Ninety students from Harvard and MIT penned an open letter Wednesday calling on the schools to eliminate their carbon emissions.
The letter expressed support for Cambridge’s proposed Green New Deal legislation while criticizing the two universities’ push to use global carbon offsets to satisfy the proposed emission reductions without paying compliance fees.
Cambridge is currently considering an amendment to the city’s Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance that would require owners of large properties to either reduce carbon emissions or pay $234 per metric ton of excess emissions, with the goal of reaching net-zero emissions from large buildings by 2035.
Harvard and MIT, however, are seeking a third option to meet the proposed requirement: global carbon offsets — purchased credits that fund carbon reductions elsewhere in the world.
The open letter described the impact of the offsets as “questionable at best,” saying the schools must reduce emissions in Cambridge to have a meaningful impact.
“There is a legitimate way to avoid paying the 234 dollar fee: by eliminating your carbon emissions,” the letter reads. “Because with your billion-dollar endowments, attempting to cut corners is irresponsible and dangerous. And as tuition-paying students, we will not accept it.”
The proposal is currently being assessed by the Ordinance Committee of the Cambridge City Council. If approved, the amendment will proceed to the full council.
During ordinance meetings in February and April, representatives for MIT and Harvard advocated for language in the proposal that would allow carbon offsets to satisfy emission reduction requirements.
Representatives for the schools also questioned whether the city’s power grid could support the proposed 2035 timetable.
The universities in April, along with several other Cambridge organizations, submitted proposed revisions to the November 2021 amendment requesting that global carbon credits be permitted to offset 100 percent of organizations’ carbon emissions under the BEUDO.
The committee has not adopted the revisions, though the language is subject to change.
Owen O. Ebose ’25, one of the students who drafted the letter, said he opposes the use of offsets as they would allow Harvard and MIT to “continue the status quo” while failing to address the climate crisis locally.
“We can offset our emissions as much as we want, but to actually address the climate crisis, we need to bring our emissions to zero,” Ebose said. “They are trying to deflect instead of truly embrace their responsibility to actually reduce their emissions.”
The $234 per metric ton fee could be seen as a “local carbon offset,” Ebose said. According to the Council’s proposed amendment, these funds will be dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions within Cambridge.
Ebose added that some global carbon offsets are “significantly cheaper” than the compliance fee, however — as low as $20 per metric ton. Nonetheless, Harvard would be able to “claim reductions” in its carbon footprint under the University’s proposed revisions, argues the letter.
In an email Thursday, University spokesperson Amy Kamosa declined to comment on the letter, but wrote that Harvard is committed to climate sustainability efforts, citing the University’s established goals to become fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050.
Harvard failed to reduce on-campus greenhouse gas emissions between 2016 and 2020, according to the most recent data from the University. Still, Harvard officials maintain the school is on track to meet its 2026 and 2050 goals.
According to Kamosa, the 2026 goal is intended to reduce global emissions in the near future while working toward long-term reductions in on-campus emissions.
Henry Lee ’68, a member of Harvard’s Presidential Committee on Sustainability, said that while offsets are “extremely controversial,” they are necessary for the University to reach its climate goals while maintaining active development on campus and expansion efforts in Allston.
“Harvard was clearly not going to be able to do this by direct reduction of their own use,” Lee said. “Its expansion of the campus, its new projects — the emissions from those offset most of the reductions that it made.”
Lee, who co-chaired a subcommittee examining Harvard’s fossil fuel neutrality goal, said he and other faculty members developed guidelines on selecting offsets. The criteria include ensuring the credits support innovative work aligned with the University’s research goals, and that they generate new carbon reduction initiatives — as opposed to funding those which have already taken place, he said. He added that the University will likely purchase offsets in accordance with these criteria in 2023 and 2024.
Owen Leddy, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT who signed the letter, said verifying the efficacy of offsets is often unfeasible in practice.
“One of the things that’s really challenging about global offsets is verifying that the offset is actually meaningfully reducing emissions,” Leddy said. “Often those greenhouse gas emissions — those projects that offsets are supposed to fund — would have happened anyway without the offset being paid for.”
Councilors met with representatives from Harvard and MIT in a closed-door meeting last Thursday. The Council’s ordinance committee is set to hold a public comment session on Wednesday, during which the BEUDO amendment will be discussed.
The session was initially scheduled for May 25 but was canceled due to a lack of councilor attendance.
Leddy said he hopes many residents sign up to speak in support of the proposed Green New Deal legislation during Wednesday’s meeting.
“I think it’s especially important for members of the MIT and Harvard community to speak up,” Leddy said. “At the moment, the MIT and Harvard administrations are a very loud voice in the ears of City Council.”
—Crimson staff writer Brandon L. Kingdollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @newskingdollar.