Harvard pledged last month to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its endowment by 2050. But experts say a number of intermediate steps — such as gathering emissions data and evaluating available carbon sequestration technologies — may pose logistical and environmental challenges for the University.
Harvard’s commitment comes after years of protests from activists calling for Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry. University President Lawrence S. Bacow has resisted calls for divestment.
According to Robert “Bob” Litterman, a founding partner of Kepos Capital and a member of the Environmental Defense Fund Economics Advisory Council, a commitment to net zero emissions is a promise to “pull out” as much carbon from the atmosphere the endowment “puts in.”
In order to achieve that goal, Harvard Management Company will need to be able to measure the amount of carbon that its portfolio puts into the environment — data Litterman called "very hard to get."
Harvard Management Company spokesperson Patrick S. McKiernan wrote in an email that HMC has begun work to implement the greenhouse gas-neutral pledge, starting with creating a methodology to measure emissions.
“HMC has already begun work on this important undertaking. Developing a comprehensive methodology for measurement and obtaining an accurate baseline assessment are crucial to long-term success,” McKiernan wrote. “They also allow us to set the interim milestones for emissions reduction that will ultimately lead to a net-zero portfolio.”
Other environmental economists said they believe a commitment to net-zero emissions obscures the actual issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Edward B. Barbier, an economics professor at Colorado State University, said committing to net-zero emissions by a future date allows corporations like the Harvard Management Company to avoid immediate change and to use carbon offsets and abatements rather than actually reducing emissions.
“It allows you to continue with a lot of emissions today, under the promise of doing more in the future, and not committing necessarily to more ambitious reductions of emissions to achieve those targets,” Barbier said. “It's just a lovely term, and it sounds so good, but within it, it has got all these pitfalls."
Barbier said it is also unclear if technology to complete carbon offsets even exists.
“The technologies that they're assuming are going to come on board often aren't here yet,” he said. “They're assuming that there's going to be abatement technology or some sort of major project or some offset or afforestation project.”
Herman E. Daly, an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said Harvard Management Company should specify which carbon sequestration technologies it plans to use to offset emissions. Daley said the only effective carbon sequestration technology he knows of is trees.
Jason F. Shogren, a professor of natural resource conservation in the department of economics at the University of Wyoming, said he believes sufficient abatement technologies do currently exist, though they are too expensive.
“They could buy carbon offsets. They could invest in planting trees. They could invest in finding carbon sinks. They could buy carbon permits off of other companies,” Shrogren said. “There's ways to both measure your footprint and then ways to offset that footprint by sequestering carbon somewhere else,” he said.
Fossil fuel divestment activists urged University administrators to take “drastic climate action” and divest entirely from the fossil fuel industry in a letter earlier this week. The activist groups urged Harvard not to use carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality.
Some experts, like Litterman, said they are less focused on the specifics, and see the commitment to net-zero emissions as a symbolic move.
“When Harvard says that it's going to position its portfolio to be consistent with reaching net-zero by 2050, I take it that what they're saying is that they are preparing for a rapid transition to a low carbon economy,” Litterman said. “And I applaud that. I think that is the appropriate thing for investors to do.”
“Now what that actually means is certainly not entirely clear, but I usually think about it as a investment thesis that governments around the world will soon create appropriate incentives to reduce emissions,” he added.
Litterman also said the commitment could be a “signal” to companies within Harvard’s portfolio that they should work to reduce their emissions.
Others, like environmentalist Bill E. McKibben ’82, said the choice to divest from fossil fuels has a more substantial symbolic value.
“Contrast Harvard's policy with Oxford's. They too plan to ‘decarbonize the portfolio,’ but they begin by doing the obvious first step: divesting from fossil fuel companies,” McKibben, a former Crimson president, wrote. “In so doing, they help power a broad-based global movement that is making real progress toward breaking the political power of the oil companies.”
Oxford University and Brown University recently pledged to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry.
Shogren said he did not know whether divestment or net-zero would be “more efficient” economically — though he felt confident it would send a louder message to do both.
“You'd want to divest and do net-zero,” he said. “That would be a bigger social signal.”
The Harvard Management Company will present a report to the Harvard Corporation by the end of 2020 with a specific plan for meeting the net-zero commitment.
Still, activists have said they fear a deadline 30 years in the future may be too far off for meaningful environmental progress.
“[Harvard] will proceed with an endless, mostly invisible, highly technical process that ends in 2050, or roughly when the Charles will be overflowing the Houses along the river,” McKibben wrote.
Clarification: May 9, 2020
A previous version of this article stated that the Harvard Management Company made a commitment to go carbon-neutral. To clarify, they made a commitment to acheive neutrality for all greenhouse gases, including carbon.
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