We set a bold goal, and we met it.
In 2008, Harvard set a short-term goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2016, from a 2006 baseline, inclusive of campus growth.
Our target was science-based, stemming from what climate scientists said was necessary, instead of what was achievable through on-campus reductions alone. Thousands of students, staff, and faculty throughout the University embraced the challenge, helping us achieve our goal.
What made the goal unique:
- Based on established climate science
- Imposed a short-term target in order to spur immediate action
- Reflected absolute emissions, inclusive of campus growth
- Included all properties within operational control throughout North America
Achieving the Climate Goal
Changes to energy supply and demand, including the decarbonization of the regional electric grid, resulted in a 24% absolute reduction in emissions. This progress was achieved despite the addition of over three million square feet of space. Purchased electricity from local renewable energy sources fulfilled the remaining 6% reduction needed to meet the goal. Excluding campus growth, emissions were reduced by 40%.
Understanding the challenge:
Harvard tracks and publicly reports on University-wide Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions using the Climate Registry’s operational control methodology. The University’s emissions inventory was third-party verified in 2016 and is in the process of completing verification to receive Climate Registered™ status. Management and tracking of short-lived pollutants in our inventory has improved since 2006, resulting in more accurate data on the actual losses of refrigerant gases and their associated emissions impact. Due to historical over estimations, this change appears as a decrease in the inventory. Learn more
How we met the goal:
1. Energy efficiency first
As a first step in meeting its climate goal, Harvard undertook a University-wide initiative to increase the energy efficiency of its buildings. Over 80% of the campus was energy audited, including all energy-intensive spaces, and energy reduction requirements were incorporated into the five-year capital planning process.
Facilities teams and building managers took advantage of University-wide tools and resources to install cutting-edge energy efficiency technologies and optimize existing systems through ongoing commissioning.
The most common types of improvements were HVAC (heating and cooling) and lighting upgrades. As a result, overall energy use is down 10% across the University, even as the campus grew (energy use varies year-to-year depending on weather conditions).
2. Improving district energy
For nearly a century, Harvard has leveraged the benefits of on-site district energy to improve the resiliency of our campus. Projects undertaken to improve the efficiency and performance of the on-site Blackstone Steam Plant and two chilled water facilities account for the largest portion of on-site emissions reduction.
Fuel switching to natural gas + Combined heat and power + Additional utility efficiency upgrades = 20,500 MTCDE reduction, equivalent to taking over 4,300 cars off the road.
3. Decarbonization of the regional electric grid
The electricity that Harvard purchases from the regional electric grid has become cleaner in the last decade, driven primarily by the replacement of dirtier fuel oils and coal with less-carbon-intensive natural gas—from 2000 to 2015, the percentage of the grid’s total electric energy production from natural gas increased from 15% to 49% while coal decreased from 18% to 4%, and oil from 22% to 2%. (Source: ISO-NE)
4. Advancing the transition to renewable energy
Harvard was an early adopter of renewable energy, piloting emerging technologies including rooftop wind, assessing wind energy potential along the Charles River, and investing in solar and wind projects to accelerate the transition to clean energy. On-site solar PV, solar thermal, biomass, and geothermal installations play an important role diversifying Harvard’s energy supply and serving as a testing ground to inform future action.
In 2009, Harvard entered into a long-term power purchasing agreement for 12 MW of carbon-free energy from the Stetson II wind farm in Maine, making us the largest purchaser of wind power by a college or university in New England at that time. Harvard has retired the Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) from the project to meet requirements of the Massachusetts Renewable Portfolio Standard (2009–2016) and to meet part of the voluntary emissions reduction goal (2016). Excess RECs are sold.
5. Exploring off-site emissions reduction
In 2015, a faculty-led advisory group determined that the markets for off-site emissions reduction are complex and evolving. Following their guidance, Harvard is funding a three-year, multi-disciplinary graduate level course, as well as research projects to design and analyze practical tools for using off-site means as a component of achieving carbon neutrality.
Using criteria provided by the faculty advisors, Harvard identified a mix of off-site options to pursue that included regional, national, and global renewable energy and carbon offset projects. To complement the emissions reductions from energy supply and demand, the University purchased wind from Maine and existing hydro from Massachusetts in 2016 to meet our short-term climate goal (the other options identified were not needed as the on-site reductions were larger than projected).
6. Creating systems change
Harvard’s campus-wide climate action plan aligned our decentralized organization around a common set of principles and policies that provided individual units with the autonomy to act and innovate within the unique constraints of their School or department. Creating and implementing the plan was managed by the Office for Sustainability, and overseen by an Executive Committee of senior faculty and administrators appointed by President Faust.
The experience provided a blueprint for the development of a University-wide Sustainability Plan in 2014 which positioned climate action under a broader sustainable development vision.
The University is preparing to use the blueprint developed in meeting the 2006–2016 climate goal to envision a new set of climate commitments that will define its work on campus over the next decade.
A Climate Change Task Force composed of faculty experts, senior administrators, and students has been convened to deliberate how Harvard can best model the transition to decarbonization. The committee, which is co-chaired by Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Bill Clark, and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp, plans to deliver its recommendations to President Faust next spring.
History of the 2006-2016 Climate Goal
In 2008, Harvard made a historic commitment to climate leadership: a science-based goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
2008 Task Force
The greenhouse gas goal was approved based on the findings and recommendations of a 2008 task force of expert faculty, students, and staff convened by President Faust. Their objective was to develop a goal based on the best available and accepted science, and what we must do globally to avert the impacts of climate change.
In order to engage and empower the entire University in meeting the GHG reduction goal, the President’s Office organized a Green is the New Crimson Sustainability Celebration on October 22, 2008. 15,000 people gathered in Tercentenary Theater to hear a keynote address from Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore and alumnus of the class of 1965.
Listen to an excerpt of Al Gore's remarks at the 2008 Sustainability Celebration:
The Office for Sustainability, under the direction of Executive Vice President Katie Lapp, led the University community in achieving Harvard's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goal and in building a more sustainable community. These efforts were overseen by an Executive Committee co-chaired by Katie Lapp and two senior faculty members: Professor Jeremy Bloxham, Dean of Science and Mallinckrodt Professor of Geophysics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Robert S. Kaplan, Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School.
After the announcement of the goal in 2008, five working groups were created (GHG Inventory; Energy Supply; Building Efficiency & Demand Management; Finance; Communications & Engagement) and worked from 2008-2010 to create the GHG Implementation Plan.
GHG Working Group Outcomes
GHG Inventory and Measurement
Building Efficiency and Demand Management
Marketing, Communications, and Engagement