Reporting on Williams' work for sustainability

Dear Williams students, faculty, and staff,

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth major assessment on the physical basis of climate change. The findings in the report are both distressing and familiar. They include increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, a rise in global mean temperatures, a rise in ocean temperatures, and an intensification of extreme climate events. The urgency of addressing climate change will require a transformation of technology, policy, education, and individual behavior. This is true of the world as a whole, and it is also true of Williams. This letter provides an annual update on the college’s sustainability efforts and highlights some of the key challenges and opportunities in the months ahead.

Strategic plan

In the midst of the college’s efforts to safely bring back our students to campus, Maud released Williams’ first comprehensive strategic plan. Sustainability was central to the planning process from the very start and was highlighted as one of two cross-cutting commitments, along with diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. The sustainability goals define commitments in six key areas, including education and research; climate action; buildings, landscaping and land use; responsible consumption; community, diversity, equity and inclusion; and accountability and transparency. These higher-level goals are supported by detailed operational objectives and plans, which have the potential to transform all aspects of sustainability on campus. Doing so will require a substantial investment of resources and the willingness of the entire community to engage in the work.

Education and research

As an educational institution, our most important impact on sustainability is through our teaching, research, and engagement with students. This past June, we graduated 31 Environmental and Maritime Studies concentrators and majors, our largest class to date. This class also contained a record number of honors students with theses in relevant areas, on topics ranging from children’s health in NYC to the impact of air pollution on Black lives in Atlanta during the pandemic. As Director of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Nick Howe noted in his CES director’s letter in Field Notes, “[t]his remarkable group of scholars, activists, creators, and problem-solvers represents the very best of contemporary environmentalism.”

Our faculty, meanwhile, continue to make an impact across a variety of disciplines. Alice Bradley in Geosciences is making important contributions to our understanding of Arctic sea ice, the impact of climate change on Native Alaskan communities, and the ways that the Arctic science community coordinates observing efforts. Alice also has a new project underway to digitize and publish the 200+ years of Williamstown weather observations, one of the longest and most continuous climate records in North America. Matthew Gibson published work focusing on extreme temperatures and time use in China, as well as the impact of air pollution regulation on firm incentives to pollute waterways. And Laura Martin in Environmental Studies was awarded the Stanford Humanities Center Distinguished Junior External Fellowship, which allowed her to complete her manuscript, Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration. This is just a small sample of the exceptional scholarly work on environmental topics.

Despite the disruptions of Covid, the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) also maintained an active speaker schedule. Maxine Burkett ‘98, Professor of Law at the University of Hawai’i’s William S. Richardson School of Law and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, presented on the racial and geographic inequities in the impact of climate change. Lindi von Mutius ‘03, Director of Board Strategy and Operations at The Trust for Public Land, discussed the ways that parks, public lands, trials, and school yards can address systemic racism. Michelle Nijhuis, the author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, talked about the history of the conservation movement and the reasons for protecting certain species. And Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional director, gave the keynote address for our Earth Day program on the global impact of plastic pollution, which is turning our oceans into landfills.

It was not just on-campus that we needed to switch to virtual programs in environment and sustainability. When Covid made an in-person educational experience for the Williams-Mystic program impossible, the Williams-Mystic faculty worked with CES to offer remote online courses and tutorials to Williams students. A particular highlight of the curriculum, Global Oceans, was taught by all five of the program’s faculty members and introduced students to an interdisciplinary view of the oceans.

Outside of the classroom, students have been actively engaged in sustainability work. The Williams Sustainable Growers spent last year harvesting produce and planting garlic for the spring. The Zilkha Center hosted groups of student interns last academic year and this summer to work on a wide range of projects, including zero waste on campus, a town composting pilot project, sustainable foods, data collection, community engagement, and communications. CES continues to sponsor a robust summer internship program, with projects ranging from climate conflicts in Syria to the impact of small island states on climate negotiations. And as part of the inaugural year of Theme/Affinity/Program/Special Interest (TAPSI) Housing, 25 students are currently housed in the Sustainability Living Lab in Hubbell House to apply what they are learning about sustainability to their own living and practices.

Climate action

One of the most direct ways that the college can address climate change is through reducing its own carbon footprint. Our emissions come from three primary sources: heating and cooling our buildings and power generation from our central plant (scope 1); purchased electricity (scope 2); and college travel (scope 3). I’m pleased to report that the Farmington Solar Project, a collaborative utility scale solar farm, will be coming online at the end of October, with anticipated generation of approximately 90% of our purchased electricity needs. We are buying renewable energy credits (RECs) for the remainder of our purchased electricity, which means that all of our purchased electricity will be from renewable sources. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we still generate a large amount of emissions from heating and cooling (scope 1) and college travel (scope 3). In order to lower emissions from cooling and heating, the college has hired a design and engineering firm to develop an Energy and Carbon Master Plan (ECMP), which will target an 80% reduction in our combined scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2035.

Meanwhile, we have also begun work on lowering emissions from the campus vehicle fleet through an improved registration system, plans for fleet electrification and installing our tenth dual-port electric vehicle charging station.

Also on the travel front, we are working with this year’s Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) to reduce college-sponsored travel emissions by introducing a carbon charge program. The program will begin with a pilot phase without a charge in January. This initial phase is intended to educate the community about the emissions impact of travel, familiarizing campus with the process and improving our data collection. Assuming that the pilot program is a success, we plan to introduce a campus carbon charge in July with the intention of meaningfully lowering our emissions from college travel over time.

Each fall, the college completes an inventory of our greenhouse gas emissions and purchases carbon offsets in accordance with recommendations outlined by a CEAC working group. While no offsets are perfect, the CEAC recommendations help us ensure that we purchase offsets that lead to a credible and lasting reduction in carbon emissions.

Consumption and behavior

One of the most visible ways that we can show our commitment to sustainability is by being deliberate about our approach to food, waste, and purchasing. Temesgen Araya and his team in Dining Services have been essential partners in this work. Most recently, Dining Services and the Zilkha Center teamed up to join the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) and Cool Food Pledge. The GRA certification aims to “provide a transparent way to measure each restaurant’s [in Williams’ case, Dining’s] environmental accomplishments while providing a pathway for the next steps each restaurant can take towards increased environmental sustainability.” Pledge members aim to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2030, compared to 2015 levels.

Waste is another critical area of impact and focus. At the start of the semester we rolled out new standardized waste infrastructure across campus, including single-stream/zero-sort recycling. We plan to build out our zero-waste goal from the strategic plan into a more detailed Zero Waste Action Plan aimed at increasing landfill diversion through reusable food containers, expansion of composting, and optimizing reuse. Indeed, we have already taken some steps in this direction: the college has expanded compost collection across campus and resumed the program in and around some of the dorms where it was paused during Covid. We shifted to compostable coffee pods for all college coffeemakers, and the new pods will be collected and composted starting this fall. Finally, Dining plans to restart the use of the reusable food containers that we initially purchased to reduce single-use to-go ware during COVID.

It is worth emphasizing that none of this work is possible without the incredible support from the staff in Facilities, Planning, Design & Construction, Dining, OIT, and so many other areas across campus. And almost all of it requires the active participation and support of all members of the community. We cannot reach all of our sustainability goals overnight, but we are collectively committed to this work, and we have taken important steps toward the core commitments outlined in the strategic plan.


Dukes Love
Provost and Class of 1969 Professor of Economics