College commits $50 million to reducing emissions

September 16, 2015 by Rachel Lee, Managing Editor

President Adam Falk and the Board of Trustees announced on Thursday a long-term plan to address climate change by reducing College greenhouse gas emissions, working towards carbon neutrality and investing in sustainable energy and carbon reduction projects.

The statement outlines several concrete goals for the next five years, such as a new plan to reduce the College’s net greenhouse gas emissions to 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, updated from a 2007 goal to reach 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

The College also hopes to achieve sustainable carbon neutrality by the end of 2020. The statement outlines several methods for reaching these goals, including the pursuit of sustainable building design in ongoing and future construction projects and investment in renewable energy sources. The projected cost of these planned investments is approximately $50 million over the next five years.

The proposal’s unveiling follows a year of particularly audible student- and community-based activism efforts (see “Students travel to New York for People’s Climate March,” Sept. 21, 2014; “Poll shows approval of divestment,” Feb. 25, 2015; “Students march in divestment parade,” Apr. 22, 2015).

Falk acknowledged the widespread efforts in a letter to the College community, citing them as having “urged the college to assume a leadership role in fighting climate change.”

The 2007 goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 also followed a surge of student interest in the environment. (“Petition to reduce carbon emissions attracts over 1,000 signatures,” Jan. 18, 2006)

Peter Lugthart ’18, co-president of the Williams Environmental Council, points out that the goals set by the Board to reduce greenhouse gas emissions differ slightly from those of, for example, the commonwealth of Massachusetts and eight of the NESCAC colleges. These institutions have committed to a goal of 80 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050, which is ultimately a more ambitious goal but does not urge immediate action.

“I am very happy that Williams has chosen something more immediate. That said, I am disappointed that Williams has not set its current goal as a benchmark towards a longer-term goal. It would be extremely disappointing if we met our current goal and then stopped there,” Lugthart said.

A notable part of the proposal, highlighted in both the statement as well as in Falk’s letter, is the decision not to divest its endowment from a set of 200 companies with large coal, oil, and gas reserves,  as was particularly requested in a petition signed by over 220 College faculty and staff members last winter (see “Call for divestment,” Feb. 25, 2015).

The statement reads, “We [the Board] have determined that the College will respond to this imperative not by divesting from a particular set of companies but rather by making significant investments on our campus and beyond.”

The Board cited its belief that “divestment itself is a largely symbolic strategy, with little likelihood of having a substantive impact on the economic or social forces responsible for climate change, or on the political decisions that are necessary to address it,” as well as financial complications, as major reasons for this decision.

Falk did note that as of June 30, the College no longer has any direct holdings in any of the 200 afore-mentioned companies, due to the completion of a long-term phasing out of direct stock holdings in favor of commingled funds – but realizes that this is by no means an equivalent of divestment.

Other components of the proposal addressing climate change capitalize on the College’s status as an edu-cational institution, such as plans to create and fund two new positions for faculty “whose scholarship and teaching are in the areas of climate change science or related public policy.”

Professor of Economics Anand Swamy, who served as the chair of the Advisory Committee on Share-holder Responsibility (ACSR), says of the Board’s decision that while divestment is admittedly a contro-versial issue with valid concerns, “it does not follow from this that the College should entirely reject divestment as a strategy. Surely there are circumstances in which a firm’s behavior is so morally offensive that we are uncomfortable holding its stock, even in a commingled fund along with other investors … This behavior is in direct contradiction with the core mission of the College – the disinterested pursuit and dis-semination of knowledge – and it is morally inconsistent for us to hold the stock of such a company.”

The ACSR’s report on divestment, released last spring, ultimately did not present a consensus on whether or not the College should divest (see “ACSR weighs on divestment issue,” Apr. 25, 2015).

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