Climate Action Plan
2016 Climate Action Plan (PDF)
The Office of Sustainability oversees Vassar College’s greenhouse gas emissions and leads collective campus efforts towards carbon neutrality. The 2016 Climate Action Plan, endorsed by the Senior Officers and presented to the Board of Trustees, outlines a path of action for achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.
Greenhouse gas emissions are assessed in three categories, or scopes, following designations standardized by the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol:
- Scope 1
- Direct emissions associated with on-site burning of fuels (oil and gas)
- Scope 2
- Indirect emissions associated with purchased energy, primarily electricity.
- Scope 3
- Other indirect emissions, generally associated with waste and transportation
33% emissions reduction from 2005 to 2015
Delineation of Responsibility
The Sustainability Office will continue to be a clearinghouse and resource for carbon neutrality efforts on campus. However, Senior Officers and Trustees must be familiar with these initiatives and how their leadership can contribute to progress. Annual reporting, goal setting, and regular review of the Climate Action Plan will ensure that the college remains on track.
Resource Allocation and Accounting
Taking action towards carbon neutrality entails a more careful accounting of the college’s practices. The college must follow through on opportunities for improvement and progress.
As Vassar’s buildings and grounds evolve, it is important that energy efficiency and renewable energy generation practices become integral to the campus.
To identify opportunities and measure progress, better collection and management of data is needed. For Vassar, engaging closely with energy management software and/or hiring consultants could prove to be the most cost-effective solutions.
Vassar’s greatest resource is its community of faculty, staff, students, and alumnae/i. Reaching carbon neutrality can be an endeavor that involves all of these groups.
Carbon Neutrality Explained
What carbon neutrality means
In general carbon neutrality means utilizing alternative energy sources and energy use reductions to approach zero net carbon emissions. This involves better accounting and cost assessment of carbon impacts, better efficiency, and alternative energy sources. After pursuing those options, most institutions also purchase some carbon offsets to make up for hard-to-avoid costs such as JYA travel, which is part of our educational process.
The importance of Carbon Neutrality
Climate models and assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that climate change and ocean acidification will severely affect everyone and will disproportionately affect low-income populations and developing areas worldwide. At the current pace of warming, we should see dramatic positive feedback effects, such as melting permafrost, larger forest fires, and peat fires across Siberia and Canada, which will then release additional carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Agriculture, as we know it will change because corn and other common crops produce poorly at high temperatures and water resources, will decline for the large proportion of the world’s cities and farms that depend on mountain snowmelt and glaciers for water resources. Action and innovation are needed at all scales, from individual action to global agreements, to reduce these effects.
Addressing Carbon Emissions
The biggest portion of our carbon emissions come from building heating and cooling, followed by electricity, followed by vehicle use, commuting, professional travel, and JYA. The travel factors that are most visible to most of us are important but amount to less than 10% of the problem.
Electricity is big and easiest to deal with: already we have agreements in place to provide 20% of our electricity with hydro (a small-scale run-of-the-river installation near Beacon, that is, not a dam) and solar photovoltaic energy (a solar farm on a landfill). We co-generate about 5% of our electricity with “waste” steam in the central heating plant on campus. We are working hard to cut electricity use by installing LED lighting, setting computers to default power saving modes (easily changed by users if they like) and other strategies.
Heating and cooling are extremely and require expensive remedies in aging buildings, so this is where the biggest challenges probably lie. Improved building envelopes and more efficient technology are just some of the options that the Sustainability Committee and other groups will be exploring.
Reducing the climate impact of travel may involve better vehicle fleets, support for alternative transportation, ride-sharing, and incentives for meeting remotely. Reducing the impact of food, waste, and other functions and services will involve diverse and creative strategies, including education and incentives for better practices.
The Cost of Carbon Neutrality
We don’t know the exact cost. It may cost relatively little if efficiency improvements reduce operating costs. Building envelope renovation is extremely costly, but it will be happening anyway in the coming years as we work to keep Vassar’s buildings in good and usable condition. Estimating a range of cost estimates is one of the large and central challenges of planning carbon neutrality.
Charge for (or Tax) Carbon Emissions
A carbon charge (or carbon tax) is one of the strategies available to assign a cost to carbon emissions and to give a clear incentive to energy users to reduce energy consumption. In theory, this is an efficient, minimally-regulatory approach. A carbon charge is a price assigned per ton of carbon emitted. When energy is used, emissions are calculated, and the user is charged. This can be a very sensitive signal for users to understand and adjust to their carbon emissions. It does require that budgets and decision-making power exist at the same administrative scale. Carbon charges have been successfully applied at hundreds of corporations and in scores of countries and provinces, from Sweden to British Columbia, Canada, with proceeds used to fund projects such as efficiency upgrades.
How Carbon Offsets May Help
Carbon offsets, or purchased carbon credits, are a complex question with strong arguments both for and against them. An economic argument for offsets is that they can reduce carbon elsewhere more cheaply than we can do here, producing the most dramatic net reduction. (For example, suppose we could help fund a large solar installation in Pakistan for 1/10 the cost of doing a small one here.) Among counter-arguments are the points that they do not resolve issues of oversight, justice, and responsibility. Most institutions claiming carbon neutrality try to minimize offset purchases but do include some in the portfolio of strategies. Another alternative that has been proposed is “carbon onsets,” which means purchasing offsets but within the local community. (This is rather like a carbon charge, and we will be exploring both options.)
Making Carbon Neutrality Happen
Different decision-making processes and oversight, as well as better accounting methods, can incentivize practices that reduce carbon emissions. Training and communication for members of the community will be important. Improved technology is expensive, but changing accounting methods of accounting for costs and benefits, to better account for long-term and external costs, can make it easier to commit to technological improvements. Also, The American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education (aashe) provides a how-to guide on its website to help institutions like us get started.
Other college’s carbon neutrality plans
Middlebury’s Climate Action Plan, written 2008, target 2016
Oberlin’s Plan to be Carbon Neutral, 2009, target 2025
Carleton’s Climate Action Plan, 2011, targets 2020–2030
Swarthmore’s Climate Action Plan, target 2035
Williams’ emissions reduction goals, 2007—2015, target 2020
Vassar’s 2011 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reduction Plan
In 2010–2011 the College Committee on Sustainability wrote the 2011 GHG Reduction Plan to explore the initial steps Vassar should take to reduce its environmental impact.
Geography 256: Sustainability Planning & Practice
In Spring 2015, Professor Mary Ann Cunningham had her class study master plans and climate action plans from across the country. Their work culminated in a series of investigations and recommendations for sustainability initiatives that Vassar should pursue. The 2015 work-in-progress Sustainability Plan.
Environmental Defense Fund - Climate Corps
Vassar has worked with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps, a fellowship program that matches graduate students with organizations to provide support for energy-management initiatives, for 2 years. See summaries of the work Vassar’s four fellows have completed.
Climate Corps, URSI, FORD and Internal Carbon Taxes
In Summer 2015, the Vassar Environmental Research Institute expanded our Climate Corps partnership and sponsored two URSI Fellows and one FORD Scholar student to model what an internal carbon charge at Vassar would look like. See the white paper Internal Carbon Accounting at a Small Liberal Arts College for our findings.