2020 GHG Emissions Reduction Goals

The college is committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. The college first set an emissions goal in 2007, and we were well on track to reach that goal – 10% below 1990 levels by 2020.  Because of this, and strong pressure from the college community, in September 2015, President Falk and the Trustees committed to further address climate change.

The emissions goals outlined by the Board of Trustees in 2015 are two fold:

  1. Through action on campus and in the immediate community, reduce emissions to 35% below 1990 levels by 2020.
  2. Purchase sufficient carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2020.

There are only two real ways of reducing emissions: reduce energy use, and use energy from renewable, non-emitting sources. Williams has been pursuing both strategies.

Here was the initial visualization of the College’s carbon reduction strategy laid out in 2015: [Graph of Metric Tonnes eCO2 by Fiscal year. Key includes Thermal Conservation, Electric Conservation, Renewable Electricity Purchase, Local Offsets, Remaining Emissions, and a line representing 35% below 1990]

emissions goals 2020

The chart below shows our emissions trajectory since FY91 up to FY20. The detailed annual GHG Emissions Reports can be found here. [Chart with year (1991-2020) on the x-axis and Metric Tons eCO2 on the y-axis. The three scopes shown are Scope 1 (on-campus combustion), Scope 2 (purchased electricity), and Scope 3 (travel). A dotted line represents the 2020 goal of 35% below 1990’s level.]

WC GHG Emissions 1991-2020 by scope with goal line

Energy Conservation and Efficiency on Campus

Williams’ emissions come largely from heating, cooling, lighting and ventilating our campus buildings. The College has been investing actively in energy conservation and efficiency in campus buildings since 2007, and will continue to do so – about $1,000,000 every year. That money will be focused going forward on improving building envelopes – air sealing, insulating, weatherizing, and replacing windows. That sort of work is disruptive, so the pace at which it can be done is limited by the logistics of the campus.

The other significant contributor to Williams’ emissions is travel – primarily air travel. The Zilkha Center has worked with the Provost’s Office to analyze college travel and is currently working with the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) to set goals around travel and greenhouse gas emissions.

Renewable Electricity

Williams is committed to producing and/or procuring 100% renewable, non-emitting electricity by 2020, which will contribute significantly to reaching our emissions goals. We will continue to install solar photovoltaic panels on campus. Solar panels are being installed this fall on the Williams Inn, the College Bookstore, the South Science Center, Horn Hall, the Center for Developmental Economics, and the Library Shelving Facility. The College is exploring possibly solar canopies over several parking lots.  Rooftop solar will likely never account for more than 10-15% of annual campus electricity use.

In 2018, Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire, and Smith colleges partnered with a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, a leading clean energy company, to construct a utility-scale solar power facility that annually will create enough electricity to power about 5,000 New England homes.  The colleges in the New England College Renewable Partnership (NECRP) will be able to purchase 46,000 megawatt hours of their collective electrical needs with electricity created at a new solar power facility that is being built in Farmington, Maine. Williams will purchase 18,000 megawatt hours on an annual basis.  This zero-carbon electricity will reduce emissions from campus electricity use.  Read more in the press release.

Carbon Offsets

Williams has committed to purchasing carbon offsets to “neutralize” the remainder of its emissions from FY20 to reach carbon neutrality.  The Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) spent 2018-2019 establishing criteria and strategies for those purchases. The college made a trial purchase of offsets in September 2019 and made those purchases public so they could be studied by the campus community.  The Carbon Offsets Working Group spent this past spring and summer looking closely at the monitoring and verification documents for each project and engaged in discussions about a potential portfolio of projects with a third-party aggregator through whom we are purchasing the offsets.  The final report and recommendations for the college offset projects is linked here and on the college’s offsets webpage.  The strategic planning report on sustainability commits the college to continue to achieve carbon neutrality through offset purchases, though it, like CEAC, proposes that the college’s reliance on carbon offset purchases should decrease over time.

The following is from the the 2019 Campus Environmental Advisory Committee’s Carbon Offsets report:

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.  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.

Local Carbon Reduction Projects

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions on campus, Williams invests in projects that reduce emissions in the local community. We will continue to pursue projects on campus, but we also want to contribute to overall carbon emission reduction in our community.  The college seeks out projects that have multiple positive impacts such as reducing energy costs and improving health and wellness.

Williams partnered with the Center for EcoTechnology, an environmental non-profit based in Pittsfield and Northampton, to assess the feasibility of such an approach and continues to work with them to identify possibilities and manage our project portfolio. We have asked them to focus on weatherization, energy conservation, and renewable energy projects that benefit local low-income residents, non-profits, and educational institutions.  Through the Community Climate Fund, the college has invested over $80,000 in four projects: Building Materials Recovery, Healthy Homes, Heating System Upgrades, and Solar Wall in 2020.  For more, read the full report about these projects.

Limiting Impacts of New Construction

One of the most important factors in the growth in emissions from fossil fuel combustion has been the expansion of square footage over time. Further, construction generates large volumes of (often toxic) waste and debris. Indeed, one of the most frequent questions that we received during our outreach was when Williams would finally stop building. The college has intentionally sought opportunities for minimizing the growth of its physical plant, but there has still been modest growth of about 2.5% of net square footage over the last several years due to programmatic demands and opportunities. The Built Environment working group has recommended that the campus produce a campus master plan. We recommend that the plan incorporate strategies for reducing square footage in some areas of campus as a way to offset some of the inevitable growth that will come from projects such as the Science Center, the new Davis Center, and potentially a new college museum. Such a plan should be integrated with the landscaping plan derived from the Reed-Hilderbrand study, as well as the college’s overall sustainability plan. (from the Strategic Planning Working Group on Sustainability Report, Recommendation 2.4)

Beyond 2020

During the 2019-2020 academic year, the college engaged in a campus-wide strategic planning process.  Sustainability was one of three cross-cutting issues along with diversity, equity, and inclusion and transparency/accountability.  After spending the fall collecting input from campus and community stakeholders, the sustainability working group submitted the strategic planning report on sustainability, which proposes further emissions reductions and more comprehensive sustainability goals in the following categories: climate action, buildings landscaping and land use; education & research, responsible consumption; equity, inclusion, & community; accountability and transparency. This year, the Zilkha Center, in partnership with departments across campus, will be using that report as the basis for drafting a more specific Climate Action Plan, in addition to other plans focusing on zero waste and sustainable food.


Video created by Zilkha Center intern Jamal Meneide ’19 during the summer of 2018.