Williams College’s Carbon Offsets Purchases

“Carbon offsets are arrangements that will allow [the college] 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.” – Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) report

Williams College commits to Carbon Neutrality

In 2015, President Adam Falk and the Board of Trustees revised and expanded the college’s commitment to address climate change. The two parts of this commitment related to the campus’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions include:

1) Reducing the college’s emissions to 35% below 1990 levels by 2020 and

2) Purchasing sufficient carbon offsets to “neutralize” the college’s remaining GHG emissions and achieve carbon neutrality in 2020.

In the college’s strategic plan, which was published in 2021, the college has committed to “[m]aintaining carbon neutrality with a view toward achieving net-zero emissions through investment in high-quality, verified carbon offsets and carbon removal.”

 Offset Purchases

The Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC), a committee composed of faculty, staff, and students, spent two years researching and writing a report that articulates its recommendations for how the college should approach carbon offsets.  Subsequently a small trial-run of offsets was purchased so that the committee and campus community could analyze those offsets and decide if, at the end of the year, the college should invest in those projects to cover the rest of the college’s greenhouse gas emissions.   Both reports — CEAC’s recommendations and the offsets purchased — are included below.

“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

  • 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 regarding carbon offsets. 

    At the end of the school year, CEAC prepared a report that recommended principles for carbon offset purchases. It acknowledges that the college's carbon neutrality goal requires the purchase of carbon offsets, at least in the short term. Carbon offsets have the potential to generate meaningful reductions in the college’s carbon footprint without compromising its commitment to directly reducing emissions through energy conservation and efficiency measures, replacing campus fossil fuel combustion with clean, renewable energy sources and securing carbon-free electricity. The following specific recommendations detail ways to ensure that the college’s purchase of carbon offsets yields real emissions reductions and supports the college’s educational mission, values and broader sustainability goals. 

    1. Mission-linked offsets      We are hopeful that our choice to buy offsets can be used not just to balance our carbon budget, but also to encourage the kind of critical, self-reflective inquiry that is at the heart of our educational mission. To that end, we urge the college to prioritize offsets that satisfy two criteria: visibility and depth. Visibility: For offsets to be educationally valuable, they must be visible.  For offsets to be truly visible to the college community, they should be open to in-depth analysis, and that analysis should be actively promoted as a meaningful learning opportunity. Depth: For offsets to support the college’s educational mission, they should enable critical environmental thinking.
    2. Local Offsets      We believe that Williams should pursue opportunities to work on projects to reduce and sequester GHG emissions in the local community, but only if they meet the most rigorous standards of additionality, reasonably cost-effective carbon emissions reduction, and our standard of educational depth. In practice, this makes local offsetting very difficult, which is why we urge the college to also think about ways to support local mitigation efforts in different ways.
    3. Forest Management & Conservation       While lands that will likely remain forested do not provide additionality, lands that have been harvested for timber historically might well be considered to be legitimate candidates to qualify for carbon-sequestration offset production. However, they should be managed in a fashion that guarantees the annual carbon removal of wood from the site is less than the annual addition of carbon to the standing woody biomass and the annual addition of carbon to the soil is more than the annual respiratory loss of soil organic matter through decomposition.
    4. Educational Frameworks      We encourage the college to prioritize projects that (a) rely on science and technology that students can be reasonably expected to understand; (b) have proven, transparent track records; and (c) clearly illustrate the interconnectedness of economic, social, political, and natural systems.
    5. Co-Benefits      We encourage the college to prioritize the co-benefits of social engagement, equity, environmental health and conservation—all of which respond to what has clearly become the preeminent concern of our faculty and students, climate justice.
    6. Climate Justice      Williams has a responsibility to educate its students about the environmental justice implications of carbon offsets and a duty to avoid any offsetting schemes that might have any negative social consequences.  We believe that Williams should approach all offsets in the Global South with caution, recognizing that even the most apparently benign schemes involve asymmetrical power relations.
    7. Oversight       To minimize risk, the college should invest in a portfolio of offsetting projects that meets all of the criteria described above and affords students and faculty multiple opportunities for multi-disciplinary inquiry. We recommend the establishment of an offsets task force that meets at least twice per semester, consisting of the director of the Zilkha Center, the chair of Environmental Studies, one student, and two additional faculty members. Because the learning curve is steep, members of this group should serve multi-year terms.
    8. Offset vendors and institutional partnerships      We encourage the college to consider working with an organization that specializes in providing additional layers of scrutiny to verified projects, especially with respect to the extremely important question of additionality.
  • For carbon offsets to realize their full potential, they should meet the so-called PAVER criteria.

    P: Permanent — The carbon reduction must last in perpetuity (ideally at least 100 years)

    A: Additional — The carbon reduction achieved would not have occurred without the sale of offsets

    V: Verified — The carbon reduction must be monitored and confirmed

    E: Enforceable — The carbon reduction must be counted only once and be retired by the claimant

    R: Real — The carbon reduction must not be a result of inflated / flawed accounting

    In addition, carbon offset projects should not incur carbon leakage, i.e., the shift of carbon emissions from the project's location and scope to another location, time, or process.

    The Zilkha Center makes a substantial effort to vet offset project documentation and address questions with our current offset broker, Cool Effect, but ultimately cannot guarantee that all offsets purchased meet the PAVER criteria. Despite advances in offset standard setting and verification, offset failures remain a real and substantial risk in the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM) and the subject of ongoing work by several organizations such as the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM), of which the college's current offset broker is a member. To foster transparency and invite engagement with our approach to carbon offset purchases, we also make offset purchase information available on an annual basis (see below).

    The Zilkha Center, furthermore, participates in Second Nature's Carbon Offset Network. The network is a collaboration of higher education institutions that grew out of the need to share best practices in offset project development and vetting and the unique desire among colleges and universities to couple offset projects with educational and research opportunities for students, faculty, and staff. A key area of development by network members is peer verification as a means for the external authentication of carbon offsets and/or the protocol used. By using educational institutions in the project verification process, the project implementer reduces costs and can bolster its academic mission and offer the verification process as a learning opportunity for students.

  • Offsets in the Trial-Run Purchase

    The college made a trial-run purchase in September 2019 in order 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 was made in November 2020.  The projects that we supported during this trial run period included the Tri-City Forest Project, Biogas Digesters for Farmers, and Mirador Clean Cookstoves.

    Final FY20 Carbon Offset Purchase

    The Carbon Offsets Working Group spent the spring and summer of 2020 examining the monitoring and verification documents for each project and engaged in discussions about a potential portfolio of projects with a third-party aggregator - Cool Effect - through which we are purchasing the offsets.*

    Working group members wrote short reports articulating the rationale for each project that we have chosen to support and those we considered but ultimately decided against supporting. The process and rationale is written about more detail in this report published in Fall 2020.  The college purchased offsets from the recommended projects in the fall of 2020.

    Project Country $/offset offsets bought
    Mirador Clean Cookstoves Honduras $8.50 8,345
    Biogas Digesters & Clean Cookstoves China $5.02 5,216
    Solar DC Project India $4.94 5,216
    Turning Pig Waste Into Compost Brazil $7.22 2,086
    TOTAL $137,945 20,863

    * To learn more more about Cool Effect and their process, visit their website.

  • Project Country $/offset offsets bought
    Mirador Clean Cookstoves Honduras $8.50 178
    Biogas Digesters & Clean Cookstoves China $5.02 12,344
    Landfill Gas Capture Mauritius $6.60 3,977
    For Peat's Sake Indonesia $8.24 1,334
    TOTAL $100,720 17,833

    More information about the new projects (Mauritius landfill gas capture and Indonesian peatland preservation) can be found here.

  • Project Description Offsets Purchased
    Mauritius Landfill Gas Capture This project captures methane emissions at a landfill that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. Methane has a 100-year GWP that is approximately 30x as large as that of CO₂. 1,730 offsets at $6.60 per offset
    Seeing the Forest for the Trees This small community-based Improved Forestry Management (IFM) project in Mexico encourages residents to preserve and grow the biomass in their standing forests despite multiple opportunities to cut trees for profit or for increased grazing opportunities. 10,000 offsets at $10.99 per offset
    Salvador da Bahia, Landfill Gas capture and destruction This CDM accredited technology-based avoidance/reduction project is located in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil and manages and disposes of all municipal solid waste (MSW) generated and collected by the city of Salvador. It ensures a sanitary environment, and its landfill gas (LFG) collection system captures methane gas for high efficiency flaring. 7,486 offsets at $4.40 per offset
    TOTAL 19,216 MTCO2E offsets for $154,256.40

    More information about the new projects (Mauritius landfill gas capture and Indonesian peatland preservation) can be found here.

  • The Carbon Offsets Working Group convened between 2017-2019 and consisted of the following members:

    Olamide Adeyeri, Class of 2023
    Hank Art, the Environmental Studies Program, Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, Emeritus
    Ralph Bradburd, David A. Wells Professor of Political Economy
    Mike Evans, Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives (chair)
    Sarah Gardner, Associate Director and Lecturer in Environmental Studies
    Nicolas Howe, Director of CES and the Environmental Studies Program, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
    Luana Majora, Associate Professor of Biology
    Bless Reece, Class of 2022
    Shawn Rosenheim, Professor of English, Chair of Campus Environmental Advisory Committee
    Chris Winters, Associate Provost