Northeastern falls behind local universities in fossil fuel divestment plans


Leah Cussen

Among other Boston schools, Harvard and BU have both committed to divesting from fossil fuels. NU has yet to announce any plans to do the same.

Leah Cussen, news correspondent

In September, Boston University and Harvard University announced their plans to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Northeastern University has no plan to divest, despite receiving pressure from the NU community. 

Divestment is the opposite of investment. Universities and other institutions that divest from fossil fuels do not provide any money to companies affiliated with fossil fuels. 

Harvard announced its divestment plan Sept. 10 via email. Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow stopped short of using the word “divest,” but he said the school would allow active investments in the fossil fuel industry to expire and avoid any future investments in that sector. According to the Harvard Crimson, fossil fuels consist of less than 2% of the university’s endowment.

BU made a similar announcement Sept. 23. The statement came a day after a vote by the Boston University Board of Trustees to move investments away from fossil fuels, specifically crude oil and natural gas. BU already divested from coal and tar sands in 2016. The board’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing indicated that reaching 100% divestment could take more than a decade. 

Other schools in the Boston area that have committed to divesting from fossil fuels include the University of Massachusetts, Wellesley College and Brandeis University

In the 2020 fiscal year, Northeastern’s endowment totaled approximately $1.09 billion. Northeastern spokesperson Marirose Sartoretto said Northeastern invests in the energy sector, but these funds do not go directly to fossil fuel companies. Instead, most of Northeastern’s endowments rely on commingled funds from a range of sources. In 2016, the university pledged to invest $25 million of these funds in sustainability.

“Climate change is one of the most urgent societal issues of our time, and we remain committed to proactively investing in environmental sustainability,” Sartoretto said in an email to The News. “Northeastern is proud to have been recognized for its leadership on sustainability issues, which is consistent with our character as an institution that actively engages with the world in pursuit of effective solutions.”

Northeastern is committed to “leadership in sustainability.” The university has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions per square foot by 39% since 2005, has 7 LEED-certified buildings on campus and diverted 41% of operational waste in 2019

Despite the university’s efforts to promote sustainability through other means, the NU community has demonstrated support for fossil fuel divestment for several years. DivestNU, a coalition of clubs on campus that called on the university to divest, was formed in 2013. 

In 2016, DivestNU camped out on Centennial Common for 13 days. Their occupation ended when members of Northeastern’s Senior Leadership Team agreed to meet with DivestNU leaders. The university, however, made no efforts to divest following the protest.

In April 2021, the Northeastern faculty senate passed the Climate Justice Action Resolution, which aimed to update and expand upon the university’s 2010 Climate Action Plan. The resolution called on the university to establish a standing faculty committee on climate justice action, demonstrate climate justice leadership through actions on campus and divest from fossil fuels within two years. 

Jennie Stephens, director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the dean’s professor of sustainability science & policy, is a member of the Climate Justice Action Planning Committee. 

“[The] committee is charged with advancing climate justice action planning, in engaging directly with senior leadership on climate justice action and also with working toward defining … specific things that Northeastern could be doing,” Stephens said. 

Climate justice refers to the intersection of sustainability and social justice. According to the Climate Justice Action Planning Committee’s resolution, climate justice action requires inclusivity, participatory governance, transparency and accountability from the university. 

“It’s going to be increasingly important for Northeastern to demonstrate responsible global climate leadership. And so far, I think we have a lot of amazing things going on. We have amazing students who are working in these areas, we have amazing faculty and staff who are working in these areas,” Stephens said. “But it doesn’t come through in our communications, in our external profile very strongly, or [in our] commitment to thinking about the future and how [our] society’s grappling with the climate crisis and the injustices of climate change.”

Student leaders have also called on the university to divest from fossil fuels. Zach Greenwald, a second-year politics, philosophy and economics major, is currently vice president for sustainability in Northeastern’s Student Government Association, or SGA. 

SGA promotes sustainability at Northeastern through its Green Initiatives Board, which oversees SGA’s sustainability fund, and its Sustainability Subcommittee, which advocates for the student body regarding sustainable actions on campus.

“I think the conversation has sparked around campus and that divestment activism is on the horizon,” Greenwald said. “I hope that student government can be on the side of those students, helping them [with] writing legislation, writing referenda, connecting with [the] administration and being a liaison.”

Other student organizations have called on the university to divest through a broader lens of climate justice. Sunrise Northeastern is a local chapter of a national organization with the goal of combating climate change and creating jobs in the process.

Em Leibiger, a fifth-year electrical engineering major, is currently the partnerships co-lead for Sunrise Northeastern. 

“Sunrise has been making a really concerted effort to try to get the school to live up to the name of a climate justice action plan. So far, it is mostly coming off as a branding choice, honestly. But we think what it looks like is authentically and meaningfully bringing in groups that are most affected by the climate crisis,” Leibiger said. “We include divestment in our platforms, but we take [more of an] approach of focusing on people’s lived experiences and their day to day lives.”

Northeastern’s Office of Sustainability hosted a community conversation on climate justice action Oct. 27 in Curry Student Center. The event invited attendees to submit feedback related to a range of sustainability issues: academia, research and campus policy; food justice and waste reduction; greenhouse gas emissions; buildings and energy; community engagement and education; climate justice and equity; and land use and transportation.

The community conversation also featured small-group discussions that allowed students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders to share their visions of climate justice at Northeastern. Recurring themes included transparency from the university, the consideration of the needs of communities surrounding Northeastern and divestment from fossil fuels. 

For community members who could not attend the event in person, including those in neighborhoods surrounding Northeastern’s campus, there is a virtual meeting room in which individuals are encouraged to share their feedback on the same issues that were considered at the in-person event.

Members of the Climate Justice Action Plan working group hope to apply the feedback they received during the event in creating recommendations for Northeastern’s updated Climate Justice Action Plan.

“The conversation is not just a Northeastern thing. I’ve definitely had conversations with people at Northeastern … like, ‘That’s really weird. Why aren’t we doing that? That feels like it should be a priority,’” Greenwald said. “But it’s also certainly Massachusetts, it’s a wave of schools divesting right now.”