Harvard will seek to become fossil fuel-free by 2050, sets interim goal of fossil fuel-neutral by 2026

Cambridge, MA ­– Harvard University today announced an ambitious new climate goal striving to end its use of fossil fuels by 2050. The new Harvard climate action plan (www.green.harvard.edu/climate) also includes an interim goal to become fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 by prioritizing aggressive reductions of campus energy use and then, where feasible, offsetting or neutralizing any remaining fossil fuel emissions by identifying and investing in off-campus projects such as renewable energy.

Harvard’s long-term goal to be fossil fuel-free by 2050 will be achieved by shifting entirely to fossil fuel-free sources for operating and maintaining Harvard’s campus. This will include purchasing cleaner sources of energy that do not burn fossil fuels (such as offshore wind or rooftop solar), operating the campus district energy system without fossil fuels, and operating fleet vehicles without the use of fossil fuels.

“These ambitious goals will be challenging to reach, but the grave risks climate change poses to our health and our planet’s future require essential action,” wrote Harvard President Drew Faust in a University-wide message. “Harvard must remain vigorous in supporting students, faculty, and staff who are championing ideas, expertise, and action related to climate change.”

The new climate action plan is based on the recommendations of a multi-disciplinary Climate Change Task Force convened in 2016 and composed of faculty experts, students, and senior administrators. It builds on Harvard’s past progress in reducing absolute greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 2006 to 2016.

“In joining other firms and universities in demanding fossil fuel-free energy we can help encourage and accelerate the provision of new technology, helping to transform the whole economy,” said Rebecca Henderson, the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at the Harvard Business School who served as one of two faculty co-chairs of the Task Force.  “In doing this, we are going to learn and we are going to share our learning with the rest of the world.”

The plan makes a point of specifically addressing fossil fuel emissions, rather than just carbon or greenhouse gas emissions, to reinforce the importance of considering the full scope of damages associated with energy choices. Fossil fuel pollution has been linked not only to causing dramatic shifts in the earth’s climate, but also to negative and long-lasting impacts on human health, social equity, and ecological vitality. For example, research conducted by scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and elsewhere have linked pollution from fossil fuel use to aggravated asthma and respiratory problems, heart attacks, and increased hospitalization rates and premature deaths

“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,” said Bill Clark, the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at the Harvard Kennedy School who also served as faculty co-chair of the Task Force. “We need to reduce radically the use of fossil fuels not only because of their catastrophic impacts on climate, but also because of their massive direct damages to human health and the natural environment.”

Harvard will move immediately to act on these new goals, in part by strengthening its “living lab” research programs that encourage faculty and students to use the campus to pilot and prove new ideas or solutions. For example, a new three-year, graduate-level course funded by the University is engaging students from across Harvard’s professional schools in developing realistic, quantifiable emissions reduction projects that might help organizations like Harvard achieve ambitious climate goals. The University will also explore, in consultation with faculty experts, the development of a carbon price or surcharge on on-campus fossil fuel energy use.

Since 2014, Harvard’s Climate Change Solutions Fund has awarded nearly $4 million in support of 31 multi-disciplinary climate research projects. The University has also provided $7.7 million in funding for 10 projects involving 20 faculty studying climate change and the environment through the Harvard Global Institute, launched in 2015 to support international engagement on pressing global challenges.

Harvard is also closely collaborating with the cities of Cambridge and Boston on climate preparedness and planning efforts. Both cities have set goals to become carbon neutral by 2050 as part of a regional commitment announced earlier this year. Harvard co-chairs the Higher Education Working Group of Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission, leading cutting-edge research projects on renewable energy procurement and laboratory energy use, and also serves on the executive committee of the Cambridge Compact for a Sustainable Future, helping to support the city’s Net Zero Action Plan.


Colin Durrant
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