Numbers Please, President Faust

On March 5, the city of Boston and Harvard University co-hosted a conference titled, “Green Cities: Lessons from Boston and Beyond” in which they discussed Boston, Harvard, and sustainability. Three green politicians gave presentations, and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and University President Drew G. Faust both made remarks. The problem of climate change is a concern to all of us, and Boston and Harvard should first and foremost be commended for arranging this event. Both Menino’s and Faust’s speeches were particularly illuminating—Menino’s, because he presented the truly commendable and concrete effort that the city of Boston has made to “green” itself, and Faust’s, because she (albeit unintentionally) revealed just how much greening Harvard has yet to do.

Boston was recently ranked third in Popular Science’s “America’s Greenest Cities” list, and the title is justified. Boston’s green campaign has been, and will continue to be, successful thanks to its concrete goals and quantitative benchmarks. Menino’s speech made this clear when he described both the real threats of climate change to Boston (such as rising sea levels which, he said, could submerge the city’s Harbor Walk) and also the city’s response to these threats (such as leveraging $500 million for efficiency enhancements, and creating a new job market for those who provide Clean Tech services). The mayor even set quantitative goals for reducing citywide emissions, such as a seven percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2012, and an 80 percent reduction level below 1990 levels by 2050. For Boston, these uncompromising goals are equal to the global targets set by the United Nations Framework Committee on Climate Change under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

As a leading research institution, Harvard should be a vanguard in promoting sustainability. However, in comparison to the City of Boston’s aggressive environmental campaign, Harvard’s efforts have looked half-hearted. According to the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, Harvard’s greenhouse gas emissions, measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCDE), have continued to climb over the past 16 years despite the University’s recent attention to sustainability. Notably, emissions from the Cambridge campus are significantly more than Longwood’s; the Faculty of Arts and Sciences accounts for 37 percent of emissions, more than any other school at Harvard .

Compared to Menino’s hard facts, Faust’s evidence that Harvard too seeks sustainability seemed weak. The “Green Roof Demonstration Project,” and Earth Week’s “Sustainability Pledges,” Harvard’s two green successes that she alluded to in her speech (while good-spirited) do not guarantee that Harvard will pollute less. Buildings and signatures, unless backed up by demonstrable quantitative reductions in emissions, mean little. Harvard’s plans for sustainability in Allston are concrete and commendable, but they are future plans—not present ones—and climate change is a pressing concern. Faust was right-on in her speech when she said, “We need to do better.”

Faculty at Harvard’s Center for the Environment should work closely with President Faust and the rest of the University administration to establish the economic base necessary for campus greening. In our pursuit of sustainability, we need to set quantifiable benchmarks for the near future. The University should take a cue from Boston and adopt a University-wide emissions reduction target. Until rhetoric and symbolic action are replaced by a commitment to lower emissions, Harvard’s greenhouse gas emissions will simply continue to climb.

Justine R. Lescroart ’09 is a Romance languages and literature concentrator in Quincy House.