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Harvard, With Its Fossil Fuel Investments, Is Ignoring Science

By Benjamin A. Franta

UPDATED: March 23, 2017 at 2:18 p.m.

To much fanfare, University President Drew G. Faust announced last December that Harvard had reduced campus greenhouse gas emissions by 30% since 2006. President Faust also announced a Climate Change Task Force, showcased the initiatives Harvard offers on climate, and asserted that "Harvard must continue to drive progress related to climate change—sharing what is known, expanding what is known, and acting on what is known."

Harvard's progress on reducing campus emissions is laudable, yet climate change is a problem of both supply and demand. The University is addressing its demand for fossil fuels, but what about its involvement in supply? Here is "what is known" about supply if we are to meet the now-ratified Paris Agreement on climate:

First, investments into fossil fuel extraction need to be reduced by about $100 billion per year for at least the next decade, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And total investments in fossil fuel supply need to be reduced by $5 trillion by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency.

Second, new fossil-fueled power plants without carbon capture and storage (which is not widely available) should no longer be built after this year, according to the International Energy Agency and peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Finally, new fossil fuel extraction and transportation infrastructure (such as pipelines) should no longer be built starting this year, according to a recent report by Oil Change International.

In short, meeting the Paris Agreement on climate requires changes in investments. For Harvard, this means making a climate-friendly investment policy that phases out investments in fossil fuel production and infrastructure.

As it stands today, Harvard continues to hold significant investments in fossil fuels: in part of 2014, it put a full one-third of its direct investments (the 3% snapshot of the endowment we can see) into the fossil fuel sector, and in 2016, it was an anchor investor in an oil and gas fund. President Faust can change this, bringing Harvard into alignment with the Paris Agreement. Such a change would demonstrate that Harvard's climate goals are truly science-based and not just for show.

How important are Harvard's investments in relation to climate change? According to the Harvard Public Affairs & Communications office, the University's recent announcement corresponds to a reduction in campus emissions of about 85,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. In comparison, Harvard's investments are estimated to have a 100 million ton carbon dioxide footprint. So in terms of carbon emissions, the University's investments are much more important than its campus emissions.

These numbers show that either the Harvard Corporation has a scientific blind spot regarding the importance of investments in climate change, or that it is treating climate change as a public relations issue rather than the era-defining threat that it is. Neither would live up to Harvard’s standards of excellence.

The good news is that we can do better. Currently, more than 600 institutions around the globe with more than $5 trillion in assets have made policies to move their investments away from fossil fuels. It is fully within Harvard's power to do this too.

Comparing Harvard's investment carbon footprint with its campus carbon footprint also demonstrates that divesting from fossil fuels is far from merely symbolic. Indeed, if we accept the importance of reducing our emissions, then we must also accept responsibility for our investments. After all, Harvard's investment carbon footprint is much, much larger than its campus carbon footprint.

President Faust has spoken out against adopting a climate-friendly investment policy, saying, "The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change." The definitions of these words can be debated for as long as we’d like, but the simple fact will remain: We need to reduce our investments in fossil fuels to address climate change. That includes everyone, including Harvard.

Harvard's campus, buildings, and endowment are all resources. The University rightfully reduces its emissions and uses its buildings for climate research—and it should also use its endowment responsibly by making a climate-friendly investment policy. It is one of the most important actions Harvard can take, with even greater impact than reducing campus emissions. Harvard's Climate Change Task Force should recommend a climate-friendly investment policy, and the president should adopt it. At that point, President Faust can truly say Harvard is "acting on what is known"—and not just on what may be convenient to hear.

Dr. Benjamin Franta GSAS ’16 is an Associate at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a former Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. He is currently doing a second Ph.D. in History of Science at Stanford University, focusing on climate politics.

CLARIFICATION: March 23, 2017

A previous version of this article implied that Harvard's carbon emissions could be precisely compared to its investment footprint. To clarify, carbon emissions are measured yearly while a carbon investment footprint is a set amount.

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