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New Electric Shuttles Are No Magic School Buses

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Thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Harvard recently acquired four new fully electric shuttle buses, fulfilling part of its pledge to implement a zero-emission vehicle action plan.

The University played up the move in both a press release and a Harvard Gazette article, trumpeting their action as a “major step” towards its goal of making an “aggressive effort” to eliminate its use of fossil fuels by 2050.

A transition to electric vehicles is progress, but regrettably, these are not magic school buses. Harvard’s proclamation of the four-bus purchase as if it were a panacea is overblown, and in our opinion, self-indulgent.

Even for Harvard’s modest goal of being fossil fuel-free by 2050 — a target we’ve argued is too little, too late — a few electric buses is hardly enough. According to a report from Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, vehicles represent only one percent of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions; bearing in mind the magnitude of Harvard’s carbon footprint, partially checking the vehicle emissions box takes barely more than a carbon drop out of the bucket.

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These buses are an improvement, but nowhere near enough, and we cannot afford to glorify meager changes. Every organization has a moral responsibility to combat climate change to the extent of its ability, and Harvard, with its vast array of resources, is no exception.

What else can Harvard do to combat the climate crisis? Make the rest of the bus fleet electric, for one. It’s also long past the time for Harvard to divest from fossil fuels.

Climate change has only gotten worse since we first called for the University to divest, long after student activists began their efforts — 2020 tied for the hottest year on record. A pledge to keep Harvard’s $41.9 billion out of the hands of companies actively contributing to the destruction of our planet would demonstrate a real commitment to combating the climate crisis, beyond just adhering to state initiatives.

Harvard knows the impact that its decisions can inspire; when speaking of the electric bus purchase, Managing Director of the Harvard Office for Sustainability Heather A. Henriksen said that “Harvard hopes to be a catalyst for other universities, businesses, and cities.” The University clearly acknowledges that its actions carry weight, yet eschews this espoused responsibility by continuing to take incremental approaches to an existential crisis. Harvard can truly be influential by demonstrating how the university with the largest endowment in the world can invest it responsibly.

And ironically, in the case of electric buses, Harvard does not seem to be the catalyst that the press release suggests: In 2017, the University of California, Irvine became the first college campus in the nation to convert its buses to an all-electric fleet. In 2018, Columbia University introduced six electric buses into its campus shuttle network, and several other campuses have followed their lead.

While we’re eager to have these buses roaming around Cambridge as well, we find ourselves unable to laud this acquisition with the same gusto exhibited in the University’s announcements. The climate crisis demands far more than four electric buses.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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