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Yale 62

Yale’s Major Climate Change Projects

By Edward L. Strohbehn, Jr.

President Peter Salovey and Provost Scott Strobel

(Editor’s Note: Ed Strohbehn spent his professional career in environmental law as a public interest lawyer, government executive, and private attorney. He, along with three Yale Law School classmates who co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, received the Yale Law School Association Award of Merit – the Law School’s highest honor – in 2010.)

After Glasgow, it’s interesting to consider Yale’s recent climate change actions.  President Peter Salovey and Provost Scott Strobel announced them on June 24, 2021 in a letter to Members of the Yale Community – actions that had been initiated over the previous nine months:

  • Planetary Solutions Project
  • Carbon Emissions Reductions
  • Fossil Fuel Investment Principles for the Endowment

Planetary Solutions Project

In December 2020, Yale launched the Planetary Solutions Project “to bring the full weight of Yale’s expertise and resources to bear on pressing global crises like climate change and biodiversity loss.” [Salovey/Strobel Ltr. June 24, 2021] The Project is in its formative stage.

The Project was initiated with a three day December symposium.  It brought together the President, Provost, five Deans (four of whom are women), more than 20 faculty members, and about 300 Yale scholars and scientists, to discuss key issues the Project will address:

  • mitigating harmful climate and environmental changes;
  • creating ways to adapt to these changes by building resilient systems; and
  • developing communications strategies to educate and engage people to improve our planet’s habitability.

Yale will reach out to partners to work with it to address climate and environmental issues and seek to obtain financial support to implement its new initiatives.

In March 2021, FedEx Corporation gave Yale $100 million to launch the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture — a part of the multi-disciplinary Planetary Solutions Project.  The Center will seek to achieve global-scale impact through its three research focus areas: (a) ecosystem carbon capture, focusing on forest restoration; (b) geological sequestration, through subsurface carbon storage and accelerating the ability of rocks and minerals to lock up carbon in stable, essentially permanent and limitless storage; and (c) nature (as a model) using synthetic processes to convert carbon dioxide into fuels or materials.  The FedEx gift will fund professorships, post-doctoral fellowships, and graduate students, provide support for research and cutting-edge instrumentation, and underwrite outreach, conferences, and events. [Yale Planetary Solutions Project, Center for Natural Carbon Capture Website]

The Planetary Solutions Project includes the School of the Environment, the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, and 60 Yale Organizations and Initiatives that “approach environmental challenges across the world from a variety of perspectives:” [Yale Planetary Solutions Project, Organizations & Initiatives Website]

  • Centers — 17
  • Initiatives – 6
  • Programs – 12
  • Student Organizations – 7
  • Institutes – 4
  • Laboratories – 5
  • Museum – 1
  • Other – 8

One of these Centers is the School of the Environment’s Center for Environmental Communication.  It publishes Yale Environment 360 — a highly regarded weekly online publication that provides opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues and other environmental news.

Ed Strohbehn

Ed Strohbehn

Carbon Emissions Reductions

Yale made two key commitments to reduce substantially its carbon emissions.

By 2050, Yale will reduce carbon emissions to zero without purchasing carbon offsets.  This is consistent with achieving the temperature goal of the Paris/Glasgow Agreements.  To achieve this commitment, Yale will use “established and emerging technologies and transitioning to renewable energy sources as rapidly as possible.”  Yale intends to be a university leader in “utilizing power plant turbines fueled by non-fossil fuels…   [and] an early adopter of…  the next generation of geothermal energy systems.”  [Salovey/Strobel Ltr. June 24, 2021]

As Yale initiates its actions to achieve zero actual carbon emissions by 2050, Yale “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.”  [Yale Daily News, “Yale sets new carbon reduction targets,” June 24, 2021]

Fossil Fuel Investment Principles for the Endowment

How the Principles Were Developed

The presidential Committee on Fossil Fuel Principles worked for more than five months to produce its 21-page report.  The Committee consulted with experts at Yale and outside of Yale in environmental economics, environmental justice, climate change communication, renewable energy, public health, and investment management.  They solicited comments: from representative student governments (Yale College Council, Graduate Student Association, Graduate and Professional Student Senate), and from a number of other constituents via web forms, including Deans of the various schools, and the Yale Alumni Association via social media.  More than 250 individuals responded to the web form questions. [Report of the Committee on Fossil Fuel Principles, p. 9]

In conducting its study and outreach, the “Committee coalesced around the following foundational predicates that tie together the reality of the current climate crisis, the role of fossil fuel producers, and Yale’s ethical investment framework embodied in The Ethical Investor….. The predicates are that: (A) climate change constitutes grave social injury; (B) humans, through the burning of fossil fuels, are a leading driver of climate change; (C) fossil fuel producers bear a special responsibility in the fight against climate change; (D) there is a dilemma in that the world today needs fossil fuels to some degree; (E) climate change is a collective action problem that requires government intervention; (F) technological innovation in the area of clean energy, and carbon capture and storage, will help determine how to evaluate fossil fuels as an ethical matter over time; and (G) it is expected that some fossil fuel companies will seek to shift their business strategies in keeping with the world’s need to transition while others will not.” [Id., p. 10]

The Fossil Fuel Investment Principles

To determine the fossil fuel producers in the endowment that would no longer be eligible for investment by the endowment, Yale took the following actions.

In April 2021, the Yale Board of Trustees adopted the Fossil Fuel Investment Principles proposed by the special presidential Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Principles.  The Committee recommended that Yale apply these principles “to its investments in fossil fuel producers.” [Id.,  p. 17]

The Principles identify five specific corporate behaviors that establish fossil fuel producer requirements for eligibility for the endowment.  If the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility (ACIR) determines that a fossil fuel producer fails to meet a Principle and recommends that the producer should not be eligible for the endowment, and if the Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility (CCIR) approves the recommendation, the producer would be ineligible for the endowment.

The Principles are:

  1. Fossil fuel producers should neither explore for, produce or supply fossil fuels, nor engage in methods of extraction, that result in high greenhouse (GHG) emissions relative to energy supplied, if there are feasible alternatives that result in significantly lower GHG emissions.
  2. Fossil fuel producers should operate in a manner consistent with best industry practices to reduce GHG emissions.
  3. Fossil fuel producers should not undermine but support sensible government regulation and industry self-regulation addressing climate change.
  4. Fossil fuel producers should not undermine but support accurate climate science and accurate public communications about fossil fuel products, climate science, and climate change.
  5. Fossil fuel producers should be transparent with Yale and Yale’s Investment Managers about their compliance with Principles Nos. 1 through 4. [Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, Implementation of the Fossil Fuel Investment Principles]

In April-June 2021, the ACIR applied the Principles to fossil fuel producers in the endowment to identify and recommend to the CCIR the following fossil fuel producers that would no longer be eligible for investment.  The CCIR approved these recommendations:

  • All coal producers “because there are feasible alternatives to coal that result in less GHG emissions relative to energy supplied.” [Id.]
  • 60 fossil fuel producers “because they fail to disclose their Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions, or produce fossil fuels with a high level of GHG intensity.” [Id.]

Fossil fuel producers comprise about 2.6% of the endowment’s value.  It is not known what the market value of the coal producers and the 60 fossil fuel producers was.  Thus, the financial effect on the endowment of these ineligibility determinations is unknown.  And the names and collective value of the fossil fuel producers who remain in the endowment are also unknown.

In their June 24, 2021 letter, President Salovey and Provost Strobel commented on the CCIR fossil fuel producer ineligibility determinations.  They expect more producers will be added to the ineligibility list.  They remarked that “a wave” of fossil fuel companies have announced “new goals to reduce their carbon footprint and carbon intensity of production, as well as plans to advance renewables and carbon capture.”  And they noted that the “ACIR will monitor companies’ progress under the various announced plans and stands ready to revisit a company’s status as appropriate.”

Conclusion

Yale’s climate actions over the past year build on its capabilities as a research and communications leader, an operational role model, and a highly regarded investor.  The Planetary Solutions Project focuses on an area with major potential climate payoffs and exceptional Yale capabilities that it maximizes by putting them together.  The Carbon Emissions Reductions are ambitious commitments that are consistent with achieving the 2050 temperature goal of the Paris/Glasgow Agreements. The Fossil Fuel Investment Principles are rules for allowing fossil fuel producer participation in the endowment based on observable and self-reported behavior – a bet on incentivizing good behavior during the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Yale’s vision of what it would like to achieve in mitigating climate change is far reaching.  What Yale can accomplish remains to be seen.  It will be interesting to evaluate Yale’s results in the years to come.

 

Sources of Information Presented in the Article are located here.

 

We welcome your comments below.

4 comments to Yale and Climate

  • Ken Merkey

    For all of the brain power and human energy that is going into saving our climate, I am amazed that we are not singularly focused on the single most important factor, reducing fossil fuel use. Carbon capture, smart buildings, recycling, and all the rest have minimal impact compared to the use of fossil fuels in electricity production.

    As we transition to electric vehicles, we will be putting an enormous load on our power grid. Alternate energy production is not going to fill the void. Growing from 4% of the grid today to 50% by 2050 is most likely not going to happen. Even if it did, the cost would be prohibitive.

    I am unconvinced that “spanking” the fossil fuel companies will have any material or tangible result.

    I know this anathema to liberals but the absolute cheapest, most efficient and quickest solution is nuclear power.

  • Jim Wechsler

    Well Ken, you have one definite liberal who agrees with you about nuclear power as the most important short-term answer that could also be a significant part of the longer-term answer. If you have not read it, I recommend ” a Bright Future” by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist, published by Public Affairs Books, 2019.

    Nuclear power is viewed as a threat only by those who let their views be shaped by the Greenpeace slogan, No Nukes, which was certainly relevant but about a different use of nuclear.

  • Ken Merkey

    Thanks, Jim, for your comments. I hope that we hear from the anti-nuke crowd with their arguments against nuclear power.

  • Ken Merkey

    One could make the argument that the NDRC has actually contributed to and exacerbated our climate issues by denying the construction of nuclear power facilities across the USA for the past half century. As a result of their obstructionary tactics, we have had to burn fossil fuels. Presently, the NDRC is blocking the license extension for a nuclear facility in California over concern that the cooling water will raise the temperature of the Pacific Ocean. Really?

    Millstone 1 and 2 are presently supplying 2/3rds of the entire Connecticut power load. When they were built there was also great concern over the effect on Niantic Bay. I can attest that the local fishermen could not be happier.

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