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Professor Rebecca Henderson

The Office for Sustainability asked three members of our community to reflect on what sustainability means and what it will take, inside and outside of Harvard, to build a more sustainability future. Here is what Professor Rebecca Henderson had to say.

"The Next Great Transition"

Rebecca Henderson, John and Natty McArthur University Professor at the Harvard Business School

Re-orienting our current energy systems toward a far greater reliance on technologies with low or no carbon dioxide emissions is an immense challenge—one that will be hard to meet without significant innovation. But the payoffs will be considerable, as making this transition successfully will both greatly reduce the risk of large scale climate disruption and generate significant economic growth.

The $60,000 question, of course is how can it be done? The energy system is immense, and making the behavioral changes and putting in place the new technologies that will move it towards carbon neutrality at the scale that is required will not be easy.

The good news is that this is not, per se, a technological problem. A decade of innovation in renewable energy and in energy efficiency have shown us that shifting to a low carbon energy system is eminently technologically possible. There are innovations still to be made – major breakthroughs in energy storage systems, for example, and in next generation nuclear power will be immensely helpful, but there is every reason to believe that with appropriate public support for fundamental research and with a realistic price for carbon to create incentives for private investment these innovations will be forthcoming.

The harder problems are social and political. As a society we sometimes find it difficult to trade off current consumption for future returns, and we struggle with how to think about our responsibilities to future generations and to those outside of our immediate circle. Building a sustainable energy system requires taking both strategic and organizational risks – daring to invest in new technologies and having the courage and stamina to develop new regulatory regimes and new ways of behaving, and risks can be hard to take.

How can large institutions – whether they be business, government or higher education – transition to less energy intensive, more sustainable operating structure? How will we change the rules? How will we change accounting metrics? How do we change the governing structures? As many other of our peers in the higher-education and business sector are, Harvard is struggling to address these very questions as it goes about implementing its aggressive sustainability goals.

So, how do we move forward?

We must realize that transitions are never easy. The challenge of energy and climate change is a difficult and complex problem. Because we are in the beginning of this change there will be mistakes and it will be messy. But in 20 years of studying companies undergoing this type of transition the one thing that makes a difference is wanting to get through it – an emotional commitment to changing the existing way of doing things. This commitment is the single most important factor of success.

In order to move forward on this, the central problem of our time, we will need commitment, vision, hard-headed realism. But creativity and leadership are what we need the most. At Harvard that means we must foster that creativity among our students – the future leaders of business, government and non-profit sectors. As Harvard continues to undergo the transition to a de-carbonized world it will certainly continue to face challenges. By focusing on creativity and innovation, and by continuing to stand by the commitment made by President Faust and the Deans in 2008 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2016 including growth, Harvard can meet this challenge and serve as a model for others beginning down the path to a future with low to no carbon dioxide emissions.