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Harvard Faculty Mixed on Carbon-Neutral Endowment Commitment

University Hall, an administrative building, is located in Harvard Yard.
University Hall, an administrative building, is located in Harvard Yard. By Jenny M. Lu
By James S. Bikales and Camille G. Caldera, Crimson Staff Writers

Though most faculty members support the University’s commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from its endowment by 2050, they are divided over whether the plan — announced on Tuesday — goes far enough.

Faculty reactions reflect a fissure that first developed during a four-month debate leading up to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ February vote on a motion urging the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, to divest.

While members of Harvard Faculty for Divestment — a group which has called for divestment for over five years — argued for the removal of all investments in fossil fuel companies, some faculty pushed for a focus on overall carbon footprint.

The FAS ultimately passed the pro-divestment motion 179-20 at its February faculty meeting.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in a letter to faculty that Tuesday’s decision constituted the Harvard Corporation’s response to the FAS motion.

In a response to Bacow Tuesday evening, Harvard Faculty for Divestment called the HMC decision a “significant step,” but called for more decisive action.

“While the path is the right one, the pace is too slow. The goal of a carbon-neutral portfolio by 2050 is simply not ambitious enough,” the group wrote. “A 2050 target date does not jibe with the urgency of our situation.”

Harvard set a 2050 target in accordance with the international Paris Agreement on climate change, which was written in 2015 and entered into force in 2016.

In his letter to faculty, Bacow wrote that divestment would be a “symbolic act” that risks “alienating and demonizing possible partners” in decarbonizing the economy.

In its response, the faculty group wrote that it was “disappointed” in Bacow’s arguments against divestment.

“It is incongruous, if not counterproductive, to pursue a decarbonized portfolio while continuing to invest in the very companies that supply the carbon and, moreover, that continue to do far more to perpetuate that supply—and the demand for it—than they do to reduce it,” the letter reads.

The group instead endorsed a decarbonization plan written by former Securities and Exchange Commissioner Bevis Longstreth, which calls for Harvard to remove investments in fossil fuel companies by 2021 and align its portfolio with the Paris Agreement by the end of 2030.

Other faculty members said they preferred the net-zero commitment to outright divestment.

Government professor Dustin Tingley — who argued against the divestment motion during the February meeting — said the net-zero commitment was “more likely to be successful” than divestment.

“I think this policy will be one where the pressure that we are able to fruitfully bring to those companies will be a more productive one than something that would be more radical,” Tingley said.

Economics professor John Y. Campbell wrote in an email that Harvard’s commitment will push companies to reduce carbon emissions.

“Value-driven investing, if implemented by enough investors, will drive down the stock prices of carbon-intensive companies and raise their cost of capital,” Campbell wrote. “It will encourage companies to reduce their carbon emissions and will shrink the companies that fail to do so.”

Campbell added that it will also force companies to develop new methods to calculate their carbon footprint.

“This is part of the value of Harvard’s approach,” Campbell wrote. “We cannot manage what we cannot measure, and Harvard as a leading investor will be encouraging better measurement – and ultimately management – of carbon emissions throughout the economy.”

Harvard Kennedy School professor Robert N. Stavins, who directs the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, agreed that HMC’s actions will spur innovation in measuring carbon footprint.

“I suspect that this strategy will not only push some companies to do a better job of estimating their carbon footprint, but it will also stimulate at Harvard productive faculty and student research that can move the methodological frontier forward,” Stavins wrote in an email.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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EndowmentUniversity FinancesFacultyEnvironmentDivestment