Carbon Neutrality

It seems like every time I read my favorite environmental blogs and web magazines, I read of someone or something being “carbon neutral,” from presidential campaigns to corporations to entire cities and states. “Carbon neutral” was The New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2006, so it’s an idea that been around even outside of the environmental community for a while. What does it really mean to be carbon neutral? Is that something that Williams should aspire to?

Carbon neutrality refers to net-zero release of greenhouse gases, accomplished by balancing the amount of carbon released with the amount offset or sequestered. In theory, carbon neutrality can be accomplished by not emitting greenhouse gases in the first place, through conservation and a complete switch to renewable forms of energy production.

An example of this approach is a residence that was recently constructed in Williamstown, using solar panels and a ground source geothermal system for electricity and heating. While the house uses electricity from the grid at night, the emissions related to this night time non-renewable form of electricity are netted out by the electricity sent to the grid during the day when the house is producing more clean energy than it needs at the time.

In practice, the most common current way of achieving carbon neutrality is through the purchase of carbon offsets (see the previous blog post for a discussion of carbon offsets), for several financial and practical reasons.

The current price of purchasing a ton of carbon offsets is generally well below the cost of a renewable energy project that would prevent the emission of a ton of carbon, so there’s a significant financial incentive to go the offsets route. In addition, the renewable methods for heating buildings (a major percentage of both residential and institutional energy use) are generally fairly new and potentially expensive to retrofit (such as geothermal heat exchange), or depend on utilizing biomass (burning wood chips, biodiesel, etc.) which has its own set of problems, both practical and environmental.

Williams has been asked in the past to sign the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment which (among other things) requires signatories to commit to climate neutrality. Williams has thus far considered an aggressive, numeric greenhouse gas reduction goal to be appropriate, so we are striving to be 10% below 1990 levels. Even that commitment may require us to reduce some emissions off-campus through the purchase of off-sets or RECs.

Williams has thus far only purchased a small number of carbon offsets, largely as a learning experience, and has focused most of the funds available for sustainability projects on conservation and education. A commitment to carbon neutrality at this time would essentially be a commitment to purchasing a significant amount of carbon offsets. Do you think climate neutrality is a meaningful goal? Is it one that Williams should aspire to? If so, do you think the approach to achieving carbon neutrality is important, such as a percentage of emissions reductions that must come from conservation or on-site renewable energy projects or offsets? Should Williams support the creation of a carbon-neutral dorm?