Harvard Climate Goals Address Health and Equity Impacts of Fossil Fuels

Harvard was one of the first organizations, in February 2018, to announce a fossil fuel-free goal to eliminate the use of all fossil fuels to heat, cool, and power buildings and vehicles on its campus by 2050. 

At the same time, the University established a short-term goal to be fossil fuel-neutral by 2026, a unique approach where Harvard will address both greenhouse gas emissions and health impacts from air pollution caused by fossil fuels, with a focus on projects that benefit vulnerable populations. Fossil fuels are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and a focus on only carbon leaves out the additional impacts on public health and ecosystems from other pollutants and waste associated with the sourcing, production, and burning of fossil fuels. This will involve investing in new, large-scale renewable energy projects and other innovation projects that provide opportunities to learn and share knowledge. Harvard’s participation will help bring about climate and health improvements beyond a baseline. This means Harvard will select new projects that are not yet on-the-ground and help bring them to life.

In 2020, the Presidential Committee on Sustainability convened a subcommittee of faculty, researchers, students, and the Office for Sustainability that defined fossil-fuel neutrality, determined how to track the University’s air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and recommended the following approach to achieve fossil fuel-neutrality.

Recommendations to reach Harvard’s 2026 goal

The Harvard Presidential Committee on Sustainability, with its subcommittee dedicated to becoming fossil fuel-neutral by 2026, developed a set of recommendations forming a roadmap to reach this goal.

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Harvard’s overall approach should: 

  • Be based on the latest science and research, and highlight gaps that can become research opportunities
  • Promote innovation and experimentation
  • Focus on scalable solutions
  • Incorporate post-project evaluations to assess the impacts of real-world projects to inform future decisions
  • Be transparent. 

Harvard’s goals involve a unique approach to data collection and methodology:

  1. Collect and track both GHG emission and criteria air pollutant emissions associated with the use of fossil fuels 
  2. Work with Harvard researchers to estimate and study the public health impacts of the use and extraction of fossil fuels including air pollutant emissions and the communities impacted. 
  3. Use the health impacts analysis to inform the selection of offsite projects, and source a portfolio of projects that will mitigate both the future health and societal impacts of GHG emissions and the near-term health impacts of air pollutants, especially on vulnerable populations. 
  4. Develop a robust evaluation process to compare each project’s forecasted costs and benefits to the actual costs and benefits that arise. 

Harvard Climate Goals Should Address Health Impacts of Fossil Fuels

Selected projects should address both greenhouse gas emissions (providing long-term, global benefits) and health damages (producing immediate respite especially for places where fossil fuel pollution is creating the most harm).

Harvard recognizes that air pollution does not impact all communities equally. Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities and low-income communities are more vulnerable to damages and disease caused by air pollution due to historical inequities from siting pollution sources nearby and other social determinants of health. In partnership with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard should work with researchers to model the damages of the air pollutant emissions on human health, using data to make sure that the projects the University invests in reduce the same amount of greenhouse gas emission and modeled health damages. 

Harvard Should Select Projects that Meet a Criteria Set by Faculty, Students, and Staff

The Harvard Presidential Committee on Sustainability believes the following criteria is critical to use when constructing a portfolio of offsite emissions reduction projects in which the University should invest. Projects should: 

  • Focus on opportunities to experiment, pilot, and study new technologies or strategies. 
  • Include local, national, and global health concerns. 
  • Focus efforts on vulnerable populations who are most harmed by fossil fuel pollution, including addressing environmental injustice. 
  • Focus on emissions reduction projects that reduce or eliminate the usage of fossil fuel energy sources. 
  • Ensure that Harvard’s participation helps bring about climate and health improvements beyond a baseline (additionality), and that the improvements can be quantified, verified, and attributed to Harvard. This means Harvard will select new projects that are not yet on-the-ground and help bring them to life.
  • Evaluate the cost/benefit of all project options, as a primary intent is to accelerate cost-effective, scalable solutions that reduce reliance on fossil fuels. 

Harvard Faculty, Students, and Staff Should Advance Scientific Research

The University should apply its research capacity to address the challenges of eliminating fossil fuels quickly, cost-effectively, and equitably to have a beneficial impact on society. Researching and piloting the early adoption of innovation opportunities can drive down the costs of and increase the credibility of emissions reduction projects for others beyond Harvard.

Learn more about the research that is informing Harvard’s climate goals.

Harvard Faculty Research 

Office for Sustainability led White Papers

Harvard Should Share Knowledge to Increase Impact Beyond Its Campus

Harvard should document and transparently share the University’s strategy, progress, and evaluations, including on health and equity, with others. The University should use its convening power to engage with leading organizations to advance innovation ideas. Harvard should actively work with partners to improve and evaluate emissions mitigations options, as well as collaborate on innovative ideas to eliminate fossil fuels and address their impacts. The University will develop a robust post-project evaluation process and share findings beyond Harvard, disseminating the findings globally, as well as through new academic research publications. Its approach should be one that other organizations can follow without a significant time or financial investment.

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