A Climate Neutral Crimson

Harvard likes to think of itself as an unparalleled leader, in everything from scholarship and cutting edge research to endowment size. In the past, Harvard has often led society down a road of greater acceptance and diversity, from reforming recruiting practices to allowing for open, liberal discourse. Most recently, we have witnessed how Harvard’s decision to dramatically increase financial aid for the middle class has caused multiple other schools to make their education more affordable.

In at least one aspect, however, Harvard has fallen behind institutions such as the University of California, Northeastern, and even Nassau Community College. In terms of addressing climate change, we lag behind not only these three colleges, but also behind almost 500 colleges who have pledged to go “climate neutral.” Each of these schools has committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions, but our university is conspicuously absent. As a world and university leader, Harvard has a duty to commit to setting a date for climate neutrality and so demonstrating that sustainability must be a priority for modern institutions.

Up to now, Harvard has been at the forefront of campus sustainability. Sustainability Principles, our green building practices, the Green Campus Loan Fund, and the Harvard Green Campus Initiative have won accolades and inspired imitations across the country. Most recently, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Dean Michael Smith has supported Harvard’s first-ever greenhouse gas reduction commitment, which requires FAS to reduce emissions to 11 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

While these steps are laudable, it is time for Harvard to make the leap and commit to climate neutrality. Failure to do so will put us at risk of losing our position as a climate change leader to the hundreds of schools currently crafting comprehensive plans for climate neutrality. Such a commitment will not be easy, but it is possible and necessary. With green building, energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy development, Harvard can reduce its effective emissions to zero.

Members of the Environmental Action Committee (EAC) and other environmental groups around campus are working closely with the administration to set goals for the university. Many administrators shy away from a long-term commitment, especially one that falls outside their likely tenure at Harvard. They prefer more comfortable and less innovative interim goals and ten-year plans.

This cautious leadership style is understandable, but it is unacceptable. With leading scientists calling for the industrialized world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, there is no time for a leading university like Harvard to commit to only short-term plans. We must drive the change that scientists—including many Harvard faculty members—say we need.

Many critics of climate neutrality stand aghast at the cost that greenhouse gas reductions would inflict upon Harvard. These criticisms, however, are flawed for two reasons. First and foremost, many of the efforts towards neutrality would actually save money. Harvard’s Green Campus Loan Fund has achieved a return-on-investment of 26 percent—a higher return than the endowment—by funding efficiency and conservation measures that pay for themselves within five to ten years. Efficiency savings could be used to fund other aspects of emission reduction, such as investment in renewable energy.

Second, global climate change presents a moral imperative that demands big thinking and innovation by the world’s political and academic leaders, not protestations couched in dollars and cents. The majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from the world’s wealthiest nations. According to The New York Times, the average American citizen produces 20 tons of carbon dioxide each year, compared to only 3.8 tons in China and 1.2 tons in India. Although all countries must deal with the impacts of climate change, most of the burden will be borne by the world’s poorest nations. This is due partly to their geographic locations—generally nearer to the equator, where climate change will cause more devastating changes than areas closer to the poles—and due partly to their inability to fund measures to mitigate effects such as drought or rising sea levels.

If the wealthiest university in the world cannot take full responsibility for its impact, what hope is there for other leading institutions and countries to work against devastating climate change? Rather than lag behind, Harvard must spearhead this effort by developing robust practices for measuring, accounting for and reducing institutions’ greenhouse gas emissions. The first step is to commit to climate neutrality.

Many students, faculty and alumni recognize the moral and environmental imperative to address climate change. In the last two weeks, about 2,500 students, faculty and alumni have signed the EAC’s petition asking Harvard to choose a date for climate neutrality. We hope that Harvard’s administration will heed this call and return us to the fore of campus sustainability.

The choice before us is clear: lead or be led. We can demonstrate the transformative potential of a deep institutional commitment to sustainability. The rest of academia, the nation, and the world will take notice.

Allegra E. C. Fisher ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a special concentrator in ecology and development in Leverett House. Mitchell C. Hunter ’08-’09 is a government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He is the historian of the EAC. Karen A. McKinnon ’10 is an earth and planetary science concentrator in Currier House. She is the treasurer of the EAC.