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Harvard's decision to move towards divesting from fossil fuels comes after years of student activism and public pressure.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Harvard University announced that it will let its remaining investments in the fossil fuel industry expire, eventually resulting in divestment. At Penn, spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy declined to comment on whether the University will follow suit. 

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow — who previously opposed divestment publicly — wrote in an email to Harvard affiliates on Thursday afternoon that the remaining "legacy investments" through third-party firms "are in runoff mode," and that the University does not intend to make future investments in the industry.

In the email, Bacow referenced a need to “decarbonize the economy,” adding that fossil fuel investments were “no longer prudent.” Bacow wrote that Harvard's goal is to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its endowment by 2050. This matches the timeline set by the Paris Agreement, an international commitment to limiting the increase in global temperatures, The Harvard Gazette reported.

Harvard Management Company, which manages the University’s endowment, announced in February that is was no longer directly invested in the fossil fuel industry. Indirect investments in the sector make up less than 2% of Harvard's $41.9 billion endowment, The Harvard Crimson reported. 

Like Harvard, Penn announced in April that it will reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions from endowment investments to zero by 2050, but the University did not announce plans to fully divest from fossil fuels.

Student activists at both schools, including Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and Fossil Free Penn, have been calling for divestment for years.

In fall 2019, Fossil Free Penn held weekly sit-ins in College Hall to push the administration to address the climate crisis. About 100 Fossil Free Penn members also shut down a Board of Trustees meeting in November 2019.

Scott Bok, the new chair of the Board of Trustees, told The Daily Pennsylvanian in November 2020 that Penn had no plans to divest from fossil fuels.

All eight Ivy League student governments, including Harvard's, signed a joint resolution authored by Penn's Student Sustainability Association in April that called for an end to new fossil fuel investments by Fiscal Year 2021 and complete divestment by Fiscal Year 2025.

Noah Harris, president of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council, previously told the DP that he believed the resolution put additional pressure on all eight universities to divest from fossil fuels.

After Harvard's announcement, Divest Harvard declared the move a “massive victory” in a statement on Twitter. The group wrote that it will continue to hold Harvard accountable in “just reinvestment” and make sure that the university follows through on their commitment.

“It took conversations and protests, meetings with administration, faculty/alumni votes, mass sit-ins and arrests, historic legal strategies, and storming football fields,” the group wrote in the statement. “But today, we can see proof that activism works, plain and simple."