Our Climate Action Commitment

Amherst College aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2030 through transformative modernization of our energy system from fossil fuels to renewable electricity. By focusing on eliminating fossil fuel combustion, we will not have to rely on carbon offsets to meet our goal. In addition, we aim to go beyond just carbon neutrality on our own campus, inspiring graduates who will lead change on a much larger scale.

The Amherst College quad in bright sunlight with Mount Holyoke in the distance

About Our Plan

Our plan is designed to achieve reductions that are desirable, necessary and real. We have done the initial work to determine the technical and financial feasibility of this transformation, and laid the educational groundwork through the Department of Environmental Studies and the Office of Environmental Sustainability.

Climate change is a complex issue with complex solutions, and our path forward will not be without challenges. We are committed to transparency and inclusion as we move into implementation. An advisory committee of faculty, staff and students will be formed to consider key issues as we implement the plan, and we will share regular progress updates with the community at large. In addition, we look forward to engaging with our loyal and dedicated alumni, from whom we can learn and garner further support for climate action at Amherst.

The determination and outstanding work of our community has gotten us to this point, and we look forward to continuing to work together and push each other to aggressively pursue this commitment.

The following key actions will be necessary to meet our goal:

Action: Transition the campus’s heating and cooling systems from steam to low-temperature hot water.

By heating and cooling our campus with water instead of steam, we open up the possibility to create heating and cooling without fossil fuel combustion. Doing this will require a new distribution network around campus. While some of our most recently renovated and constructed buildings have the capacity to operate with low-temperature hot water, many others will need to be retrofitted for this technology change.

Action: Create low-temperature hot water through ground-source heat pumps.

The benefit of low-temperature hot water is that we can create it without fossil fuel combustion. A ground-sourced heating system powered by electric heat pumps will allow us to use energy from the earth and heat it to the required temperatures using electricity. To do this, we will need to drill and install a closed-loop geothermal well system connected to heat pumps. 

Action: Procure zero-emission renewable electricity to meet all our heating, cooling and electrical needs.

To meet our electrical demand with zero-carbon energy, we will explore solar and other renewable technologies on and off campus through a range of ownership and financing options. In 2018 we announced a project that will enable us to procure 10,000 MWh of solar power from Maine for 20 years beginning in 2020. While this is a great start, moving to electric heat pumps will require us to procure more renewable energy.

Action: Reduce our energy load and reap greater benefits from our new energy system.

Reducing our energy load through building improvements, energy efficiency projects and behavior change will ensure this system is financially and technically viable. In many ways we are already excelling at this, through the creation of the Greenway Dorms and new Science Center, as well as investment in energy meters to analyze and present energy data more effectively. In addition to advancing that work, we will also need to consider novel ways of reducing our peak energy demands to reduce or eliminate the need for backup combustion power sources.

Action: Provide deep engagement and experiential learning opportunities related to climate action.

Climate change is an immense problem, one that is difficult to solve due to its complex, interconnected and sometimes contradictory nature. Many aspects of liberal arts education, such as diverse and multidisciplinary approaches to critical thinking, problem solving and solution implementation, will be crucial to addressing climate change. By connecting the technical aspects of this plan to educational opportunities and continued partnerships among campus constituents, alumni as well as peer institutions and community organizations, we will prepare our students to lead on climate change, expanding the impact of our plan and going “beyond carbon-neutral.”


Introduction

Climate change is not only a problem for future generations. Current students at Amherst College have been living with climate change realities—and inaction—their entire lives. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been negotiating global action since 1995,1 yet 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record for the globe, making the past five years the “warmest in the modern record.”2 Globally, we are experiencing near constant extreme weather events that, in addition to their economic costs, contribute to increased poverty, exacerbated inequality and decreased stability in regions around the world.3, 4 1 degree Celsius of global warming has already occurred, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that significant action must be taken in the next 10–12 years to keep warming to 1.5 degrees C globally.5

The role of humans in causing climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases, and through the combustion of fossil fuels in particular, is well understood.6 At Amherst College we have used fossil fuels to power campus—first in individual coal boilers in select campus buildings, then in a centralized coal-fired steam plant. Over time, we have taken steps to reduce our impact, transitioning first to natural gas, then to a co-generation plant that allows us to maximize the efficiency of our power plant. Beyond that, we have invested significantly in high-performance buildings, energy-efficient retrofits, lighting upgrades and building automations. However, the fact remains that continuing to rely on fossil fuels to power our campus is at odds with our moral imperative to address climate change. This plan seeks to remove this paradox.

Since its founding in 1821, Amherst College has graduated scholars of exceptional talent to make a difference in the world. As we look forward to our third century, the threat of climate change requires leaders who can effectively act against climate change and adapt to its inevitable environmental and social impacts. This plan seeks to rise to this challenge.


http://unfccc.int/cop4/resource/cop1.html

https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2841/2018-fourth-warmest-year-in-continued-warming-trend-according-to-nasa-noaa/

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/natural-disasters-by-location-rich-leave-and-poor-get-poorer/

4 Barnett and Adgers, “Climate change, human security and violent conflict,” Political Geography 26 (2007)

https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/11/03/trump-administration-releases-report-finds-no-convincing-alternative-explanation-for-climate-change/?utm_term=.93f2eed81f54


Main Report Sections

A photo of Johnson Chapel with the sun shining through trees

Our Goal

Amherst College aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2030 through transformative modernization of our energy system from fossil fuels to renewable electricity.

Development of the Climate Action Plan

The task force developed a set of principles that have guided the development of the Climate Action Plan and underpin the overarching goal of the plan to have a meaningful and lasting impact on greenhouse gas reduction and management at Amherst College and beyond, supporting the urgent global need to combat climate change.

Learn more about the plan’s development.

Decarbonization of Our Campus Energy System

As Amherst enters its third century, we will transform our campus energy system away from fossil fuels to renewably sourced energy to meet our goal of carbon neutrality and take action against climate change.

Learn more about the decarbonization process.

Preparing Our Students for Climate Action

Amherst has made significant progress preparing our students with the breath and depth of knowledge to address the complex problems caused by climate change, and we will continue to do so with the ongoing engagement of our Department of Environmental Studies and Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES).

Learn more about the role experiential learning will play in preparing our students.


Next Steps

We have laid out an ambitious plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, engaging our students throughout the process. Moving forward into plan implementation will bring challenges. On the educational side, resources and time need to be dedicated to building a robust and inclusive program. On the technical side, many details will need to be determined, to provide more clarity on the time frame of transition. We will need to address sources that are not currently addressed by the energy system transition, such as mobile source emissions from the campus vehicle fleet. We will need to determine what role scope 3 emissions have in our climate work. We also need to clarify the governance structure for plan implementation and how that coordinates and integrates with other teams and committees throughout campus. With a project that will touch all parts of campus, strong governance and clear communication strategies will be crucial to success.

In addition to communication within the College’s operational teams, we will develop a robust communication strategy for our wider community so they can stay abreast of the progress being made. While the exact form of this is still under consideration, we envision regular updates through reports and presentations that can be viewed and engaged with around the globe. With a large project of this nature, we plan to set short-term goals each year that can be addressed in these communications. As we move into our first year of implementation, we plan to accomplish the following:

  • Begin the design phase of the energy transformation system. This process will allow us to begin making some fundamental decisions, including whether we will have centralized or distributed heat pumps, if the implementation will be consolidated or phased, the citing of the geothermal wells, and how we will integrate this with other major campus projects. It will also help is to further refine the cost and financing options.
  • Form the Climate Action Plan Advisory Committee and develop the governance structure of the plan implementation process. This will include determining how decisions based on the design-phase analysis will be made and reported back to the community, and developing a robust approach to partnerships on experiential learning across campus.
  • Complete a renewable energy assessment study for our campus. This will allow us to understand how much solar potential we have on campus and how much we will need to procure through off-site projects.

We look forward to joining together as a community as we embark on the challenges, learning experiences and accomplishments that lie ahead.