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Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists

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Harvard’s renewed sustainability action plan drew largely positive feedback from student climate organization leaders, who commended the plan’s holistic approach while hoping the University follows through on its goals.

Developed jointly by Harvard’s Presidential Committee on Sustainability and the Office for Sustainability, the University published the updated plan on May 11 following the lapse of its first sustainability plan in 2021.

The updated plan focuses on Harvard’s mission to improve climate, equity, and health and provides a plan of action for advancing sustainability in the University’s energy systems, buildings, operations, and leadership. The plan also includes contributions from students and faculty members, and staff from across campus.

It also outlines specific steps for Harvard to become fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050, including the elimination of onsite fossil fuel emissions from district energy systems, procurement of 100 percent fossil fuel-free electricity, and elimination of fossil fuel emissions from buildings.

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Other priorities outlined include steps toward accelerating sustainable building and low-impact living, such as removing harmful chemicals from building materials, advancing equity and diversity in labor, and rethinking food systems.

Charles X. Hua ’22-’23, who served on the Presidential Committee on Sustainability as a “student liaison” during the construction of the plan, said the plan’s central themes of “climate, equity, and health” are “interrelated and fundamentally important.”

One of the biggest changes in Harvard’s updated sustainability plan, Hua said, was its focus on equity.

“It was very meaningful and empowering to see that equity was one of the key frameworks of this. Specifically, what that means is making sure that Harvard doesn’t perpetuate any kind of negative harms through its actions,” he said.

Ella A. Anthony ’25, leader of the Phillips Brooks House Association’s environmental action committee, also lauded the plan’s holistic approach to sustainability.

Pointing to the University’s plans to improve sustainability in infrastructure, she said she appreciated that they “not only take the emissions into account that the building is emitting, but also the health of the students in the building.”

Carlie R. McGrath Tydings ’24, co-president of Harvard University Clean Energy Group, said she was glad to see that the plan does not seek carbon neutrality alone, but rather fossil fuel neutrality, recognizing that there is “more than one harmful form of fossil fuel.”

“I think that the world always throws around terms of carbon neutrality, but really, we should be looking at all different types of greenhouse gases,” she said.

“Secondly, I really appreciated the fact that their goal is to not use carbon offsets to achieve this neutrality,” she added.

Still, McGrath mentioned that other universities adopted aggressive sustainability measures before Harvard — such as American University, which is already carbon-neutral.

In addition, McGrath said she believes that while the plan is “grandiose,” it has overlooked some simpler and cheaper ways to achieve more climate results, such as implementing solar water heaters.

McGrath added that the numerous old buildings around campus make it difficult for Harvard to implement energy efficiency.

“I don’t think it’s an excuse. I mean, there are plenty of ways to retrofit buildings to be far more energy efficient than they are now,” she said. “But that’s definitely a unique obstacle versus other campuses that are only 100 years old or something.”

Hua highlighted the leadership aspect of Harvard’s sustainability plan as well.

“Other institutions definitively look to Harvard, for solutions, for ideas, for novel ways of thinking about how to tackle this problem of climate and sustainability, from a very holistic, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary lens. And what Harvard does has ripple effects,” he said.

“There needs to be accountability, there needs to be progress to make sure that the university is actually following through,” Hua added.

—Staff writer Sabrina R. Hu can be reached at sabrina.hu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sxbrinahhu.

—Staff writer Isabella G. Schauble can be reached at isabella.schauble@thecrimson.com.

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