Environmental issues

International educators begin to confront the climate crisis

A new network of international education professionals is trying to get the field to face the crisis of climate change -- and the carbon emissions generated by student air travel -- head-on.

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Colleges cancel class due to poor air quality from California fires

Dozens of colleges in California have canceled classes, some through the Thanksgiving holiday.

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Barnard announces criteria for evaluating fossil fuel companies' investment worthiness

Barnard unveils criteria it will use to evaluate whether a fossil fuel company is a good or bad actor worthy of its investment. An emphasis is on climate science.

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Middlebury meets aggressive carbon neutrality goal

Middlebury meets a tight deadline for going carbon neutral in part by using credits from forest preservation.

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Conflicting reports on fossil fuel divestment make decisions more difficult for universities

Opposing reports this year offer colleges and universities mixed views on financial impact of selling holdings in fossil fuels.

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Drought action plans leading to changes on California campuses

As California’s drought grows more severe, colleges across the state are stepping up their water conservation efforts.

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Pitzer's approach to divestment: as much as possible, but not yet all

Pitzer's decision to divest some -- but not yet all -- of its fossil fuel holdings challenges assumptions about colleges' obligation to grow their endowment funds.

Harvard rejects call to divest from fossil fuels

University president says she doesn't believe selling holdings in fossil fuel companies is "warranted or wise," and suggests doing so would be inconsistent with how students and professors use energy.

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Five ways colleges should respond to the climate crisis (opinion)

Fourteen years ago last month, 336 higher education institutions signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, pledging to “achiev[e] carbon neutrality as soon as possible.” That pledge acknowledged that climate impacts will continue to worsen as long as more greenhouse gas emissions enter the atmosphere than leave it. Since then, over 800 U.S. colleges and universities have signed the commitment, and many countries and businesses have followed with their own carbon-neutrality commitments.

Higher education commitments to neutrality were built around a framework developed in the early 2000s to help businesses take early climate action. That framework focuses on direct fossil fuel use and purchased electricity, allowing institutions to buy off-site reductions on a voluntary market -- including carbon “offsets” -- to balance out continuing emissions and thus achieve “net” neutrality. But is net carbon neutrality, and an approach to it developed at the turn of the century, really the most productive focus for institutional climate action?

To understand how such commitments are working in practice, we studied 11 American higher education institutions that have already announced achieving carbon neutrality. We found that while it is a potentially useful milestone, those of us at colleges and universities cannot view carbon neutrality as the end goal if we want to respond effectively to the climate crisis. We need to be both more thoughtful and more aggressive in our climate actions.

First, we need to refocus on plans to stop burning fossil fuels. Our peer-reviewed analysis reveals that neutrality commitments do not guarantee reductions in on-site fossil fuel use, with three of 11 institutions slightly increasing those emissions, despite being carbon neutral. Many colleges and universities are effectively small cities with a tremendous opportunity to showcase what a climate-friendly community can be, from geothermal heat to electric lawn care. We need to commit to decarbonization with plans and deadlines for eliminating fossil fuel combustion on our campuses.

For example, Bowdoin College -- already net carbon neutral -- has recently announced that its next campus energy plan will focus on electrifying campus heating, its largest source of emissions. A clear decarbonization plan also means institutions can avoid wasting money on infrastructure like steam systems that may not be compatible with a zero-emissions future.

Second, we in higher education must think about what we burn and what we buy. The initial framework for neutrality paid less attention to the admittedly complex emissions attributable to purchasing. But, in fact, purchasing emissions can be the largest share of an institution’s overall climate impact. Institutions should look for creative and strategic opportunities in their choice of construction materials, food procurement and dining, and other purchasing. They also need to ensure that they are managing campus-owned land in climate-friendly ways.

Third, we need to actively promote new clean electricity. Eight of the 11 institutions we studied “neutralized” their emissions from purchased electricity with at least some “unbundled” renewable electricity certificates, or RECs. Institutions can buy RECs separately from any power purchase agreement, but peer-reviewed research suggests those certificates may not have a net impact on emissions. For now, long-term power purchase agreements that enable investment in new renewable energy are a good step forward. But the best way to reduce emissions from this sector is for states and/or the federal government to develop policies that rapidly decarbonize the electricity grid, and higher education institutions need to look for opportunities to support those larger policy shifts.

Fourth, we need to be clear-eyed about the risks and trade-offs with offsets, which we found in our study to be the single largest source of emission reductions claimed by schools. This is troubling, because ensuring that offsets actually reduce emissions is challenging, and heavy offset use can delay investments in eliminating fossil fuel combustion. Moreover, in some cases, offsets can leave vulnerable communities exposed to air pollution by allowing local sources of pollution to continue to emit while paying for greenhouse gas reductions that may be on the other side of the planet.

After setting a firm plan for decarbonization that will minimize the need for offsets, colleges and universities should leverage their research strengths to find innovative and effective ways to reduce emissions from challenging sources like land use. For example, the University of California system’s Climate Neutrality Initiative has put out a request for ideas, leveraging the expertise of all their researchers for approaches to reducing emissions from off-campus sources.

Finally, we all must move faster. The Biden administration has committed the entire United States to “net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.” Yet 60 percent of the higher education institutions with active climate commitments have carbon-neutrality dates of 2050 or later or have no deadline at all -- not to mention the thousands of colleges and universities that have not made commitments. Recent science and the climate impacts that we are already seeing make it clear that we must seek out the biggest sources of emissions on our campuses and set deadlines to eliminate them quickly.

Our goal is not to criticize the institutions we studied, especially since our analysis is just a snapshot of their continuing efforts. Carbon neutrality can still be a useful concept -- even a milestone on a pathway to decarbonization. But critiques of net zero for both countries and businesses underscore the need to make sure we focus more on the “zero” and are very careful with the “net.”

Just as COVID-19 has made it clear that schools need effective collaboration with local, state and federal governments, we in higher education need to recognize our part in the broader systems of energy, transportation and land use around us. Our emissions matter and must be eliminated, but institutions can’t be full climate leaders unless we are doing everything we can to collaborate with our communities to help our society meet our climate goals. Asking “How can our campus actions have the biggest genuine impact for emissions and equity?” is a good start.

Alex Barron is an assistant professor of environmental science and policy at Smith College. He has previously served in climate policy roles in the Obama and Biden administrations. Aaron Strong is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Hamilton College. Lucy Metz is an undergraduate engineering science major at Smith College.

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Harvard must go beyond divestment to model climate leadership (opinion)

Last month, the world’s richest university announced it would divest from fossil fuels. In the weeks since, we’ve seen a clear domino effect, with a slew of major universities and asset managers following suit: Boston University, the University of Minnesota, the MacArthur Foundation, Aberdeen University, California State University, Dartmouth College, Loyola College, Reed College and, most recently, Vassar College, the Ford Foundation and Mount Holyoke College have all committed to divestment.

Now, the question is not whether more institutions will divest but rather who will be next. The power of Harvard University activists’ victory can’t be understated; as our most influential institutions embrace their responsibilities on climate change, it’s clear the end of the fossil fuel era is within reach.

Yet while Harvard has taken a critical step forward, it must go further to fully satisfy those responsibilities and provide a meaningful model for its peer institutions. Following the lead of those like Cambridge University, Harvard must publish a clear timeline for divestment. The public has a right to know when Harvard will have fully phased out its remaining indirect investments in fossil fuels -- which represent up to 2 percent of the endowment, a whopping $840 million. Until they’re eliminated entirely, those investments will continue to violate Harvard’s legal mandate to invest prudently and in accordance with its charitable mission, clearly contravening its goal of higher education and stated environmental and social commitments.

With divestment promised, Harvard also has a chance to meaningfully decarbonize its endowment. This begins with strengthening its hole-ridden net-zero by 2050 endowment pledge, which does far too little, much too late. Its emphasis on net-zero, not zero, emissions creates loopholes for continued investment in carbon-intensive industries. This lack of seriousness, or what Greta Thunberg might call a “blah blah blah” attitude, on decarbonization puts Harvard at odds with Massachusetts’s and the nation’s emissions reduction goals and hampers its ability to rise to the challenges of the future.

It also means making concrete and transparent commitments to shifting money away from polluters and toward a just regenerative economy, as its moral and fiduciary duty require. The university’s vague language about seeking to invest in funds that support the transition to a “green economy” leaves much to be desired. Harvard should disclose what technologies and energy sources it will invest in and at what scale, and how it will ensure those investments are ethical and equitable -- if they center the renewable and community-based energy solutions we need, and benefit those on the front lines of climate change. Its divestment and investment commitments, moreover, must extend to the third-party managers of its endowment and be reflected in how it votes its proxies.

It should come as no surprise that Harvard has withheld the details of how it will align its investments with its social responsibility, the law and the urgency demanded by climate science. Or that Harvard remains too stubborn to even say the word “divest” and, in our opinion, willfully ignores the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to undermine climate policy and perpetuates the fallacious idea that the industry has a role in a sustainable future.

Perhaps that’s because the industry’s influence pervades the university, with several members of the Harvard Corporation maintaining or having recently held ties to the fossil fuel industry. It funds everything from programming at the Harvard Kennedy School to energy and geologic research in the earth and planetary sciences department and the Harvard environmental economics program. And since Harvard refuses to make its knowledge of where faculty funding comes from available to the public, we have no idea just how much of Harvard’s research is sponsored by the industry, which has a record of lying to the public, or how many conflicts of interest exist as a result. The university also continues to elevate the voices of a minority of faculty members who have expressed disdain for divestment and reward them with positions of authority around the university’s climate policy.

The hypocrisy is glaring: How can Harvard or any university claim to prepare students for our futures while it embraces the companies destroying that future? And that’s not to mention that Harvard has invested in other industries, like the prison industrial complex, that perpetuate the same extractive and exploitative economy fueling climate change and injustice.

We’ve seen that when Harvard acts, it can have an enormous impact; when it fails to act, that can have an enormous impact, too. That’s why the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaign is demanding clarity around Harvard’s plan moving forward and calling on Harvard to establish a clear timeline and details for its divestment process, and approach this process and its other ties to the fossil fuel industry with transparency and a focus on justice and institutional responsibility.

Harvard’s divestment is already making history. But Harvard must do more than ride on the coattails of its students’ and community members’ success to show true leadership on the existential issue of climate change and injustice. Activists have handed Harvard an opportunity to lead on climate. The world is watching to see if it will truly learn from its mistakes and act with the transparency, urgency and foresight that its reputation, this crisis and Veritas demand.

Ilana Cohen is an organizer of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and a student at Harvard College. Tim Wirth is a former U.S. senator from Colorado, a member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers and a graduate of Harvard College.

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