Facing pressure from faculty, students, and alumni to divest from fossil fuels, Harvard on Tuesday announced that it planned to move its $41 billion endowment to a net-zero investment in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The slow move toward a more environmentally friendly investment policy is likely to disappoint those who had pushed for a swift withdrawal of investments in oil and gas companies.
Harvard officials on Tuesday stressed that the new policy was not a divestment in fossil fuel companies but an increased commitment to investing in sustainability efforts and looking at the carbon impact of funds across the endowment.
The university defended its approach as broader than simply divesting. In documents the Harvard Management Company, which oversees the endowment, said its strategy, “transcends the binary divestment debate."
“Climate change is a defining issue of our time," Harvard president Lawrence Bacow said in a statement. “With this commitment, our focus is on reducing the demand for fossil fuels, an action that is consistent with the University’s overall commitment to reduce our operational carbon footprint."
Harvard’s timeline aligns with the Paris climate agreement, which calls for reducing global greenhouse emissions to zero by 2050.
Harvard’s announcement is a good initial step, said Danielle Strasburger, a 2018 graduate and the campaign manager for Harvard Forward, an effort to get alumni who back climate change policies onto the board of overseers, one of two university governing boards.
“They are finally engaging and talking more about climate and the endowment,” Strasburger said. “2050 seems like a pretty far off timeline, given the urgency of the crisis.”
Strasburger said she wants to see more details about how Harvard plans to get to net-zero and how it will evaluate investments for their carbon impact.
Those details still need to be ironed out. Harvard officials said the university will work with experts to determine how to calculate the carbon emissions of investments in its portfolio and with external managers to determine how companies are trying to plan for climate change.
Universities across the country have been under pressure to address climate change by divesting their endowment from fossil fuels.
Between 2011 and 2018, 35 American universities and colleges pulled their endowments, either partially or completely, from fossil-fuel holdings, including the University of Massachusetts system, Boston University, Stanford University, Syracuse University, and Middlebury College, according to a study published last year that explored the impact of divestment.
But Harvard has pushed back on the divestment strategy and been reluctant to make a political statement with its endowment.
Divest Harvard, a student activist group that has been pushing Harvard to withdraw funds from oil, gas and coal companies, said in a statement that the university’s strategy falls short and fails to address the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change.
“A good-faith effort to reach carbon neutrality would have acknowledged that divestment is the logical first step,” the group said in a statement.
Simply focusing on divestment from fossil fuel companies doesn’t solve the climate change crisis and institutions should take a more holistic approach, said Liqian Ma, the head of impact investing research at Cambridge Associates, a Boston-based global investing firm.
There are other contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, such as factories, that should also be part of the equation, Ma said.
And there are projects, such as sustainable agriculture and electric vehicle infrastructure, that investors can put their money into that could ultimately mitigate the effects of climate change, Ma said.
Still, institutional investors are unlikely to get to net-zero emissions without some fossil fuel divestment, he said.
“It’s more of systemic risk, so warrants a more systematic approach,” Ma said.
Harvard officials did not comment on what types of investments the university is likely to consider under this new approach. Nor would the university comment on the future of its fossil fuel investments.
Harvard has not said how much its massive endowment is in fossil fuels. Only a fraction of its $41 billion endowment is invested directly in public energy companies, but the university likely holds funds that include oil and gas companies, and many of them are potentially tied in complex contracts that could take years to get out of, environmentalists and financial experts agree.