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Harvard taking action on Climate Change: supporting the transition to a green economy

By Lawrence Bacow

Climate Change is the most consequential threat facing humanity. The last several months have laid at our feet undeniable evidence of the world to come—massive fires that consume entire towns, unprecedented flooding that inundates major urban areas, record heat waves and drought that devastates food supplies and increases water scarcity.

Few, if any, parts of the globe are being spared as livelihoods are dashed, lives are lost, and regions are rendered unlivable.

We must act now as citizens, as scholars, and as an institution to address this crisis on as many fronts as we have at our disposal. I am writing to describe what Harvard has done—and will do—to ensure that our community is fully engaged in the critical work ahead.

For some time now, Harvard Management Company (HMC), which invests the assets of the Harvard University endowment, the largest academic endowment in the world, has been reducing its exposure to fossil fuels. As we reported last February, HMC has no direct investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels. Moreover, HMC does not intend to make such investments in the future.

Given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission, we do not believe such investments are prudent.

HMC is building a portfolio of investments in funds that support the transition to a green economy. In addition, the university has made investments alongside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in The Engine, a fund that, among other things, seeks to accelerate the development of technologies that promise to address the challenges posed by climate change.

HMC was the first endowment in the U.S. to commit to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the entire investment portfolio by 2050. Since we announced this commitment, a number of other endowments have followed our lead. We will work with them and others to achieve greater transparency in the greenhouse gas footprint of all of our investment managers, along with the development of protocols for assessing and reducing the footprint for entire investment portfolios. We must continue to work with our investment managers and with industry if we are to bring about the transformation of our economy that Climate Change demands. 

Finally, HMC has pledged to render its own operations greenhouse gas neutral by June 30, 2022.

We must look not only to our work but also to every aspect of our lives as we chart a path forward, and we will continue to scrutinize our own campus activities.

Harvard’s campus serves as a testbed for experimentation that evolves with our knowledge of climate change and sustainable development. From the construction and maintenance of our buildings; to the design of our transportation systems, including new EV buses; to the sourcing and preparation of our food; and more, Harvard uses our strengths to translate research and teaching into practice to pilot, prove, and implement solutions that can be replicated and scaled locally and globally.

The university is also leveraging our faculty and research to translate public health and building materials research to help drive market transformation through the Harvard Healthier Building Academy (HHBA). The HHBA has collaborated on more than 40 capital projects representing three million square feet to generate transparency for building material ingredients and worked with hundreds of manufacturers to optimize products for health. The university has more than 140 LEED-certified buildings, including the new Harvard Science and Engineering Complex (SEC). LEED Platinum certified, it is the largest building—and the first research building—in the world to achieve Living Building Challenge Materials Petal Certification. 

None of us will be spared the realities of climate change, which means we are all in this together. Global progress will depend on a collective effort to see one another not as adversaries but as partners, not as caricatures but as people. It used to be that this was easier said than done—now it seems easier thought than said. But we must find a way to work side by side to have any hope of changing behaviors, adopting policies, and decarbonizing the economy.

After a career among some of the most creative and talented individuals in the world, I believe that any problem caused by people can be solved by people too. If that seems overly optimistic, so be it. We are going to need a little optimism to preserve life on Earth as we know and cherish it today. 

Lawrence Bacow is President of Harvard University. For the Record is an edited version of a message to the Harvard community by Mr. Bacow in September 2021.

Q1 2022