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Harvard takes steps to promote environment

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

Harvard says its endowment will be the first of a US university to sign on to a United Nations-supported organization, Principles for Responsible Investment. The principles do not require Harvard to sell specific funds, but rather 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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“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.”

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.

A leader in the student divestment movement at Harvard applauded the new commitments but said the good they accomplish will be undermined by Harvard’s continued investment in fossil fuel companies.

“The Climate Solutions Fund is going to be investing in new forms of energy that aren’t destroying the planet, but we are also investing in energy sources that are destroying the planet,” said Chloe Maxmin, a junior and cofounder of a group called Divest Harvard. “You are funding the very thing that you are trying to offset.”

Maxmin emphasized that she was speaking for herself, not the group, which had not yet had a chance to discuss Faust’s letter.

Faust also 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 since 2006, Faust said. The college will continue to “explore and exhaust” all possible ways to improve efficiency, she wrote, but probably will not get to 30 percent by 2016. To compensate, she wrote, 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.

Finally, Harvard is signing on to another initiative, the Carbon Disclosure Project, which pushes companies to divulge details on their environmental footprint.

The UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment will require Harvard to submit a public report each year on what it is doing to meet the organization’s standards, according to Timothy Smith, senior vice president at Walden Asset Management, a Boston firm dedicated to sustainable and responsible investing.

Harvard is taking some good first steps, Smith said, but it remains to be seen how effectively the university uses its influence to push for change.

“The true meaning is what they do to build on this, to become a proactive shareholder,” he said.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@-globe.com
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