Earlier this fall the original members of the 2008 Harvard University Task Force on Greenhouse Gas Emissions met for dinner at the Faculty Club to discuss Harvard’s progress in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to combat climate change. As of fiscal year 2010, Harvard had reduced GHG emissions by 10% despite adding nearly 3 million square feet of classroom, lab and residential space.

After the dinner, the Office for Sustainability sat down with two members of the Task Force to talk about the work that went into setting Harvard’s Goal to reduce GHG emissions 30% below 2006 levels by 2016, including growth: Task Force Chair Bill Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development at HKS, and Wendy Jacobs, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at HLS.

Q: The Task Force was comprised of different constituencies from across the University. How did everyone work together?  

BC: President Faust convened and motivated and decided that the Task Force would contain faculty, staff and students. As chair, I recruited a couple of extra voices, and listened.

WJ: One thing that really impressed me about the Task Force was how genuinely respectful people were of each other. One might have thought that student voices would be lost in the shuffle but that was not at all the case. It was remarkable how even handedly the committee ran, and I attribute some of that to Bill and [Co-chair] Tom [Vautin]. They were really terrific in running the committee and making sure everyone’s voices were heard.

Q: How challenging was it to come to a consensus in developing the GHG reduction goal?

BC: The hardest thing was getting us to focus on what we wanted Harvard to accomplish, rather than specific things we wanted it to do. Then it was a matter of listening to one another, committing to an analysis of the GHG reductions, costs, and operational feasibility of various options, and becoming committed to reaching goals that Harvard would adopt and meet rather than pushing our own individual preferences.

Q: How did the task force balance the pragmatic with the aspirational when developing the GHG reduction goal?

BC: By taking equally seriously everyone’s aspirations, an analytic approach to seeing whether and how they could be achieved, and a commitment to looking at tradeoffs.  The heroes were the students, who managed to keep pushing us to be more aspirational, but also took the lead in turning from the merely aspirational stances of many of their constituents to a mix of aspiration tempered by analysis. They rocked!

Q: What improvements could Harvard make or what could we learn from other institutions?

BC: The Task Force looked carefully at what others were doing.  Harvard’s OFS has since worked hard to squeeze every bit of experience out of others that it could. I think we could take a bit more to heart the notion that there may be alums and others out there who would buy into funding parts of our agenda if we would just put out there for all to see the parts that need funding.

WJ: When we  talk about the University’s accomplishments, we should not be limited to GHG emission reductions. We should also be talking about our other accomplishments, which include water use reduction, improved waste management, composting stations, and better purchasing decisions. There are many things the university is doing that have a positive effect on the environment. We shouldn’t lose sight of the other ways in which we are managing or reducing our footprint.

Q: What can other schools and institutions learn from Harvard’s experience? 

BC: Have a president who is interested, engaged and committed to accountable action.

WJ: I am very proud of President Faust stepping forward to take a leading role.

Q: Any additional thoughts about your experience on the Task Force? 

WJ: I think it was a great initiative on many different levels, for breaking down silos in the university, for encouraging people to reach out, meet, talk to each other, and find out what is happening at different places in the University. We had a lot of very long Tuesday evenings, which my babysitter won’t let me forget! It was an intense but harmonious effort. We accomplished an awful lot in a short time period.