How should we reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

How should we reduce greenhouse gas emissions?  That seems like a pretty simple question on the surface, but dig down and things get complicated quickly. Williams has emissions reduction goals – 35% below 1990 levels by 2020, then carbon neutrality (through the purchase of carbon offsets) by the end of 2020. We have a plan for reaching that particular goal that includes investing in energy efficiency and conservation, procuring 100% renewable electricity, not increasing emissions through new construction, and implementing local carbon offsetting projects.

There are a lot of possible strategies for reducing emissions that aren’t included in that plan, and a group of faculty and students has been working since last spring to design an exercise that gets the campus community thinking about what else we could do. We’ve been calling it “the wedge exercise”, and it’s based on of an exercise/game created by Princeton to address emissions reduction at the global level. The Williams wedge game focuses on campus emissions and uses data gathered by a group of students who worked over the summer – tracking down information about travel-related emissions, estimating the impacts of increasing the number of singles, and contemplating shorter showers. Several groups of students, faculty and staff have used the “wedge tool” to explore different scenarios for emissions reduction.

Check it out yourself.

One of the common themes that has come out of all of the different groups using the wedge tool is surprise that the impact of some actions is so small and at how much disruption is necessary to make a large difference in emissions. I’ve had my head in this data since I started looking at it in 2007, so I wasn’t terribly surprised. Most of Williams’ emissions come from a set of very energy intensive buildings – Morley Science Laboratories, the athletic complex, Paresky Center, the Center for Theater and Dance, and Jesup. Reducing air travel and removing some buildings does make a difference – but a lot of our buildings are central to the academic mission of the College. We’re implementing energy efficiency and conservation measures, but we run up against the fact that our buildings are used for most of the year, and there’s a limit to what can be done to a building when it’s occupied.

So what to do? We have a long term (30+ year) plan for major renovations and building replacements that will dramatically decrease energy use over time, but major tipping points for climate change are coming much sooner than 30 years. We are confident that we’ll develop enough renewable energy projects to provide 100% of our electricity. After those major steps, the next serious question is what the role of carbon offsetting should be.

Carbon offsetting is controversial for a number of reasons.  Some people have concerns about whether the supposed reductions through offsets are really effective. Other people feel that it’s unethical to pay for emissions reductions that we aren’t willing or able to make ourselves. There’s a wide range in the quality of carbon offsets available in the market, and the market itself is largely voluntary and likely to change over the next ten to thirty years. But paying for offsets off-campus may allow the College to get past the conflict between our need to occupy our buildings and educate students and the need to take immediate action on climate change beyond what we can accomplish on campus and through renewable energy.

The answers to these questions aren’t obvious, and the Provost has convened a Carbon Offset Task force that will work over the summer to provide the College some guidance.  It will do a literature review, speak with experts in the field of carbon markets (both academic and operational) and document our findings. We’re looking for a student to work this summer as a research assistant for the project (interested students should contact me by May 4th), and the community as a whole should expect an update in the fall.

– Amy Johns, Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives

(this blogpost was initially published in the Zilkha Center newsletter)

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