Reduce, Reuse, Research?

A second look at Harvard’s sustainability practices and policies

In July 2008, University President Drew G. Faust declared her intention to bring Harvard to the forefront of a global sustainability push.

Her commitment was twofold—reduce Harvard’s own greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 2006 baseline levels within the next decade and peg sustainability as a research and teaching priority.

But two years later, the once-heralded banners emblazoned with “Green is the New Crimson” now go unnoticed in Harvard Yard, and faculty and students worry that Harvard’s efforts thus far will only have a limited impact in leading the fight against climate change.

As of this April, Harvard had reduced its emissions to 7 percent below 2006 levels, well on its way to the 30 percent goal.

But due to varying starting points and resource constraints, Harvard has seen uneven progress across its schools, with Harvard Business School boasting a 27 percent reduction and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences reporting a 1 percent growth in emissions.


At the same time, environmental leaders on campus have expressed concerns that the University has not reached its potential as a top research institution in encouraging sustainability around the world, given that Harvard’s efforts can serve as a symbolic call to action.

“We’ve taken some steps within our physical infrastructure to lead by example,” says Craig S. Altemose, a member of the Greenhouse Gas Task Force that drafted Harvard’s sustainability goals. “But in terms of really teaching our students what is at stake with climate and giving them the tools they need to survive in that world, we’re not doing enough.”


Beyond Harvard’s efforts to green its own campus, several faculty members and students argue that the University’s role in fostering a life-long commitment to sustainability among Harvard students will have a more far-reaching impact than reducing greenhouse gas emissions in labs and offices.

“We can make greater contributions to dealing with these problems by education rather than worrying about our own emissions,” says Harvard School of Public Health professor James K. Hammitt ’78. “We have all these students coming through, if they learn certain habits that could have a pretty big effect through their lifetime, they could make an influence throughout their lives.”

Given Harvard’s position as a leading academic institution with a global reach, Altemose adds that Harvard should focus on its larger sustainability research and policy initiatives.

“I don’t think anyone thinks of Harvard as a place with buildings and facilities,” says Altemose, who is a joint student at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School. “They think of it as a place for learning and ideas.”

Already, Harvard has seen the growth of several programs designed to encourage sustainability research.

“We educate individuals for environmental leadership at every level and have faculty involved in a wide range of related research in schools across the university,” Faust says.

For example, faculty and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design have experimented with methods of green roof retrofitting on their own building, Gund Hall. The Law School and Kennedy School each boast green academic programs, such as an environmental law clinic and a sustainability science program.


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