In 2005, Yale became one of the world’s first universities to commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, pledging that by 2020 it would reduce its carbon output 43% compared with that year’s emissions. Last year Yale reached this goal despite significant growth in campus population and square footage in the intervening time.
Now university leaders are targeting an even faster pace of change. On Thursday, Yale pledged to achieve zero actual carbon emissions — that is, driving carbon emissions to zero without having to purchase carbon offsets — by 2050, President Peter Salovey and Provost Scott Strobel announced in a message to the Yale community.
Along the way, they said, the university expects the campus to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2035, or “zero” emissions after offsets and other campus reductions in emissions are factored in.
Salovey and Strobel also shared an initial list of fossil fuel companies now ineligible for investment by the Yale endowment in accordance with recently adopted ethical investing principles. And they provided an update on the Planetary Solutions Project, an ambitious campus-wide initiative launched in December 2020 that is bringing the full weight of Yale’s expertise and resources to bear on pressing global crises.
“Climate experts around the globe are clear: we must act to avoid catastrophic, irreversible damage to our planet due to greenhouse gases,” said Salovey. “Taken together, our announcement today amounts to a simple commitment: every part of Yale will do its part in the critical coming decades.”
The efforts are rooted in the scholarship and research taking place across the university as part of the Planetary Solutions Project, which calls on Yale to provide leadership in tackling environmental challenges that threaten life on Earth and to use the campus as a laboratory for implementing the best technologies, policies, and ideas.
“With the expertise we have at Yale, we have a responsibility to drive breakthroughs,” Strobel said. “Meeting the challenges of the climate crisis requires that we develop global solutions through scholarship, research, and collaboration, and lead by the example of our principles and our work.”
Meeting the new carbon goals in campus operations will require using both established and emerging technologies and shifting to renewable energy sources as rapidly as possible, Yale leaders said. It will also require investments in university buildings and equipment on a large scale, and the adoption of promising new technologies for campus utilities.
“The alignment of research, campus operations, and investments to address the climate crisis is powerful and will resonate across the university, reinforcing Yale’s commitment to lead by example,” said Virginia Chapman, director of the Yale Office of Sustainability. “We are eager to support strategies to advance Yale’s new commitments on climate and seek solutions that prioritize resilience by leveraging Yale’s campus as a test bed for applied research to enhance our natural systems, foster social cohesion, and create economic prosperity.”
For example, Yale intends to be at the forefront among universities in using power plant turbines fueled by non-fossil fuels. This is an area of active development by turbine manufacturers, and the university’s support will encourage the commercialization of systems that use alternative renewable fuels.
Similarly, Yale will pursue innovations that advance the drive to electrify thermal loads, such as the next generation of geothermal energy systems.
The adoption of these emerging energy systems and technologies will not only transform campus operations but will have benefits that go far beyond Yale. By using the campus as a laboratory, Yale can help accelerate the broader commercial deployment of these technologies.
“In the next decade Yale Facilities will focus on electrifying our campus’s heating and cooling loads, while continuing to modify the utility grid for greater efficiency and emission reductions,” said John Bollier, vice president for facilities and campus development. “At the same time, we will beta test multiple technologies that use renewable fuels in an effort to help commercialize a renewable alternative to fossil fuels for high thermal loads. This is a critical piece to the puzzle of how to eliminate carbon emissions.”
Knowing that innovative technologies and solutions will continue to emerge, Salovey and Strobel recommend that current and future generations of university leaders review these plans every five years to ensure that Yale’s on-campus investments are more effective at lowering carbon emissions than off-campus alternatives.
“Our approach to drastically de-carbonize our campus operations will be challenging, costly, and time consuming, but it is the right path,” they wrote. “To achieve the long-term sustainability of Yale and the planet, we must be willing to take on increased short-term economic costs and personal inconveniences — even as we power a university whose research and teaching will need to operate with increasing intensity. Building a sustainable home for our operations is essential for the good of our planet and in keeping with our principles as an ethical community.”
Achieving a net zero carbon campus by 2035
To avoid the most severe outcomes of climate change, experts suggest that immediate action must be taken to reach world-wide carbon net neutrality in the next three decades.
Yale will become a net zero carbon emissions campus in less than half of that time.
As the university moves toward zero actual emission by 2050, its actual emissions will likely be reduced by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2035, university leaders said. At that point, the university will be able to accelerate its impact by purchasing high-quality, verifiable carbon offsets to enable it to achieve net zero carbon emissions.
“We approach offsets with great care,” Salovey and Strobel wrote. “Our emission reductions to date required the purchase of some carbon offsets, but this was done thoughtfully and is a steppingstone along our path to achieving zero actual carbon emissions. We will seek to foster more effective markets in quality offsets before committing Yale to purchasing offsets to achieve net zero carbon emissions. We expect that this will happen within the next 10 to 15 years.”
The university also will apply the findings of relevant research under way within the university and across the world. Implementation of carbon offsets will be aided by the work of the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture (YCNCC), which was launched earlier this year with the generous support of FedEx. Co-led by investigators from the School of the Environment and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the center will study Earth’s natural processes for ways to reduce atmospheric carbon and mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.
Since the center was unveiled in March, its faculty leaders have been shaping its programming. Some early projects include optimizing forest restoration, agricultural practices, and mineral weathering for carbon uptake on land and at sea. The center will also focus on sharing emerging research results with policymakers and resource managers for implementation and lasting impact.
New investment principles for a sustainable future
Another critical area where Yale will address the climate challenge is through its investment policies. In April, Yale adopted a set of fossil fuel investment principles and identified specific behaviors that, if engaged in by a fossil fuel producer, would make it ineligible for investment by Yale’s endowment. Since Yale’s endowment is not heavily invested in fossil fuel companies, the principles are meant not simply for the university’s purposes but also to inform broader discussion regarding ethical investment related to fossil fuel production.
The principles were developed by an expert faculty panel appointed by President Salovey after considerable outreach and study by faculty and staff experts. In a report, this panel explained in detail how it arrived at these principles. And as the panel made clear, the implementation of these principles is intended to be dynamic, taking into account technological innovation, business evolution, shifts in government policies, and other changes that are expected to occur as the world transitions to cleaner energy.
After the principles were adopted, the Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility (CCIR) tasked the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) with identifying fossil fuel producers that would no longer be eligible for investment by the endowment.
The ACIR has begun this work primarily by developing specific criteria to apply to fossil fuel producers. They have already received the CCIR’s approval for a recommendation that coal producers no longer be eligible for investment. In addition, oil and gas producers who fail to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions — or if they do disclose, have high carbon intensity in their production — will no longer be eligible. The ACIR is building out the list under these criteria and will continue its work of implementing the principles with the expected result that more companies will be added. The list can be found on the ACIR’s website and is expected to be updated periodically.
From investments to innovation, Yale will continue to provide leadership in the response to this global challenge.
“The greatest contributions Yale will make to the fight against climate change will come from its research, teaching, and graduates,” Salovey and Strobel wrote in their message. “The world’s research universities need to accelerate progress on what they are uniquely positioned to do, and Yale must lead these efforts. Every part of the university must offer solutions and commit to environmental sustainability.”