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Sustainability Committee focuses on health and equity to meet goal

Ahead of its self-imposed deadline to become fossil fuel-neutral by 2026, the University has engaged its researchers and industry climate leaders to identify and invest in projects that demonstrate how to credibly reduce emissions while also benefiting human health, social equity, and the planet, such as large-scale solar or wind renewable energy, according to the Harvard Presidential Committee on Sustainability. The University will study these projects to document their intended impacts and refine tools and resources that other large organizations, cities, and countries could benefit from to scale solutions for a fossil fuel-free future.

Harvard recognizes that air pollution does not impact all communities equally and is especially hard on minority and low-income communities due to historical inequities. Because of this, selected projects will target health damage in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2026 goal, a bridge to Harvard’s aim to be fossil fuel-free by 2050, is a response to scientific findings that the world is not reducing global emissions fast enough to avoid the worst public outcomes on health, economic, social, and ecosystem impacts.

The Subcommittee on Fossil Fuel-Neutral by 2026: Renewable Energy and Offsetting Mechanisms, co-chaired by Henry Lee, the Jassim M. Jaidah Family Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard Kennedy School, and Mike Toffel, the Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management at Harvard Business School, and managed by the Office for Sustainability, drafted a roadmap to reach this goal last academic year. To reach this goal, the subcommittee’s recommendations include:

Define and measure fossil-fuel neutrality. Using a tool created by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to estimate and track the public health impacts of fossil fuels, the University should source a portfolio of projects that mitigate both greenhouse gas emissions and health damages associated with using those fuels on campus. Harvard should also develop a robust evaluation process to compare each project’s forecasted benefits with actual benefits, and share the findings with others.

“Fossil fuels are the largest source of greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions globally,” said John Holdren, the academic year 2021 subcommittee co-chair and the Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, co-director of HKS’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program, professor of environmental science and policy in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and faculty affiliate in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“While others have set carbon-free goals that eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution remains a leading cause of death, much of which can be attributed to fossil-fuel use,” Holdren added. “Harvard is one of the first large organization to set goals that address the full scope of impacts on human health, social equity, and ecosystem health from other pollutants and waste associated with the sourcing, production, and burning of fossil fuels. Harvard has an opportunity to track emissions, quantify actual harms, address impacts, and create tools and resources that will help others, particularly those in the developing world, do this at an accelerated pace and a reduced cost.”

Projects should meet the following criteria:

  • The University’s participation must help bring about climate and health improvements beyond a baseline. The improvements must be quantifiable, verifiable, and claimed only by Harvard.
  • Projects should address local, national, and global health concerns.
  • Projects should focus efforts on vulnerable populations who are most harmed by fossil-fuel pollution, including addressing environmental injustice.
  • Projects should focus on opportunities to experiment, pilot, and study new technologies or strategies.
  • Projects should accelerate cost-effective, scalable solutions that reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Projects should focus on reducing or eliminating the use of fossil fuel sources.

Advance scientific research. The University should move quickly, cost-effectively, and equitably to have the maximum beneficial impact on society. Researching and piloting the early adoption of innovation opportunities can drive down the costs and increase the credibility of emissions-reduction projects beyond Harvard’s campus.

“Achieving its climate goals while reducing its fossil-fuel footprints will require the use of all the creativity inherent in Harvard’s faculty, student body, and staff,” said Henry Lee, subcommittee co-chair and the Jassim M. Jaidah Family Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at HKS. “Harvard can and should be a beacon of new ideas to help the world make the essential transition away from fossil fuels.”

Share knowledge to increase the impact of Harvard’s efforts. Harvard should document and transparently share its strategy, progress, and evaluations with others. The University should use its convening power to engage with leading organizations to advance innovative ideas, and work with partners to improve and evaluate options and collaborate on new ideas to prove and scale solutions with global benefits. Harvard should disseminate the findings globally, as well as through new academic research publications.

“As Harvard implements its strategy to achieve fossil fuel-neutrality, we have a real opportunity to catalyze renewable energy technologies and offset projects that address health, equity, and climate change,” said Michael Toffel, subcommittee co-chair and the Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management at Harvard Business School. “Harvard’s efforts to neutralize its footprint should promote innovation and experimentation, focus on scalable solutions, and routinely evaluate the real-world impacts of our projects.”

The Presidential Committee on Sustainability was co-chaired by Professor John Holdren and Professor Rebecca Henderson, the Harvard Business School John and Natty McArthur University Professor, and Katie Lapp, Harvard University Executive Vice President since its inception through academic year 2021.  This academic year the faculty co-chairs have been succeeded by Professors Mike Toffel and Jody Freeman, the Harvard Law School Archibald Cox Professor of Law.

For the full recommendation and research documentation.

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