Students relax in Harvard Kennedy School's main quad
The Sustainability Leadership Council is leading efforts to make Harvard Kennedy School a greener institution.

By Grace Lam


There are plenty of opportunities at Harvard Kennedy School for students interested in climate policy. Students can apply to be a policy research assistant at an HKS research center, participate in a wide range of seminars featuring high-profile guests, or lead a climate-focused student organization like CEEPIC, as shared by my classmate, Gray Bender, in a previous Climate@HKS blog post

I would add one more opportunity to the above list – becoming a student representative on the HKS Sustainability Leadership Council (SLC). SLC is a leadership committee tasked with making strategic recommendations to Dean Elmendorf to shape the HKS sustainability agenda and drive its implementation. The agenda seeks to assure that HKS operations support the international goals of sustainable development, of which climate is one of the biggest and most pressing components. The SLC also works in coordination with Harvard University and the Office for Sustainability to collaborate on university-wide policies and practices and share best practices from the HKS campus.

While HKS has developed strong academic and policy expertise on climate topics, I am interested in ways to connect the dots between the school’s recommendations to policymakers and real climate mitigation actions on campus. The SLC is the perfect vehicle for students like me to gain hands-on experience with implementing policy changes to reduce emissions. 

Six months into my role as an SLC council member, here are some of the key things I have learned:

We are walking the talk.

Members of the HKS community have long advocated for more policy actions to mitigate climate change. This is a vision shared by Dean Elmendorf as well – we want to be the leading academic institution in developing a decarbonization plan and operationalizing it. Over the past few months, I have joined the Council’s working group on air travel and carbon offsets. While we are shaping efforts to reduce emissions from air travel, carbon offsets are also necessary to compensate for the harms from the air travel that cannot be avoided. The most important consideration is to ensure the offsets HKS purchases are high quality, additional, cost-effective, and mindful of the associated co-benefits. Under the leadership of HKS Senior Sustainability Manager Emily Flynn-Pesquera, we spoke to offset providers (and rejected many proposals that did not meet our additionality principles). We evaluated offset technology options and shortlisted the ones that could best meet the concerns we anticipate from our diverse HKS community. Over the past two years, the working group has been honing a potential carbon offset strategy to mitigate some of the climate and health effects that come from our air travel as a community. I am pleased that the school is actively advancing its sustainability agenda, and students, one of its most important stakeholders, are involved as part of the process.

We must be flexible in our sustainability strategy.

If there is anything that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that we should always be agile and nimble in our ways of working. This is very true for the SLC’s work as well. In winter 2020, we conducted a large survey, led by SLC Co-Chair Professor William Clark, aiming to understand the air travel patterns of HKS staff and faculty in the last full calendar year before COVID-19 disrupted things. The hope is that this data can establish a quality baseline to better understand our air travel patterns for subsequent years. However, this whole effort was aiming to measure activities before the pandemic. Obviously, the world is now in a very different place, where Zoom meetings have become more popular, and travel demands have changed significantly. In light of new circumstances, the SLC has to be thoughtful about how it interprets the pre-pandemic data and recommends appropriate actions accordingly. Another example is the SLC’s previous effort to reduce food waste on campus. Before the pandemic, previous SLC members put significant effort into driving behavioral and policy changes with regard to food waste. I learned that there was once a listserv where event organizers and students could share updates about food leftover from events. It was a win on both sides – students could enjoy free food, while the school minimized unnecessary food waste. Nevertheless, because of COVID restrictions, there have been problems with sharing food in this way, and food overall has not been served at on-campus events for more than a year. The effort to counter food waste naturally went away, as it was no longer needed, and previous SLC student members graduated. Now, as COVID restrictions are gradually lifted on campus, it is up to the SLC to ensure we do not reverse the good work that has been done in prior years. 

There are quick wins that can be achieved. 

Changing behaviors is hard, especially when we hope to implement policy changes that would affect the entire HKS community. While these changes can take a long time to agree upon, the SLC also managed to identify the actions that could be implemented right away. For example, as part of the recommendations presented by the carbon offset working group, we propose to integrate our air travel reduction and carbon offset strategies into the school’s largest events, as we anticipate that travel can and will return, and our community members will be flying across the globe as well as bringing visitors to Cambridge. This travel is necessary for our school’s mission of research and teaching, but it does come with a real environmental impact that the SLC and HKS cannot ignore. It is our hope that carbon offsets together with emission reduction measures could become an integral part of all future large-scale events. In addition to the SLC work, a group of mid-career MPA students is also launching a pilot initiative to calculate students’ emissions data and provide options to offset them, so students can graduate “carbon neutral” this May. Incorporating these actions into our regular operations could be helpful in pushing for changes in the long-term. 

It has been my pleasure to serve as a student representative at the SLC, and I would like to thank Dean Elmendorf for giving me this opportunity to weigh in. I would highly recommend that future students join the SLC and be part of the decision-making process – it is truly an amazing opportunity to drive changes and make HKS a more sustainable campus. Applications for 2022-2023 will open in early September 2022.

Grace Lam is a joint MPP/MBA candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. She is a member of the 2021-22 HKS Sustainability Leadership Council, a 14-person leadership body tasked with making strategic recommendations to Dean Elmendorf to drive the HKS sustainability agenda.

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