Panel explores validity of campus climate change goals for 2020

The above graph illustrates the current plan to reduce emissions by 35 percent below 1990 levels. Graphic Courtesy of Amy Johns.
The above graph illustrates the current plan to reduce emissions by 35 percent below 1990 levels. Graphic Courtesy of Amy Johns.

Last Wednesday, the Center for Environmental Studies hosted a panel discussion focused on campus climate action. The panel, which was held in Griffin 3, included President of the College Adam Falk, Director of Campus Sustainability at Endicott College Sarah Creighton Hammond, Professor of Geology David Dethier, Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives Amy Johns ’98 and Professor of Political Economy and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program Ralph Bradburd. Sarah Jacobson, professor of economics, moderated the panel.

The panel discussion aimed to update the community on campus climate initiatives announced by Falk and the Board of Trustees in the fall of 2015. Panelists each discussed the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 35 percent below 1990 levels and achieve carbon neutrality through purchase of offsets by 2020.

Falk spoke first and addressed the larger environmental goals of the College. “Williams, as an important institution within our society, must play a leadership role in addressing climate change,” Falk said. “Our response has three parts: education, operations and influence on the larger debate.”

In the 2016-2017 academic year, the College will focus on “Confronting Climate Change” as an intellectual theme designed and planned as part of the educational response referenced by Falk.

Kellogg House, designed and built in accordnace with the standards of the Living Building Challenge, provides a model for future campus operations. “We cannot play a productive role in helping our country understand how to use less energy if we are not doing it ourselves,” Falk said. “That means purchasing more renewable energy and changing our behavior to use less energy.”

The College also plays an important role in debate and action beyond campus. “We can work locally to help change the economy around the production of renewable energy,” Falk said. “We must play a role in the development and propagation of new technologies for renewable energy.”

Hammond spoke next and shared her outsider opinions regarding campus climate initiatives at the College. Hammond challenged the administration to think small, identify the co-benefits, push for significant, rather than symbolic action, hire experts and learn from mistakes with respect to action against climate change.

“I commend Williams for the comprehensive set of goals,” Hammond said. “You have acknowledged that Williams has a unique role and special obligations that comes with relative wealth.”

Studies show that carbon emissions per student track endowment per student. “It’s important to think about in the larger context of developed and developing countries,” Hammond said. “You should consider downsizing comprehensibly.”

Hammond also stressed the importance of experts. “You will need expertise on these issues,” Hammond said. “These are not student projects. If you are going to hit your efficiency goals by 2020, you cannot rely on student projects and faculty ideas. Include your operations people and experts at every step.”

Dethier spoke next about the history of carbon emissions at the College. In his presentation, he showed how the growth of square footage has historically outpaced the growth of student body size.

Nevertheless, buildings have become more efficient with improvements in technology. “We have been successful in the past decoupling the connection between greenhouse emissions and net square footage,” Dethier said. Given continued construction on campus, Dethier cited this decoupling as pivotal; however, recent data from 2012-2015 shows a more direct correlation.

“The most difficult piece of what [we] are trying to do is that we have a large amount of space, and heating it takes large amounts of energy,” Dethier said.

Johns spoke next about current and future greenhouse emissions on campus. “First and foremost, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions [to 35 percent below 1990 levels], we need to have no increase in emissions through new construction,” Johns said.

The College has already announced plans to build two new science buildings, a bookstore and an inn before 2020. Plans for the new art museum are still being developed.

“We are tearing down Bronfman Science Center, which is one of our least efficient buildings on campus, and replacing it with two new science buildings, which together will be 30 percent larger but use the same amount of energy,” Johns said. “You could make the argument that, if we were to not add that 30 percent of square footage, we could decrease energy through that building project, but there are ongoing trade-offs between pedagogy and building use.”

Historical buildings present a difficult question with respect to campus climate initiatives. “We are going to have to reconsider the questions of how much of the campus we are willing to change and which buildings are crucial to our understanding of what Williams is,” Johns said. “As long as there is a commitment to keeping historical buildings, there is also a limit to how much we can reduce energy use.”

Johns also addressed the role of carbon offsets in achieving carbon neutrality. “We are working with the Center for EcoTechnology and our peer institutions from the Pioneer Valley to think about investing in carbon reduction projects in local communities rather than on the national or international market,” Johns said.

Bradburd concluded the panel portion of the event by challenging audience members to think about why a global climate change problem exists. “Energy gives us a high standard of living,” Bradburd said. “It’s why we think of ourselves as having a modern way of life. We think about what we gain and not about the energy use implication.”

As a microeconomist, Bradburd focused on individuals rather than the College as an institution. “Are you willing to keep your CO2 emissions to one metric tons per year?” Bradburd said. “The typical American is somewhere between seventeen and twenty metric tons per year. What ex-actly are you willing to give up?”

“Right now, we are in the stage of discussion and active investigation,” Johns said. “I suspect next year, at this time, we will be able to talk more about what projects we are actually selecting to do and our path forward.”

Information regarding ongoing climate change initiatives on campus can be found on the College’s website.

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