Williams College's Carbon Offsets Trial-Purchase - September 2019

In 2015, President Adam Falk and the Trustees committed to a climate action plan that included two parts: 1) reduce emissions to 35% below 1990 levels and after doing that 2) purchase carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality.  Progress towards meeting the first part of the goal can be seen in our most recent emissions report.  

As for the second part of the goal, the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) spent the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic years discussing and debating the approach that the college should take to carbon offsets. 

But what exactly are carbon offsets?  “Carbon offsets are arrangements that will allow us to compensate for our own greenhouse gas emissions by investing in a greenhouse gas reduction or sequestration project somewhere else. These arrangements can take many forms, from forest conservation to renewable energy development to landfill methane capture.” (CEAC report)

At the end of the school year, CEAC generated a report that recommended principles for carbon offset purchases for 2020 and in the near future and also urged the College to reduce its dependency on offsets.

“Offsets are a short-term solution to our carbon pollution problem. The only question is how short-term. As it develops its offsets portfolio, we urge the College to explicitly factor offsets into its long-term strategic planning, and to maintain an ongoing public dialogue about the time horizon of its offset investments. In the meantime, we should be on guard for any signs of moral licensing, especially when it comes to decisions with long-term implications for campus energy use.”
– Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) report

Below you will find:

  1. CEAC’s specific recommendations
  2. Information about the trial-run purchase that was made in September 2019
  3. Student projects focused on carbon offsets

This staged approach of offsets purchasing is intended to give our community an opportunity to research the projects that we invested in and to learn more about the offset market in order to inform our next round of purchasing.  The initial round was for approximately 10% of our total carbon offset purchase that will be made at the end of 2020. A link to the full carbon offsets report can be found here.

I. From the CEAC Report:

Our recommendation: The college’s stated commitment requires the purchase of carbon offsets, at least in the short term, to meet our goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2020. Carbon offsets have the potential to generate meaningful reductions in the college’s carbon footprint without compromising its commitment to directly reducing emissions. The following recommendations are specific ways to ensure that the college’s purchase of carbon offsets yields real emissions reductions and supports the college’s broader goals. These recommendations also reflect discussions of the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC). 

  1. Purchase Green-e climate certified carbon offsets. Green-e is a non-profit organization that provides an additional layer of verification of carbon offsets. It sets standards for carbon offsets, monitors the retail process for carbon offsets, and prevents double-counting or inaccurate disclosure. 
  2. Purchase offsets that comply with a standard that addresses social, environmental, and economic impacts beyond greenhouse gas emissions. Consider local projects, too. Where feasible, carbon offset projects should lead to social co-benefits. That is, benefits to the communities most impacted by the project. The existence of social co-benefits increases community support and thus may increase the long-term viability of the projects. In some cases, we may find projects in our backyard that generate substantial emissions reductions and create large local benefits. 
  3. Carefully monitor land use and forest projects. Many of the concerns discussed above are most relevant to land use and forest projects. While there are probably examples of such projects that do not suffer from incorrect baseline estimates, negative social impacts, and high degrees of leakage, those risks are significantly greater for land use projects. Williams should avoid such offsets or at least require an additional level of assurance before their purchase. 
  4. Maintain a portfolio approach. The risks related to carbon offset projects vary depending on the particular project type, geography and registry. Purchasing offsets from a variety of different project types is one way to mitigate the risk that any particular project will under-perform emissions reductions. In addition, Williams should consider working with peer institutions to take advantage of scale economies and shared knowledge. 
  5. Establish further goals and milestones for emission reduction independent of offset purchase. In order to address the potential moral-licensing effect of the purchase of carbon offsets, Williams should set additional emissions and/or energy use reduction goals beyond 2020 that are independent of the purchase of carbon offsets.
  6. Establish a working group that oversees the college’s carbon offset purchases. Such a working group should include students, faculty, and staff and would be tasked with guiding and monitoring the college’s offset portfolio—both local and purchased.

II. Offsets in the Trial-Run Purchase

Tri-City Forest Project

Holyoke, West Springfield, and Westfield, MA have joined together to protect a 6,500 acre piece of land between the three cities. The hardwoods, spruce fir, and other shrub species will sequester about 122,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year. It will also protect a critical watershed and generate much-needed income from carbon rather than through more aggressive timber harvesting.

Biogas Digesters for Farmers

Biogas digesters transform animal waste into power by capturing the methane released and channeling it into homes for clean fuel. In rural Vietnam, family farms are building digesters to manage waste and gain access to clean energy. One digester produces enough methane to provide free low-cost energy for cooking or other needs in several homes. By channeling and reusing methane from the waste, biodigesters reduce emissions from this greenhouse gas that is 25X more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. Also, families do not have to use firewood, helping to preserve local forests.

Mirador Clean Cookstoves

This project works side-by side with local families across rural Honduras to build improved cookstoves that use half the amount of wood of a traditional one. When wood use is cut by half, so are CO₂ emissions. Local Hondurans call the stoves Dos Por Tres, which is slang for “In an Instant.” In an instant, these stoves save wood, save time, eliminate toxic smoke from the household, and reduce carbon emissions. Each family stove saves about 3 tonnes of carbon pollution from entering the atmosphere each year.

Offset Portfolio # tonnes Price per tonne Price
Tri-City Forest Project 600 $10.98 $6,588
Biogas Digesters in Vietnam 1,200 $5.77 $6,924
Clean Cookstoves in Honduras 900 $7.42 $6,678

III. Student Projects Focused on Carbon Offsets

Carbon Offsets: Potential Biodiversity Impacts and Recommendations

By Adrienne Banks, Liam Bardong, Shauna Sullivan, Sean Dory, Astrid DuBois, Emily Elder, Rebecca Smith, and Laura Martin
Envi 252: Biodiversity and Climate Change, Spring 2018

Restorative climate justice and carbon offsetting: a theoretical analysis of climate justice and the moral value of carbon offsetting as a means towards that end

By Nick Gardner
Envi 412: Senior Seminar: Perspectives on Environmental Studies, Spring 2019

Carbon Neutrality at Williams: Should We Worry About Moral Licensing?
By Josie Maynard
Envi 412: Senior Seminar: Perspectives on Environmental Studies, Spring 2019