Harvard Achieves Science-Based Climate Goal

Curbing carbon on campus

Harvard Gazette, December 8, 2016

The wells that plunge 1,500 feet under Radcliffe Yard are out of sight to those walking over them. But to the facilities team there, they are well known as indispensable tools in the University’s fight against climate change.

First installed a decade ago when the technology was still in its infancy, the wells are part of a geothermal system that reduces carbon emissions by using the natural heat stored deep underground for heating and cooling buildings. Through a process of continual testing and improvement that included the help of undergraduate engineering students, the system has been expanded twice to serve all of the historic brick buildings surrounding Radcliffe Yard.

In a report released today, Harvard University details the path it took to achieving its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2016 from a 2006 baseline, inclusive of campus growth. The steps included energy audits and energy efficiency measures across most of the 25 million square feet of campus, installing renewable energy technology including the Radcliffe geothermal wells and thousands of solar panels on rooftops, and fuel-switching and other improvements to campus utilities that lowered carbon pollution. The transition of the regional electric grid away from coal and oil to natural gas also contributed to Harvard’s progress via the electricity its Schools and departments purchase. Excluding growth, Harvard saw a 40 percent reduction in emissions over the 10 years.

How Harvard met its greenhouse gas reduction goal
Changes to energy supply and demand on campus accounted for the largest percentage of emissions reduction. Graphic by Judy Blomquist/Harvard Staff

In her message to the Harvard community, President Drew Faust thanked those who had helped achieve the goal, noting that, “This common purpose has brought our community together in exciting new ways…making the world better through research and teaching, through everyday actions and lifelong commitments.”

Calling climate change a “threat to our future”, Faust said that “Harvard must continue to drive progress related to climate change—sharing what is known, expanding what is known, and acting on what is known.”

Spurred by student advocacy and the urgency to act on human-induced climate change, Faust announced on a crisp fall afternoon in 2008 the ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal at an event featuring former Vice President Al Gore, attended by more than 15,000 members of the Harvard community. The effort was recommended by Harvard faculty to be science-based, aligned with the trajectory that climate scientists said was necessary to avoid 2 degrees Celsius of global warming rather than what would be achievable through on-campus reductions alone given the projected growth in square footage.

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