How could preserving forests in Alaska or reducing nitrogen fertilizer runoff on farms in the Midwest help an organization mitigate its own climate impact?

This was one of the questions posed to diverse teams of graduate students brought together as part of the new, multidisciplinary Climate Solutions Living Lab course launched by Harvard University last spring to help push forward the transition to a carbon-free future that supports planetary and human health.
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Climate Solutions Living Lab is now accepting applications for the spring semester. The deadline to apply is Nov. 30.

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Led by Wendy Jacobs, the Emmett Clinical Professor of Environmental Law and director of the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School, and developed in collaboration with the Harvard Office for Sustainability, the three-year research and teaching project was funded by the University as part of its living lab initiative to use the campus as a test bed for innovative sustainability solutions that can then be replicated across much broader levels.

“No single professional discipline can tackle climate change in isolation; collaboration is critical,” said Jacobs. “We designed this course to address real-world challenges faced by climate leaders who are interested in investing in off-site emissions-reduction projects that can be proven to deliver environmental and social benefit.”

The course’s outcomes are expected to offer Harvard clear strategies for how it can most effectively pursue high-quality, off-site emissions projects in the short term as part of the University’s longstanding commitment to modeling how organizations can dramatically reduce the climate impact of their operations. These same strategies, says Jacobs, can be implemented by other organizations.

The use of carbon offsets or renewable energy investments to complement emissions reductions achieved on-site is becoming a necessary step for businesses and organizations that need to meet the ambitious carbon neutrality goals they have set. As demand has grown, a wide array of products are being offered to entities that wish to claim credit for the emissions reduction associated with a specific action or project.

A 2015 advisory group of faculty experts convened by Harvard President Drew Faust to explore the topic found that while the markets for these off-site mechanisms are volatile and some products did not reliably result in additional emissions reductions, they are expected to mature in the coming decades. The group said that Harvard could play a role in developing the marketplace by promoting transparency and researching a range of options for high-quality offsets.
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“Increasing demand for clean-energy solutions from socially responsible companies and institutions will result in accelerated private-sector investment in energy innovation and the rapid deployment of new technologies,” said Rebecca Henderson, the John and Natty McArthur University Professor at Harvard Business School. “It’s critically important that Harvard, as a leader in the higher-education sector, play a role in contributing to this demand and spurring the creation of new climate-friendly solutions.”

Related reading: “Navigating renewable energy options in rural Alaska” by Caroline Lauer, Harvard Graduate School of Design, MUP ’18

Climate Solutions Living Lab addresses these challenges by immersing cross-disciplinary teams of students in hands-on research to design feasible, practical, scalable projects for reducing at least 50,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, while allowing nonprofit and for-profit organizations to legitimately claim credit for those emissions reductions as offsets. The teams were also asked to minimize project costs while maximizing health, social, and economic benefits. Each team presented its final project proposal to a group of faculty and other experts for questions and feedback.

One team, composed of six graduate students representing business, public health, design, law, and policy, visited Anchorage, Alaska, for a week while developing a plan for reducing emissions through preserving 150,000 acres of forest land owned by a native village. In a unique twist, the team suggested a small fee be added to the transaction that would support a social-impact fund to support the local economy and create jobs by implementing energy-efficiency upgrades in the homes of native residents who live adjacent to the forest.

“Working in Alaska in particular, where renewable energy has a deep relationship to community development, showed how quite abstract phenomena like carbon-offset pricing have real impact on the everyday life of people,” said Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) alumnus Michael Haggerty, who graduated in May. “The course was a lesson in why we have 10 graduate Schools at Harvard in the first place, and how integrating the skills and knowledge of students from across the institution is essential for creating solutions to climate change.”

Alaska body of water and mountains at dusk

Credit: Caroline Lauer

Another team of three students representing the Schools of engineering, law, and public health designed a project to pay farmers to reduce their use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas that remains largely unaddressed. Fertilizers represent a major source of nitrous oxide emissions.

This team’s presentation attracted the attention of national farming groups because even though the carbon offset market recognizes the effectiveness of nitrogen reduction strategies and has approved their use to claim carbon credits, few effective demonstration projects have been developed to date.

“The science behind a nitrogen fertilizer emissions-reduction strategy is already solid, but the challenge was developing an economical and practical implementation plan that could transform the concept into a feasible project,” said Harvard Law School student Chaz Kelsh. “Doing so required combining the skills that each student brought to class from our own disciplines.”

Two other student teams explored projects that would allow a business or other organization to claim credit for the emissions reduced by implementing energy-efficiency measures in Rhode Island public schools, and by creating a revolving investment fund for investing in regional renewable-energy projects.

All of the students reported that one of the most productive learning experiences they had in the course involved working across the boundaries of disciplines with students outside their areas of expertise and knowledge.

“As we exchanged expertise and forced each other outside of our respective silos, we began to learn the language of one another’s disciplines,” said Caroline Lauer, a GSD student who worked on the Alaska project. “Our different perspectives sometimes clashed, and throughout the semester we navigated those conflicts and negotiated trade-offs within our group. We were each forced to define our values and advocate fiercely for them.”

Climate Solutions Living Lab is now accepting applications for the spring semester. The deadline to apply is Nov. 30.

This post was originally published in the Harvard Gazette on November 14, 2017.