Harvard University’s Chief Sustainability Officer on Pursuing ‘Goal Zero’

By Scott Kirsner |  October 17, 2023

With 600 buildings, nearly 20,000 employees, 25,000 students, and a fleet of vehicles, Harvard University oversees a vast amount of infrastructure in the cities of Boston and Cambridge. And the university, nearly four centuries old, is working to ensure that all that infrastructure ends its consumption of fossil fuels by 2050. Overseeing the shift is Chief Sustainability Officer Heather Henriksen, who earned a Master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government before joining the university’s staff in 2008.

Henriksen will be among the speakers at this month’s Impact 2023 conference in Cambridge. We spoke with her earlier this month; this interview has been edited for length.

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InnoLead: How is your role defined as Chief Sustainability Officer? Where do you sit in the organization? What’s the what’s the remit?

Heather Henriksen, Chief Sustainability Officer, Harvard University

Heather Henriksen: I sit in the organization under the executive vice president, and the remit is to work collaboratively with input from faculty, students, staff, alumni, experts outside, and forge a strategy for how the university institutionally will address sustainable development — what our goals are, what our priorities are, and then our action plan to achieve them.

…Harvard [is] incredibly decentralized, like a multi-national company: 12 schools, 27 million square feet, 600 buildings, [and] there are a lot of very important and smart decision makers at all levels.

InnoLead: In May of this year, Harvard updated its sustainability action plan. My understanding is, it has been around since 2014. You have this very ambitious thing you call Goal Zero, for 2050.

Henriksen: Goal Zero is zero fossil fuels…used at Harvard institutionally. There are four components. So zero fossil fuels in the three district energy systems, two of which we own and operate, and one which we do not. And then, no fossil fuels in our buildings for heating, [or] processed steam for labs or kitchens. And then zero fossil fuels in our fleet. We’ve already transitioned our very large shuttle buses, a third of them, to 100 percent electric. [Goal Zero includes] getting all of them there, which is actually going to happen by 2035, as well as the other vehicles that the institution might use. And then also procuring 100 percent renewable electricity from brand new power purchasing agreements. And that will be done by 2026.

InnoLead: You mentioned shuttle buses. You mentioned labs. There’s office space, there’s museums, there’s classrooms, there’s dorms. As I understand it, 97 percent of [Harvard’s] emissions come from buildings there.

Henriksen: That’s why we’ve been very focused on our buildings, both as a way to prove that you can integrate climate health and equity in solutions, as well as of course with Goal Zero. We’ve got about 600 buildings, 360 of them are regulated, which account for about 95 percent of our emissions. We have goals actually between 2026 and 2050. We have a 50 percent cut by 2030. And then our buildings that are over 100,000 square feet and Cambridge need to be zero [emissions] by 2035. And there are 60 or so of those.

Our largest challenge, though, relates to our district energy systems. And in particular, our steam system. We’re in a similar boat to anyone in the Northeast, especially in an urban environment, with a steam system, because the optimal technology to transition the steam system off of fossil fuels — ours is powered by natural gas — does not exist today. That is the largest challenge for us.

InnoLead: In the sustainability action plan, [you break things down into] four categories. (They are: how we power, how we build, how we operate, how we lead.) How was it helpful to have those four buckets as you move towards all these goals?

Henriksen: We spent about a year with a multidisciplinary group of faculty — many of them with operational and technology experience. They wrote a report for us that summarized, based on the latest science and research on sustainable development, what they really hoped that Harvard would do, to address sustainable development and climate change.

[That report] affirmed what we’d already been doing. We need to really have integrated solutions. We can’t just address carbon — that’s why we have a fossil-fuel free goal. We need to address air pollution. And we need to address health more broadly and equity more broadly. There was a huge…push to make sure that we were modeling how you do these integrated solutions.

We tried to then take these bigger ideas of climate, health, and equity, and break them down into four buckets: how we power, how we build, how we operate, and then how we lead.

And if you look at the UN’s definition of sustainable development, it really is about having a healthy, thriving future for all people. The other piece is, sustainability can be everything. And so [we needed] to try to distill it down for operational leaders at 12 different schools… We tried to then take these bigger ideas of climate, health, and equity, and break them down into four buckets: how we power, how we build, how we operate, and then how we lead. How we lead, of course, is really our mission. How are we, with our faculty and students, really trying to come up with solutions to these global systemic challenges?

It’s great to have Goal Zero. But if you can’t get to an action plan, and actually make progress, and hold yourself accountable, then we felt that that wasn’t enough.

InnoLead: Almost everybody that I’ve talked to with responsibility for sustainability does kind of have like, a black hole piece of their business. Like you mentioned the steam plant. We interviewed the woman who runs sustainability at Delta Airlines, and for them, it’s the jet airplanes where [they] don’t really know what the next [lower emissions] technology is. It sounds like what you’re saying is, there’s a lot you can work on, even as you’re waiting for solutions to emerge for some of the things where here just isn’t that next more sustainable technology for producing steam heat yet.

Henriksen: That’s exactly right. We look out in the world and say, what are the available technologies? Who’s leading? What can we access? And then if the optimal technologies or solutions don’t exist, we say, what can we do now to start making progress? And we put together a flexible roadmap… That’s what we’re doing for Goal Zero. …How can we start to make progress today, while we wait for those better technologies, and we have drop-dead dates. We know when our milestones are that we have to make decisions. We also know that we may have to put in some sub-optimal technologies in the short-term, just to drive down emissions, while we wait for those [future] technologies.

…[We also are eager to see] how can we demonstrate things that people have not been able to do yet, but if we start small and pilot it, we can prove it and scale it. That’s just our approach to all of our work. And I think it’s also a responsibility. We think it’s our responsibility to be helping educate architects, designers, contractors, engineers, in new areas… And identifying those adoption gaps, and what we need.

We need to be working better, and leveraging each other, because we don’t have the luxury of time.

InnoLead: When you run into somebody who’s just starting this job, you know who’s just been handed responsibility for sustainability or has just been brought into a sustainability committee in their company, what’s the advice that you give them?

Henriksen: First, I would encourage anyone to look at who’s already leading and making progress. You should not start from the ground level. [You should] also assess, what is your real impact from your operation? Where do you have the greatest environmental and social challenges with your organization? Prioritize what you are going to address. I think everybody really does need to think about the lens of climate, health, and equity. But each organization is different, and has different impacts.

..You need to think about where we as an organization could have an outsized impact, that not only would reduce our footprint the most, but could also help others, which is really the end game. We need to be working better, and leveraging each other, because we don’t have the luxury of time. We really need to collaborate, align, and work as quickly and as efficiently as we can.

(Featured image by Somesh Kesarla Suresh on Unsplash.)