On April 21, Harvard University announced plans for its endowment to reflect “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, making it the first university in the United States to make such a pledge. At $40.9 billion, Harvard boasts the largest endowment of any educational institution in the world.
Harvard defines “net-zero” as “man-made greenhouse-gas emissions being canceled out by efforts to remove them from the atmosphere.” Plans for how Harvard can achieve a “net-zero” endowment are still under development.
Harvard’s announcement comes after years of advocacy from students and professors, who have argued that the institution should do more to combat climate change. In February, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences overwhelmingly voted in favor of divesting from the fossil fuel industry.
Rather than fully divesting from fossil fuel companies, Harvard plans to analyze all of its investments, as it seeks to bring them in accordance with neutral carbon emission by 2050. In a letter addressed to the members of the School of the Arts and Sciences, President Larry Bacow explained the decision.
“The strategy we plan to pursue focuses on reducing the demand for fossil fuels, not just the supply, an action consistent with the University’s overall commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of our operations,” Bacow wrote.
The 2050 deadline aligns with Harvard’s previously-announced goal of becoming fossil fuel-free by that year, with an interim goal of fossil fuel neutrality by 2026.
The University has approved a similar goal, which seeks to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2046, but its Sustainability Action Plan does not mention the University’s $26.1 billion endowment. University Spokesperson Ben Chang declined to comment on Harvard’s announcement.
Tom Taylor GS, organizer of Divest Princeton, characterized Harvard’s pledge as “inadequate.” Divest Princeton describes itself as “a coalition of students, faculty, and alumni calling on Princeton University to divest our endowment from fossil fuel companies and reinvest responsibly.”
Taylor pointed out that Harvard’s timeline matches that of British Petroleum (BP), a multinational oil and gas company that has set its own 2050 carbon neutrality target.
In Bacow’s view, however, unqualified divestment would unfairly demonize partners, some of whom, such as BP, may be funding climate research or transitioning to carbon neutrality. Instead, Bacow said that Harvard hopes to comprehensively measure and mitigate carbon output across its entire portfolio.
“If we are to develop a productive path forward, we and others will need to work with these companies, recognizing our dependence on their products for the foreseeable future, the nature of the assets under their control, and the special knowledge and expertise they possess,” Bacow added. “Meaningful change cannot begin with a symbolic act that disregards these realities.”
While dissatisfied with Bacow’s argument, Taylor said he does see Harvard’s decision as a step in the right direction.
“The announcement is a recognition that the endowment has an impact on the climate,” Taylor said. “It is a recognition of that really basic premise, that groups like us have been talking about for a really long time.”
Across the Ivy League, students have demanded that endowment managers and the institutions they represent respond to the imminent threats posed by climate climate.
Though Columbia University divested from thermal coal companies in 2017, a student group is awaiting response on a more comprehensive proposal. Brown University announced on March 4 that it has sought to sell its investments in fossil fuels and already sold 90 percent of its investments in fossil fuel extraction companies.
In December, a number of Yale and Harvard students were arrested for holding a divestment demonstration at the annual Harvard-Yale football game. Since then, Yale’s Chief Investment Officer has defended the institution’s investments in the industry. On Feb. 28, Fossil Free Penn, a student organization at the University of Pennsylvania, successfully blockaded a trustee meeting, as students held up faux gravestones with facts about climate.
University students and alumni have not been quiet on the issue of fossil fuel divestment. In October 2019, 830 students, faculty members, and alumni signed an open letter to University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, entitled “No Donations Until Divestment.” Members of Divest Princeton have vowed to discontinue donations until the University divests from the fossil fuel industry.
At a February 10 CPUC meeting, Eisgruber stated that the University did “not have any such plans” to divest.
Nonetheless, Divest Princeton submitted a proposal for divestment to the Resources Committee of the CPUC in February. At a CPUC meeting on March 30, the committee outlined its plans to continue deliberating on the proposal, meeting with the Office of Sustainability as part of this process. According to a presentation that Provost Deborah Prentice delivered at the last CPUC meeting, the Resources Committee will issue a report on its work on May 4.
Taylor said that he and the rest of Divest Princeton are confident in what they’ve given the University to consider, if not optimistic about the outcome.
“We know that it’s a strong proposal,” Taylor said. “We worked hard on it, and we’ve received really great feedback from a number of different camps. We’ve done good work, and I guess we’ll see.”
In response to Harvard’s decision, Taylor explained that he hopes “this is just the beginning.” Other universities may be inspired to take similar steps. He expressed concern that amid a national push for institutional responsibility, the University may be “late to the party.”
Taylor stressed his belief that divestment is inevitable.
“It’s a matter of time,“ he said, “and of how much of a leader they want to be.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article indicated that at its May 4 meeting, the CPUC Resource Committee would share a decision in response to Divest Princeton’s proposal, citing Provost Prentice’s presentation at the last CPUC meeting. As later clarified, the “report” that Prentice referenced concerns the Resource Committee’s broader work, not a decision on the issue of divestment. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.