The Sustainability Leadership Council (SLC) is a group of faculty, students, and staff that has provided guidance on how HKS can act to address the climate crisis and sustainability since 2016. The SLC’s 2021 Annual Report focuses on efforts by the SLC related to air travel, carbon offsets, reduction in plastic waste, and plans for a post-Covid sustainable campus. While the School is meeting the climate crisis primarily through research, teaching, and outreach, it also has a responsibility to be sustainable in its operations.
Connecting with others around the world is an essential means of pursuing our core mission of research, teaching, and outreach at the School. But research has shown that when connecting is done via air travel, an unintended consequence can be significant damage to climate, health, and well-being.
To assess the role of air travel in the School’s overall footprint of damaging emissions, HKS conducted the first-ever survey at Harvard of air travel undertaken by staff and faculty. The anonymized survey covered flights in calendar year 2019 and collected data itineraries and class of service provided by virtually all faculty and frequently flying staff. We are using this data to establish a uniquely high-quality baseline of pre-pandemic air travel. The survey results show that emissions from the air travel undertaken by HKS employees are substantial and are responsible for damages to climate and health that are roughly equivalent to the emissions from heating, cooling and powering our buildings. This is clearly a problem we need to address as part of our overall commitment to meeting Harvard’s climate and sustainability goals.
We’ve learned that long flights taken in business class contribute the majority of our collective emissions and thus cause the bulk of our unintended damages to climate and health. Neither train travel nor electric planes are going to be able to significantly reduce our air travel impacts alone. The experiments in virtual connecting that we engaged in as a response to COVID provide some new perspectives on how our emissions could be reduced without jeopardizing our core mission. The SLC is exploring with faculty and staff what new norms, policies and practices could help to reduce the damage caused by our efforts to connect with others as we pursue our mission and research across the globe. We are also exploring whether there are carbon offset strategies that could meaningfully compensate for some of the harms due to air travel we cannot avoid.
The fossil fuels used to generate the electricity we use in our buildings have a direct and inequitably distributed impact on global climate and local health. As part of the School’s contribution to reducing damages from fossil fuel use, it has installed solar panels on the rooftops of the Ofer, Wexner, and Rubenstein buildings. The panels are now generating an amount of electricity equal to about 3% of the School’s total needs. The Kennedy School plans on increasing its solar capacity in the future and is exploring innovative technologies to continue to address the environmental footprint of our buildings and operations. Projects like these, coupled with deep energy efficiency projects, will help lower damages caused by operating HKS’s buildings.
Fossil fuels are also used to manufacture most of the plastics that have become a ubiquitous but increasingly worrisome feature of our lives. The fraction of total fossil fuel production currently used in making plastics is small, but the growth rate in plastic production has now outstripped the growth rate in fossil fuel use for energy production. The result is that plastics could constitute a significant fraction of the world’s carbon emissions within the period covered by Harvard’s current climate goals. Moreover, the wastes generated by plastics and the chemicals added to them are increasingly recognized to pose direct threats to ecosystems, to the health of humans and other animals, and to the beauty of the world around us. These facts have been major drivers for a campus-wide effort to reduce our use of plastics and our generation of plastic waste. Current initiatives include:
- Developing the first cross-Harvard soft plastics recycling pilot, working with the Harvard Recycling team to collect and recycle plastic bags, films, and wraps and remove them from our waste streams and landfills;
- Working with our vendors to reduce the amount of plastic delivered to and used on campus and to find more environmentally preferable alternative products;
- Introducing efficiencies developed over the COVID campus shutdown and modeled across Harvard, such as reducing our trash pick-up schedule to better adapt to the decrease in waste due to hybrid schedules and to the reduction of unnecessary plastic bag waste;
- Examining the products sold in the HKS cafeteria and catering and replacing with plastic-free and more sustainable options.
Post-COVID sustainable campus
In spring 2021, the SLC formed a working group to envision a “Post-COVID Sustainable Campus.” Its goal is to examine the sustainability lessons learned since 2020 and to rebuild better practices and policies for future HKS operations, behaviors, and culture. Among the recommendations that have come out of this working group are:
- Supporting new post-pandemic travel policies to reduce the HKS air travel footprint;
- Integrating sustainability into all aspects of major events planning, logistics, and actions and to share that integration with other Harvard campuses and beyond;
- Encouraging organizers of large events and meetings to include a virtual attendance option to support hybrid learning well after our campus has resumed normal operations;
- Offering more plant-based and more sustainable food options in catering and dining menus to reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions as well as health damages from food served and enjoyed on campus.
SLC is working with the Harvard-wide effort at the Office of Sustainability (OFS) to provide a list of all the potential opportunities and strategies that HKS can specifically pursue to target the University’s goal of becoming fossil fuel neutral by 2026. We anticipate that these strategies will include building retrofits, additional renewable technologies, and some innovative concepts that HKS can consider piloting for the University.