The Faculty Senate on Thursday urged the university to accelerate its endowment divestment from fossil fuel companies and to revise its target dates for completing its transition to at least net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its operations.

Members of the Faculty Senate on Thursday encouraged the university to accelerate its target dates for completing its transition to at least net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its operations and endowment. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

In addition, senators encouraged faculty, students and staff to accelerate their personal and professional efforts to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emission in transportation, food and other activities.

The senate approved a multi-part resolution with 89 percent of the senators voting in the affirmative following a senate discussion led by Jeff Koseff, the William Alden Campbell and Martha Campbell Professor in the School of Engineering and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J. Foundation Professor and Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute.

The senate’s approval came despite concerns from several senators that the resolution’s target dates may be more aspirational than achievable without further study of the cost implications.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who, while applauding the intent behind the resolution, agreed that not enough study has been done to date on the cost versus benefit of acceleration to commit to new timelines in university operations. In addition, he acknowledged the challenge of deciding when to implement specific changes given the constant improvements in technology.

“There is full alignment in intent and full alignment in the aspiration,” he said, referring to resolution timelines. “But not a clear path today to do so that takes into account all the financial considerations.”

Summarized, the approved resolution:

  • Acknowledges the Stanford Board of Trustees Statement and Resolution of June 2020 and the March 20 undergraduate and graduate student government resolution for divestment from fossil fuel companies.
  • Exhorts faculty and staff to continue to take personal responsibility for reducing their carbon footprints.
  • Sets proposed target dates for the university’s transition to “at least net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its operations” for Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (indirect on campus) emissions for 2030 and Scope 3 (other indirect) emissions for 2040.
  • Urges Stanford to continue to refocus its energy sector investment portfolio into non-emitting technologies by investing only in companies that are demonstrably committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement; greatly accelerating its present process of divesting from fossil fuel companies; and revising its target date for completing the university’s transition to at least net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its endowment to no later than 2040.

Continued discussions

The Faculty Senate action is a continuation of sustainability discussions that began in May of this year when members failed to support a resolution proposed by the Associated Students of Stanford University to support divestment of Stanford’s endowment from fossil fuel companies.

Following the May 28 meeting, members of the Academic Council, led by David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of Comparative Literature, successfully petitioned for a special meeting of the Academic Council to further discuss the issues. At the special meeting, held June 25, members, lacking a quorum, discussed but did not vote on a resolution. Thursday’s meeting resulted from an invitation issued at that time by incoming Faculty Senate Chair Judith Goldstein, the Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication and professor of political science, to present a resolution at a future senate meeting.

The Faculty Senate, in fact, has no jurisdiction over either the finances or operations of the university, meaning it cannot mandate but can strongly encourage certain actions. The university’s finances are a function of the Board of Trustees, and, on June 12, trustees committed to accelerating the transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. At its meeting, the board also reported a steep drop in the university’s oil and gas investments after completing a year-long review prompted by a request from the student group Fossil Free Stanford. In a statement reflecting its sense of climate change urgency, the board noted Stanford’s aggressive efforts to support the transition to cleaner energy sources, including through its new solar-based energy system and the recently announced school focused on climate sustainability.

University progress

From July to September of this year, Koseff and Diffenbaugh drafted the resolution passed on Thursday after engaging faculty colleagues in extensive discussions.

“We were quite busy,” Koseff said. “We had extensive discussions with a number of colleagues expressing a range of views on the matter. We went back and forth, back and forth, trying to work out as much as we could a consensus resolution that hopefully everyone was happy with.”

In concluding his introduction to the resolution, Koseff told senators that the resolution, although not perfect, was an attempt to help the Academic Council speak in one voice about the importance of addressing climate change and sustainability.

He explained that the resolution “acknowledges that our needed actions as a university community are far broader and deeper than just Stanford’s investment portfolio. Our resolution acknowledges the transformation in the university investment portfolio on energy. Our resolution also acknowledges and salutes the work of the students at Stanford in moving this conversation forward in a very significant fashion. And finally, I’d like to say that this resolution is not about dividing us or forcing uncomfortable or unacceptable options on each other. It is not about mandating how one should conduct one’s research and who should fund our students. It is about finding common ground among us on the existential threat of climate change, on the social, racial, environmental and resource inequalities that follow from such change. This resolution is firmly about how to meet our responsibilities in solving these challenges.”

Koseff went on to explain the specific recommendations within the resolution. The “Scopes” referenced in the resolution, for instance, refer to categories defined in the Green House Gas Protocol Corporate Accounting and Reporting Stanford, which was proposed by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Scope 1 covers all direct emissions from the activities of an organization or under its control; Scope 2 indirect emissions from the consumption of purchased electricity, steam, heat and cooling; and Scope 3 all other indirect emissions for organizations such as business travel, procurement or employee commuting. “Net-zero” refers to a condition in which human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are counterbalanced by activities that remove them from the atmosphere.

Stanford’s current greenhouse gas emissions already are down by 66 percent from peak levels. The new solar plant, to be known as Stanford Solar Generating Station #2, is projected to reduce green house gas emissions even further, to 80 percent below peak levels – four years ahead of the renewable energy goal established in the university’s long-range planning process.

“Clearly,” Koseff said, “Stanford is doing a lot in terms of Scope 1 and 2.” Reducing emissions in Scope 3, he said, is more difficult to achieve and poses significant challenges for all organizations. Stanford is now performing a Scope 3 inventory.

Other senate action

Also at the Faculty Senate meeting, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne reiterated comments he made about the U.S. elections in a community-wide letter earlier this week.

Tessier-Lavigne noted that the continuing uncertainty over the elections comes at a challenging time for our country and community. The president extended his thanks to members of the campus community who are helping students process the uncertainty and to faculty members contributing scholarship and teaching that is helping create a better understanding of the political, social and technological dimensions of the election. He also singled out for appreciation the StanfordVotes student group that supported voter registration at Stanford and beyond.

“We are fortunate to be part of a university community that can bring many different kinds of resources – academic, cultural, social, spiritual – to help us process this national moment,” he said.

The senate also heard a memorial resolution for the late Stanford otolaryngologist and inventor Richard Goode.

The full minutes of the senate meeting will be available on the Faculty Senate website.