard, and his vision for how his new office can help.


James Stock

GAZETTE: There’s work on climate change going on across Harvard’s Schools. How do you see your role as vice provost intersecting with that work?

STOCK: In his letter on climate-change engagement at Harvard last month, President Larry Bacow wrote that “Harvard must stand among world leaders in addressing this challenge.” It’s my job to make this happen.

Fortunately, we are starting from a position of strength. We have many excellent individual faculty members and students working on various aspects of climate change and sustainability across the University. Also, the Harvard University Center for the Environment has done a terrific job creating a community of scholars across Harvard who are deeply engaged in climate and environment research. My task is to build on this strength at the University level to support more research, more teaching and education, and an enhanced level of external impact commensurate with Harvard’s stature.

At the moment, research and education in the climate area mainly occurs within the Schools. I see my role as both supporting existing research programs and promoting research collaborations across School boundaries. Climate change cuts across School boundaries, and tackling the challenge of climate change is a quintessential example of how we can draw on all of Harvard’s strengths.

GAZETTE: Is there a particular place at the University where the potential for deepest impact lies right now?

STOCK: In the short run, we have at least two areas of opportunity. One is in research. We can support those who are actively engaged in research in this area. We can also make it easier for researchers who haven’t worked on climate issues but would like to. For example, I anticipate that this spring we will start a new grants program for Harvard faculty and graduate students, as a larger successor to the Climate Change Solutions Fund. I’d like to see this program used in part to support early work by scholars interested in bringing their expertise and perspectives to climate and sustainability research. I’d like to promote a “big tent” approach to research in this area. This is a vast field that needs first-rate minds focusing on it across many disciplines.

A second area is on-campus education. Currently, demand for climate-related courses far outstrips supply. Fully addressing that problem requires having more faculty teaching in the area. But we can make progress in the short run by taking advantage creatively of existing courses. For example, the Center for the Environment has been developing resources to support faculty who want to create a climate module in their courses. That is a terrific opportunity to help faculty who want to connect existing and new courses to climate and environmental challenges. There are also things we can and will do, with the Center for the Environment’s help, to support and educate Ph.D. students working in the climate area broadly. And we — faculty and students together — also have an opportunity to think ahead to what a more robust set of curricular options could look like.

“Climate change cuts across School boundaries, and tackling the challenge of climate change is a quintessential example of how we can draw on all of Harvard’s strengths.”

GAZETTE: Does your appointment — as an expert on energy and environment policy — indicate a belief that, while advancing climate science, technology, and other aspects of the problem are clearly still important, this has become largely a policy problem, specifically an energy policy problem?

STOCK: The scope of needed work on climate spans many time scales and many intellectual areas. It’s true that my own work focuses on U.S. energy policy and how we can effectively decarbonize in the near term. But there are a vast number of other aspects of climate change that Harvard can and does contribute to. We already have great engineering work on batteries, carbon removal, and more, but the world needs much more on the technology front. And, what are the best ways to make urban environments more resilient to storms, floods, and rising sea levels? What are the public health threats that future climate change will pose, and how can they be addressed? How can the private sector meaningfully work toward a sustainable future? What can we do to make sure that the transition to clean energy benefits the disadvantaged communities that have disproportionately suffered from fossil-fuel pollution? Harvard faculty are doing good work in many of these areas, but there is much more to be done.

Going back to your question about energy policy, recently I’ve been thinking about the transition to light-duty electric vehicles and about the transition to low-carbon aviation fuels. Those are, in the first instance, policy questions, but they are intimately linked with technology questions. If you just focus on sustainable aviation fuels, there are many possible, theoretical paths to decarbonizing the aviation sector, but really none of those are available at a commercial scale right now. We don’t really know which of those are going to be cost-effective. So the question of decarbonizing aviation is really challenging in part because we don’t know what the technology is. What we need to do now is make sure that these technologies develop. That problem combines policy, technology, finance, land use, and business.

GAZETTE: Can the potential replacements for current aviation fuels be used in current engines or are we also looking at a need to transition to new types of engines?

STOCK: At the moment, the most plausible path runs through so-called sustainable aviation fuels, which can be used directly in today’s jet engines. Those fuels also can be used with today’s fueling infrastructure. These fuels come from biofuel feedstocks, some of which have the potential to have very low life-cycle carbon footprints. But engineers are thinking outside the box, too. For example, there are development prototype airplanes that are battery powered for short-haul purposes, like flying from Boston to the Cape. Then there are other ideas like using hydrogen as a fuel. For example, Airbus has been doing some concept work on using hydrogen. That’s a long way off but it underscores that aviation isn’t just a policy problem, it’s also a technology and business problem.

“Changes on the Harvard campus are important — we must lead by example — but Harvard’s leadership must extend much further, through research, teaching, and engagement, nationally and globally.”

GAZETTE: Clearly, a heavy reliance on renewables seems to be the way forward, but is it possible to go entirely to renewables? What is your view of this energy transition as we move ahead?

STOCK: I’m confident that we can fully decarbonize the power sector, although we can’t do it next week. If we can generate inexpensive green electricity, then use it to power vehicles and manufacturing processes and so forth, then that is a very plausible path towards decarbonization for big chunks of the economy. At the moment, the best bet for sharply reducing carbon emissions in the power sector is through building new renewables generating capacity — wind and solar — while postponing the retirement of our nuclear fleet. Squeezing the final 10 or 15 percent of fossil fuel emissions out of the power sector is an area where the technology isn’t quite there yet. There are some very exciting ideas that are being explored for that. Some of them have to do with long-term battery storage; some of them have to do with hydrogen; some of it could be load management. There is also a role for new zero-carbon capacity like nuclear or, maybe someday, fusion, if the economics, siting, and fuel challenges work out. So there’s a wide range of things that are under active investigation, and we’re going to have to cross that bridge in 10 or 15 years, perhaps sooner in some regions.

GAZETTE: Has solar gotten to the point where it is cheaper than coal or natural gas?

STOCK: Yes. In much of the United States, it is substantially cheaper to install new solar than just to keep an existing coal plant running. This is a remarkable and quite recent development. Now, one really can see a path toward deep decarbonization of the power sector in the U.S. and in other areas where there are renewable resources, wind or solar.

GAZETTE: Is that what makes you optimistic?

STOCK: The falling cost of wind and solar electricity definitely is one reason for great optimism in the United States for a big chunk of our emissions. Another reason for optimism is that it is also becoming cheaper to use that green electricity in much of the transportation sector. We are already at the point where some electric vehicles are price-competitive with their gasoline counterparts, if you include fuel and maintenance costs. As battery prices fall, the price of electric vehicles will fall further, and they will become increasingly attractive to the consumer — especially if we take the public policy actions needed to support charging infrastructure.

But the main reason I’m optimistic is the passion for addressing climate-change issues among youth nationally and globally. Here at Harvard, there is tremendous student enthusiasm for tackling climate change across the board, from undergraduates interested in green technologies, to professional students preparing for careers in which climate change and sustainability will play an important role. The youth movement has been critical in driving the current climate efforts by the Biden administration and in Congress. Whatever happens to those efforts in the short run, the youth political pressure to act on climate has been transformative.

GAZETTE: Given the magnitude of the change, can we do it in the timeframe that seems to be necessary?

STOCK: A common goal is to be net zero by 2050. I think that’s an achievable goal, but I must admit that in saying that I’m putting a lot of faith in the engineers — and in green-tech venture capitalists and the rest of the green-tech ecosystem, including research universities — to invent a lot of things that don’t yet exist. We also will need the policies to support those nascent technologies and drive, or in some cases enforce, the transition. In the big areas of energy use — the use of electricity in residential heating and cooling, light-duty transportation, even aviation, one can see a path toward net zero by 2050. There are some residual areas where we just don’t know, such as manufacturing processes like steel production. Agriculture is challenging because of methane emissions from animal husbandry. There are ideas about how to mitigate such sources, but they’re all very expensive. So there’s a lot of work to be done in some of these most difficult sectors. It’s really important to think about these things now, to focus on doing what we can now to set the stage for those steps later.

GAZETTE: Harvard has several potential roles when we talk about climate-change solutions and one of them is as a living lab. How big a challenge are the University’s goals to be fossil-fuel neutral by 2026 and fossil-fuel free by 2050?

STOCK: Being fossil-fuel neutral by 2026 is a big lift, but Harvard is working hard toward that goal. The Harvard Office for Sustainability has been working on this undertaking, in collaboration with faculty through the Presidential Committee on Sustainability. And that office has been taking concrete steps. As just one example, on Oct. 21 there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the first four of our new electric shuttle buses. The office, faculty, and students are also thinking more broadly about how our efforts can provide a useful template for sustainability efforts elsewhere. In this vein, part of this work includes ex-post program evaluation, for example checking whether an offset program or a new renewables investment credibly provided additional emissions reductions.

On your second question, fossil-fuel free by 2050, that really is a question of whether we can make the economy fossil-fuel free by 2050. In my view, Harvard’s real contribution is helping to achieve that goal nationally. Changes on the Harvard campus are important — we must lead by example — but Harvard’s leadership must extend much further, through research, teaching, and engagement, nationally and globally.

GAZETTE: Clearly, as a university, one of our biggest impacts on the future in any field is our students. Are we adequately preparing them to understand this problem, regardless of what field they’re in, and are there thoughts about potentially making changes to the curriculum?

STOCK: I mentioned that we have short-run opportunities in education. Demand for climate-related training will only be increasing. Some of our peer institutions are setting up schools of climate and sustainability, and we need to compete successfully for those students, the leaders of tomorrow. If you think expansively, there are professions that are just now emerging which are related to climate, and there’ll be more new professions that are related to climate in eight to 10 years: climate and health, climate and development, climate and finance, and so forth. So, there are many areas where I think we have great opportunities to create new programs, to have cross-School programs, or enhanced programs within Schools, both at the graduate and undergraduate level. So, the short answer is we have some very good courses, and we do a good job teaching them, but there are many opportunities to do much more.

GAZETTE: You had indicated that you were going to be embarking on a series of conversations with faculty across the University. Have you begun that? What have you been hearing?

STOCK: I have. I’ve also created a faculty advisory committee, drawn from faculty across multiple Schools, to help me as we build out the new vice provost position. There is tangible enthusiasm for the fact that Harvard created this position and that we have ambitious goals. I’ve had quite a few colleagues say, “I’m interested in climate. It seems really important. It’s not my main area of research, but it would be really interesting to do some work in this area. How can I get involved?” or “How can I learn about this particular technical topic?” And that’s great. That means there are opportunities to get to get additional faculty involvement. We have a community that is united by the recognition of the gravity of the climate problem and the unique opportunity for Harvard to lead in tackling it.