After refusing to divest from fossil fuels, Harvard takes new steps to promote the environment

Six months after announcing that Harvard would not divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry, President Drew Faust unveiled several new initiatives today to strengthen the university’s commitment to environmental sustainability and renewable energy.

“Harvard has a vital leadership role to play in this work,” Faust wrote in a letter to the Harvard community. “As a university, it has a special obligation and accountability to the future, to the long view needed to anticipate and alter the trajectory and impact of climate change.”

Harvard will become the first university endowment in the United States to sign on to a United Nations-supported organization, Principles for Responsible Investment. The principles provide the university’s fund managers with a method for considering environmental and social factors from water scarcity to human rights.

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But it does not require Harvard to sell specific funds, so it will be sure to leave the environmental activists who have been pressing for divestment unsatisfied.

Faust is also asking alumni and other donors to raise $20 million for a fund to spur research and innovation addressing climate change. She said Harvard will offer $1 million in grants, to be awarded this fall, to launch a Climate Change Solutions Fund.

Finally, Faust wrote that Harvard continues to work on a goal set in 2008 to reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2016 to 30 percent of what they were in 2006, including the effects of campus growth and renovations.

Harvard’s emissions have dropped 21 percent, Faust said. Harvard will continue to “explore and exhaust” all possible ways to improve efficiency, she wrote, but likely will not get to 30 percent by 2016. To compensate, she wrote that Harvard will start exploring “complementary mechanisms.”

That means that Harvard will look for off-campus ways to compensate for its emissions, for example by purchasing carbon offsets—helping to fund projects elsewhere that contribute to the environment.