In Aggressive Move, Harvard Outlines Significant Cuts to Carbon Emissions

Adopting task force recommendations, Faust commits Harvard to 30 percent reduction by 2016

University President Drew G. Faust adopted a task force's recommendations for addressing climate change on Wednesday, committing Harvard to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below 2006 levels by 2016.

Faust announced the formation of a student and faculty task force in February to study cuts in Harvard's greenhouse gas emissions, giving the committee until the end of the academic year to outline a set of recommendations.

In a statement today, Faust praised the group's recommendation for a 30 percent cut as "ambitious and far-reaching" and "reflecting both the urgency of the climate problem and Harvard's opportunity to show leadership in addressing the issue." The sizable reduction target and the very aggressive timetable make the goal among the most ambitious that any university has committed itself to. (Click here to read the full task force report.)

Campus environmentalists lauded Faust's decision, with former Environmental Action Committee Co-Chair Mitchell C. Hunter ’09 saying that he was "extremely pleased" with the announcement.

"[The plan] demands huge efficiency gains from our current operations, aims at continuous improvement above and beyond our stated goals, does not make any convenient exemptions and, most importantly, includes future growth," Hunter said. "This means that if the University wants to grow, it will have to build extremely efficient buildings and take responsibility for any remaining emissions with reductions elsewhere on campus or high-quality offsets."

Emissions reductions beyond 2016 are not yet defined, but Faust called the 30 percent target an "initial short-term goal," indicating that the University will develop plans for further reductions beyond that date.

While Harvard will rely "to the maximum extent practicable" on reducing its own emissions to meet the targets, it will also "need to acquire or create high-quality carbon offsets in order to meet the recommended goals." Carbon offsets are the practice by institutions or governments finance emissions reductionssuch as by planting trees or paying for energy efficiency programsin other parts of the world.

Faust added that while it is important for Harvard to reduce its emissions, its "greatest contributions to solving the problem of climate change should reach far beyond our actions to limit GHG emissions arising from our own campus operations."

"Our research and teaching must generate knowledge about how we, not just at Harvard but across the United States and around the world, might use the discoveries of science, of technology, and of policy analysis to create a sustainable environment for generations to come," she said.

The chair of the task force, Kennedy School professor William C. Clark, said that while he was "delighted" by Faust's decision, "the big question mark at this point" will be the plan's implementation.

"The challenge ahead is to engage every single level of this community in coming up with suggestions and out of the box thinking and behavioral change," Clark said. "This can't be run out of a committee or a committee's officeit has got to be something that engages everything from Mass. Hall through the people who run and clean the buildings, faculty, and, in my view, onto the alumni."

Student organizing efforts in recent months have focused on pressuring Faust to sign a pledge committing Harvard to "climate neutrality."

While Hunter said that student activists "still would have preferred" such a pledge, they were pleased with the outcome because the task force's recommendations will put Harvard "on track to achieve climate neutrality even before the 2036 timeline that the EAC originally advocated."

The University-wide reduction targets come a year and a half after the Faculty of Arts and Sciences announced plans to reduce its emissions 11 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

In addition, Harvard entered into a binding agreement with Massachusetts last September to keep its future carbon emissions from its Allston campus at just 30 percent of the national standard for a similar project. In exchange, Harvard will be able to seek approval for each individual project instead of for the entire campus, thus potentially speeding regulatory approval for some of the construction.

The newest announcement won praise from Commonwealth officials who had worked with Harvard on the Allston deal.

"With today's announcement of a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions campus-wide by 30 percent in the next decade, Harvard is once again rolling up its sleeves to tackle head-on the challenge of climate change," said Ian Bowles, the Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs. "Governor Patrick and I applaud Harvard for its leadership and ingenuity. We hope and expect that the university will serve as a model for similar efforts by other institutions in the months and years ahead."

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.