Yale’s new commitments to mitigating climate change

June 24, 2021

Dear Members of the Yale Community,

Climate experts around the globe are clear: we must act to avoid catastrophic, irreversible damage to our planet due to greenhouse gases. Today, we announce commitments—to our research and teaching, to our campus’s use of carbon, and to how we invest our endowment—that will allow Yale to address the challenge of climate change.

Our efforts are rooted in the scholarship and research taking place across Yale as part of the Planetary Solutions Project, which calls us to lead by example and to use our campus as a laboratory for implementing the best technologies, policies, and ideas. This memo provides an update on the Planetary Solutions Project, including new long-term energy goals for our campus operations and a first list of fossil fuel companies now ineligible for investment by the Yale endowment, in accordance with new ethical principles announced in April. Taken together, our announcement today amounts to a simple commitment: every part of Yale will do its part in the critical coming decades.

BUILDING PLANETARY SOLUTIONS TOGETHER

We launched the Planetary Solutions Project in December 2020 to bring the full weight of Yale’s expertise and resources to bear on pressing global crises like climate change and biodiversity loss. The project’s framework lays out three aims: 1) Mitigate harmful climatic and environmental changes; 2) Adapt by building resilient systems to accommodate global changes; and 3) Engage audiences and partners in an inclusive effort to improve the habitability of our world. The vast scope of these challenges requires solutions that match their scale and complexity.

The newly-established Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture (YCNCC) demonstrates our ability to draw on the strengths of multiple fields to drive innovation. 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. Founded by an extraordinary $100 million gift from FedEx Corporation, the center will have global-scale impact through a combination of ecological, geological, and nature-based engineering research.

Since we announced the center in March, 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.

The YCNCC offers just one of many possible models by which Yale’s Planetary Solutions Project can drive change across the nation and the world. We encourage you to sign up for the monthly newsletter to stay updated as the Planetary Solutions Project continues to evolve based on engagement across the university.

ACHIEVING ZERO ACTUAL CARBON EMISSIONS BY 2050 AND NET ZERO CARBON EMISSIONS BY 2035

In 2005, Yale was one of the first universities in the world to commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. We pledged that by 2020, we would emit 43 percent less than we did in 2005. We achieved that goal, even though there has been significant growth in campus population and square footage.

We must now seek an even faster pace of change. Today we announce that we are committing our campus operations to achieving zero actual carbon emissions—that is to say, driving our carbon emission to zero without having to purchase carbon offsets—by 2050. Along the way, we expect our campus to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2035.

Achieving zero actual carbon emissions on our campus by 2050

The target of achieving zero actual carbon emissions on campus recognizes that the current concentration of carbon dioxide within the Earth’s atmosphere must decrease by an absolute and significant measure.

Achieving this goal means using both established and emerging technologies and transitioning to renewable energy sources as rapidly as possible. This will require investments in our buildings and equipment on a large scale, and we will need to incorporate promising developing technologies into our campus utility systems.

Our leadership in early adoption of cutting-edge energy systems has benefits beyond Yale—employing these technologies in our “campus-as-laboratory” environment helps to accelerate their broader commercial deployment. For example, Yale intends to be at the forefront of universities in utilizing power plant turbines fueled by non-fossil fuels. This is an area of active development by turbine manufacturers, and our support encourages the commercialization of systems that use alternative renewable fuels. Similarly, Yale will be an early adopter of innovations that advance the drive to electrify thermal loads, such as the next generation of geothermal energy systems.

Of course, these investments in our campus involve tradeoffs because these financial resources could be used to benefit other worthy purposes; however, we recognize the imperative of addressing climate change. Therefore, we choose this plan to alter our campus energy systems and commit to accomplishing our goals in a responsible manner. We will use the social cost of carbon—which reflects the economic damage caused by carbon emissions to human health, global stability, ecosystems, and other areas—as a guide. To ensure we are investing in sensible strategies, we will implement projects that cost less than the social cost of carbon.

Looking ahead, we are optimistic that innovative technologies and solutions will emerge. For this reason, we recommend that current and future generations of university leaders review these plans every five years to ensure that our on-campus investments are more effective at lowering our carbon emissions than off-campus alternatives.   

Becoming a net zero carbon emissions campus by 2035

To avoid the most severe outcomes of climate change, experts recommend taking immediate action 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.  

Along our path to zero actual emission by 2050, we expect to reduce our actual emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2035. At that point, we will be able to accelerate Yale’s impact by purchasing high-quality, verifiable carbon offsets to enable us to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

We approach offsets with great care. 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 reliable 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 ten to fifteen years. We also will apply the findings of relevant research under way at our university and across the world. Discovery and implementation of carbon offset technologies will be aided by the new Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture.

Our approach to de-carbonize our campus operations will be challenging, costly, and time consuming, but it is the right path. To achieve long-term sustainability of Yale and the habitability of the planet, we must be willing to take on increased short-term economic costs and personal inconveniences—even as we power a university that will need to teach, conduct research, and engage in scholarship 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.

HOW WE INVEST OUR ENDOWMENT: FURTHER PROMOTING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

To realize our aspiration to create lasting remedies for climate change, the university must be a careful steward of its financial assets. Annual, budgeted spending from the endowment has been instrumental in supporting university operations, and more importantly, in propelling research and education.

In faithfully managing our financial resources, the university, through its Investments Office, encourages its external investment managers to consider the financial risks associated with climate change. In addition, the university has for decades followed a framework set forth in The Ethical Investor that, in rare cases, makes certain companies ineligible for investment by the endowment because they cause grave social injury. This has resulted in three divestment policies over Yale’s history related to companies complicit in South African apartheid, oil companies providing substantial assistance to the government of Sudan in light of the genocide in Darfur, and assault weapons retailers.

In April of this year, the university adopted a set of fossil fuel investment principles identifying specific behaviors that, if engaged in by a fossil fuel producer, would make it ineligible for investment by Yale’s endowment. Given the fact that Yale’s endowment is not heavily invested in fossil fuel companies, the principles were meant not simply for Yale’s purposes, but also to inform broader discussion regarding ethical investment related to fossil fuel production.

The principles were developed after considerable outreach and study by faculty and staff experts on the presidential Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Principles. Their report explains in detail how they arrived at these principles and makes clear that 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.

Upon the adoption of these principles, the Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility tasked the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) with the work of 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. Already they 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 names will be added. The list can be found on the ACIR’s website and is expected to be updated periodically.

Already, the world is witnessing a wave of announcements by fossil fuel companies about new goals to reduce their carbon footprint and carbon intensity of production, as well as plans to advance renewables and carbon capture. The ACIR will monitor companies’ progress under the various announced plans and stands ready to revisit a company’s status as appropriate.

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The greatest contributions Yale will make to the fight against climate change will come from its research and teaching, and the leadership of its graduates. The world’s research universities need to accelerate progress on what they are uniquely positioned to do, and Yale must be at the forefront of these efforts. Every part of the university can offer solutions and commit to environmental sustainability. We look forward to the work ahead of us.

Sincerely,

Peter Salovey
President
Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology

Scott Strobel
Provost
Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry