Update to Penn community on Penn’s efforts to combat the effects of climate change

Climate change represents an existential threat to our country and world. It is impossible to ignore the impact that CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases are having across the globe. Since our last update to the Penn community, two new reports by the United Nations confirm the influence of human activity in accelerating climate change and current carbon cutting plans from various nations are woefully insufficient in aggregate to meet the 1.5C degree temperature threshold.

Penn has long been committed to combatting climate change, and we take great pride in the important contributions the University has been able to make through our research, educational efforts, on-campus operations, and investment strategies. As an institution, we have made our Climate and Sustainability Action Plan goals a top priority, and we also recognize that our plans must be dynamic and adaptable so that we can keep pace with the rapidly evolving challenges of climate change. In that light, we write today to share with you new initiatives—consistent with our research and education missions—to further our leadership role in addressing the effects that climate change is having on our world.

Investment initiatives

Last April, the Office of Investments articulated the goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the endowment by 2050. To this end, the Office is making strides across several fronts, including the completion of an initial assessment to determine the largest contributors to the endowment’s carbon footprint and subsequent engagement with investment managers about those positions. The Office has also made new investments that specifically support the transition to a low-carbon economy. While these investments demonstrate an attractive investment profile on a standalone basis, we are excited by the technological and business model innovation that they will support. The Office plans to provide a more detailed update on its work pertaining to its 2050 net-zero goal around the end of the calendar year.

Given Penn’s institutional goals related to combatting climate change, we are announcing today that we are ceasing any new commitments to private equity vehicles dedicated to investments in fossil fuel production. Similarly, we will continue our policy of not making direct investments in companies engaged in the production of fossil fuels. We also will continue to encourage and, in certain cases, support investment managers or companies that are actively and materially investing in the energy transition.

This change builds on the foundation of prior actions including:

  • The Trustees’ directive that we “thoughtfully incorporate climate change into investment decision making.”
  • The University’s announcement that we did not directly hold investments in companies focused on the production of thermal coal or bituminous (tar) sands—two of the most carbon intense energy related investments—as well as our intention not to hold direct investments in companies focused on their production in the future.
  • The growth in Penn’s venture capital portfolio of investments in companies focused on climate change solutions.

Educational initiatives

Penn’s academic engagement with sustainability is expansive and highly visible. To call out only a few specific examples, Penn now has:

  • Over 400 courses related to sustainability offered since 2014;
  • 14 new academic programs introduced across six Schools; and
  • Eight new centers focused on sustainability created across five Schools.

We applaud our faculty’s commitment to teaching courses in this subject area as well as the tremendous intellectual interest by our student body to expand their understanding of the effects of climate change. We further support their passion to build and translate into concrete impact what they are learning to create a more sustainable world. We are particularly proud that several of Penn’s recent President’s Engagement and Innovation Prize winners have organized their ideas, proposals, and projects consistent with fighting climate change.

We are pleased to announce that, starting this academic year, the University will expand the current President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes for graduating seniors to include a new prize category designated specifically as a President’s Sustainability Prize. This new category of prize will award up to $100,000 for project implementation expenses to the student or team with a winning sustainability project, as well as $50,000 for living expenses for each student prize recipient.

Research initiatives

Penn’s impact on the world through groundbreaking research has been profound. Our faculty have made enormous contributions to the betterment of humanity through the creation of new knowledge and by discoveries that have improved the lives of millions. At this time, we are investing in supports to help focus the intellectual might of our research community on solving the challenges that are presented by climate change.

The last two decades have witnessed game-changing technologies in renewable energy generation, such as solar and wind, and short-term energy storage, such as Li batteries, as evidenced by the rapid growth of the solar panel and electric vehicle industries. Yet most of the energy use in the U.S. is based on traditional sources that contribute to climate change. Realizing the potential of a new energy future based on diversified energy sources and optimized energy use will transform society. And Penn is poised to lead that transformation.

Fundamental progress is needed now to advance efficient energy storage, generation of liquid fuels from clean sources, and effective energy deployment in complex systems such as cities, rural agriculture, and next generation smart energy grids. There is also a tremendous opportunity to develop CO2 capture from the air and oceans, storing it or transforming it into fuel, simultaneously mitigating effects of climate change.

Penn has a leadership position in Energy Science spanning chemistry, physics, and engineering with emerging strengths in environmental science. Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy also fosters impactful research to create conditions for policy innovation that will support a just and efficient transition to sustainable energy. Working together here on campus, and also collaborating across institutions, the Penn community of senior level intellectual leadership and outstanding young faculty members is strong and positioned to lead in Energy Science and Sustainability as well as Energy Policy. With the platform of this underlying intellectual leadership, and the addition of the Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology, Penn is positioned to drive the energy and sustainability solutions of the future.

At this time, Penn is planning an additional $60 million strategic investment to recruit at least 10 top faculty in Energy and the Environment in addition to building state-of-the art facilities and infrastructure to accelerate the urgent advances needed in sustainable energy.

Advances in operations

Penn remains on track to reach its carbon neutrality pledge by 2042, building on our 44% carbon reduction since 2009. We continue to make progress on our Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0 goals across all initiatives and are continuing to strategize how best to keep moving forward with impact. Earlier this week, the Association for the Advancement for Sustainability in Higher Education notified Penn that we have earned gold rating based on the data submitted through the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) reporting process. This places Penn among the top quartile of reporting institutions. We are also pleased to share with you that the spectacular Penn Medicine New Patient Pavilion is the largest certified project in the world to achieve Gold or higher in LEED Healthcare and the first hospital in the U.S. over 1 million square feet to achieve such designation (details can be found at Penn Medicine News.) This is in addition to the 38 LEED certified buildings Penn has constructed since 2006.

Highlights of other recent initiatives since we last updated you include:

  • Environmental Innovations Initiative (EII) spearheaded a very successful Climate Week at Penn in collaboration with representatives across campus for several days of approximately 45 programs and events, hundreds of participants, and a hybrid format that provided outreach to many more people this year than prior years. More information on EII can be found at the Provost website.
  • The construction of Pennsylvania’s largest solar facilities—from which Penn and the Health System will purchase 75% of its electrical demand—also remains on schedule. The facilities are projected to produce approximately 450,000 MWh of electricity annually. Starting in 2023, the University’s Power Purchase Agreement will supplement the University’s past and ongoing energy conservation and sustainability efforts, reduce the University’s entire academic campus carbon emissions by 45% from its 2009 levels, and meet the goal of the Paris Climate Accord seven years early. (Full details can be found on Penn Today.)
  • In July, Penn announced a Climate Impact Offset (CLIO) program based on the strong work of the Travel Sustainability Working Group, comprised of Penn faculty and staff working collaboratively. The fees that will be collected as part of this initiative ($11 for domestic flights and $25 for international flights) are an important part of the University’s strategy to address the carbon emissions resulting from air travel. The University is planning to invest the proceeds in verified carbon offset projects, such as improving air quality, reducing urban heat island effect, and improving economic conditions locally. (For more information, see the announcement in the Almanac.)


Across every area of the University, Penn has taken major steps to reduce its carbon footprint and to work for ways to lessen the impact of climate change on society. The added steps we are announcing today will strengthen those efforts. We want Penn to lead the way to a more sustainable future, and we ask all of you in the Penn community to work with us in making this important work succeed. Together, we can and must build a more sustainable and livable world.