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Harvard Greenhouse Gas Emissions Remained Flat for Sixth Consecutive Year in 2021

By Christie K. Choi and Carrie Hsu, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s campus greenhouse gas emissions remained stagnant for the sixth straight year in 2021, despite the University’s ambitious plans to eliminate fossil fuels from its operations by 2050.

Harvard has pledged to make its campus fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050. But the amount of carbon emitted on campus has remained flat since 2016, according to data released earlier this semester as part of the University’s annual sustainability report.

Still, University officials say Harvard is on pace to meet its goals.

“The University is on track to become fossil fuel-free by 2050 and fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and will do so by addressing four key components: its District Energy Systems, its standalone buildings, its purchased energy supply, and its fleet vehicles,” Harvard spokesperson Amy Kamosa wrote in a statement Tuesday.

Harvard met a key initial sustainability target in 2016, when it reduced campus emissions by 30 percent from a 2006 baseline. But its carbon output has remained the same ever since, despite the 2018 pledge by then-University President Drew G. Faust to eliminate fossil fuels entirely by 2050.

The sustainability report noted that the square footage of Harvard’s campus has grown by 14 percent since 2006.

Harvard has offset some of its emissions by purchasing renewable energy from offsite sources. In 2021, the school offset approximately 3,000 Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent — down from approximately 5,000 MTCDE in 2020.

Harvard’s 2014 University-wide sustainability plan — which outlined goals for reductions in waste, water usage, and carbon emissions, among other things — expired in 2020. The school has not published updated sustainability goals, missing a self-set target to do so “by 2022.”

Harvard’s trash generation fell to 4,558 tons in 2021 — down 50 percent from a 2006 baseline. But the report said the reductions were largely “due to the de-densification of Harvard’s campus during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“These numbers are not reflective of a trend,” the report said.

Net energy usage rose slightly in 2021, due in part to Covid-19 precautions, according to the report.

“Some safety-driven changes in building operations resulted in increased energy use, such as higher building ventilation rates per recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local guidance and standards pertinent to COVID-19,” the report said. “These changes impacted the University’s GHG emissions and energy use, altering trends compared to previous years.”

Kamosa, the Harvard spokesperson, said the school is looking to alternative energy sources to meet its fossil fuel reduction goals, but did not outline a specific path to the pledged reductions.

“Harvard’s plans involve evaluating a variety of technology solutions for transitioning the University energy systems off fossil fuels over time, including electrification opportunities, green hydrogen, and other innovative solutions,” Kamosa wrote. “The University is continually working to build and operate a campus that contributes to the well-being of every member of the community—and ultimately to the health of the planet for future generations.”

—Staff Writer Christie K. Choi can be reached at christie.choi@thecrimson.com.

—Staff Writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at carrie.hsu@thecrimson.com.

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EnvironmentFront FeatureSustainability