In its 2015 vote to approve a Statement on Sustainability and Investment Policy, the Amherst College Board of Trustees acknowledged the grave threat posed by climate change and the role of human activity in its acceleration. Asserting that “Amherst has a responsibility to match its convictions with behavior” and to “display leadership by taking steps that make a difference,” the Board put the College on a path that will make sustainability a key consideration in the management of its institutional life. Among other initiatives, the statement supported the development of a strategy for achieving a carbon-neutral footprint on campus—something that only a handful of colleges and universities have achieved. It also committed the College to “adopt policies that embed sustainability in its operations, in its investment process and in its life as a community.”
The trustees stipulated that progress be assessed by the College’s Office of Environmental Sustainability and Investment Office, with reports furnished regularly to the Amherst community. The first such document, the 2016 Sustainability Report, detailed several initiatives, including making environmental conservation a major design consideration for the new Greenway Dorms and Science Center and encouraging investment managers to more explicitly incorporate environmental factors into their work.
This is the 2017 report. It details recent actions of the Office of Environmental Sustainability and the Investment Office, both generally and toward the goals outlined in the 2015 statement.
Office of Environmental Sustainability
The Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES) continues to thrive in its third year on campus. This report provides an update on some of the broader activities of the OES and progress made on campus to develop a path towards carbon neutrality.
I. Carbon Neutrality
The carbon-action task force—composed of faculty, staff and students—has made significant progress in developing an ambitious, actionable path to carbon neutrality.
- The task force agreed on eight guiding principles: Any plan must be collaborative, must put conservation first, and must be dynamic, timely, financially viable, mission-driven, scalable and transparent.
- The task force hired a consultant to help model potential methods for reducing the College’s greenhouse gas emissions—considering historic and current energy use, future buildings and planned retrofits, and grid improvement and technological advancements, among other factors—that will inform the College’s timeline for carbon neutrality.
- The task force reviewed climate-action plans from peer institutions to learn from their experiences.
- The task force and the OES developed a plan to go “beyond carbon neutral.” This would mean applying a carbon tax to Amherst’s business-as-usual emissions in 2035 and spending that annual amount now to fund projects that will decarbonize the campus, as well as providing learning, teaching and research opportunities.
The OES shared the initial draft of the “beyond carbon neutral” plan with students in the fall 2016 “Climate Change” and “Economics with Environmental Applications” courses, and also presented it to sustainability staff and faculty members from peer institutions, to gain insights and strengthen the proposal. After seeking approval from the task force and senior administration to move forward with the proposed plan, the OES will present the plan for feedback to the broader Amherst community. The final plan will then go to the Board of Trustees for discussion and action, with the goal to begin implementation in early 2018.
As this two-year process has shown, the College will need to take significant steps— regardless of the final details of the carbon-action plan—to make major additional progress toward its overall goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. These include increasing the College’s utilization of and investment in renewable-energy technology, moving the campus infrastructure further away from its dependence on fossil fuels, investing in energy conservation through building updates and behavior modification, and recognizing the role of carbon offsets,to address emission that cannot be physically eliminated from the College’s own operations.
Given the urgent need to act on climate change, Amherst has moved forward with several initiatives to support the soon-to-be completed climate-action plan:
- Amherst has actively participated in the Western Massachusetts Colleges Renewable Consortium with the hope of finalizing the purchase of solar energy and renewable-energy credits from a facility in Maine, together with Williams College and Smith College. If successful, this will reduce Amherst College greenhouse-gas emissions by about 20 percent and serve as an example of the power of a consortium to make collaborative purchases. Amherst also continues to pursue on-campus renewable projects that will supplement this work.
- Amherst has invested in the first phase of an energy-meters program to collect granular data that can be used to support energy-saving upgrades to buildings, energy competitions between students to drive behavior change, and pedagogical activities to increase understanding of energy systems.
- The College recognizes the need for a long-term plan to identify how campus infrastructure will adapt to a low-carbon future, as well as the need to develop an actionable list of energy conservation/efficiency projects and implementation plans for a handful of buildings around campus. This will help to populate projects for a Green Revolving Fund, enabling the OES to hit the ground running once that funding source is finalized. Amherst will partner with a third-party consultant to analyze buildings, identify actionable projects and move forward on these conservation initiatives.
- Amherst has partnered with three other colleges—Smith, Hampshire and Williams—to study the potential role of local energy-efficiency projects in achieving measurable offset reductions, supporting college communities and providing educational benefits to students while helping to achieve neutrality goals through carbon offsets. All three schools are now working together to identify grants or foundation funding that can support the scale-up of this work.
To show its support for U.S. climate action, the College became a signatory to the We Are Still In campaign, joining cities, states, corporations and colleges across the country to demonstrate its commitment to delivering on the promise of the Paris Agreement.
II. Student Participation
Increasing the presence and variety of student engagement remains a large focus of the work of the OES. Highlights from the past year include:
- Nearly 300 students took more than 1,000 bike rides since the Amherst College Student Bike Share launched in summer 2016. Bike Share provides students with a free bike for transportation and recreation, as well as work opportunities for the student bike-share managers.
- The Eco-Rep program expanded from a volunteer program within first-year residence halls to a paid position for students in any dorm interested in engaging their peers on sustainability. The Eco-Reps have hosted successful campus-wide events such as an eco-fair, clothing swaps and a fall-semester giveaway of materials collected during move-out in the spring. The Eco-Reps also revamped the Green Games to include waste audits and other activities aimed at encouraging sustainable living, particularly focused on the first-year experience.
- The Green Amherst Project worked with the OES and Dining Services to successfully remove trays from Valentine Dining Hall. Removing trays from dining facilities can reduce food waste and energy and water use. Through many sessions of public engagement, education and consultation, staff was able to address worries about the change and bring the campus community on board with the transition.
- The OES has increased its number of student-internship positions, giving students a direct ability to use the campus as a living lab to study how sustainability practices can be applied to Amherst College, and then to present their recommendations to campus stakeholders. Expanding composting to the new Greenway Dorms as a pilot project was a direct recommendation from a student who completed a summer internship in the OES, and its success has led to composting in additional dorm kitchens, as well as in Frost Library and Keefe Campus Center.
- The OES supported a thesis student who used the campus to conduct research on social norms and their impact on energy-use behavior.
- The OES partnered with the Multicultural Resource Center and several other offices to bring Professor Dorceta Taylor to campus to speak on race, space and environmental inequalities. This was the start of what the OES hopes will be many opportunities to partner with other groups and bring speakers to campus to address the intersection of the environment and social justice.
Looking forward, the OES recognizes the importance of identifying and activating as many opportunities as possible for students to use the campus as a living lab, providing students with a chance to take a deep dive into a sustainability challenge on campus. Students gain experience researching, problem-solving, considering tradeoffs, setting goals and presenting their learning back to decision-makers on campus. To support this, the OES plans to further increase the number of student-internship opportunities available and to partner with the “Reimagining the Commons” program in providing design-thinking challenges related to sustainability. The OES will identify additional ways to engage with faculty to bring sustainability challenges into the classroom.
III. Book & Plow Farm
From 2012 to 2016, the College’s Book & Plow farm transitioned from a student idea to a thriving working independent “farm-in-residence” that provided produce to campus and local residents and created a sought-after community space to grow and foster relationships. This was possible because of the vision, dedication and leadership of farmers Tobin Porter-Brown and Pete McLean. However, the extreme drought of 2016 led to significant losses for most if not all farms in the region, and catalyzed some significant changes for Book & Plow. Porter-Brown and McLean decided to move on from Book & Plow, which gave Amherst an opportunity to build upon the successes and learn from the challenges of the first iteration of the farm. Maida Ives, previously an assistant farm manager at Book & Plow, took on the role of farm manager for what the College termed “B&P1.5,” a transitional year in which the farm continued to operate while the College also determined how to move from an independent farm to one that is a department of the College.
Today, Book & Plow continues to be a great success, and Ives has thrived in her new role. In the coming year, the College will develop a “B&P2.0” proposal, which will build on the continued success of Book & Plow under Maida’s leadership.
The Amherst College Investment Office has embraced the responsibility to influence its investment managers, urging them to incorporate consistent and thoughtful environmental considerations into their investment processes. The College’s investment managers are acutely aware that sustainability is a key diligence criterion for Amherst College and many other mission-based institutions. They are also aware of how important sustainable-investing principles are to their continued ability to attract investment dollars.
While virtually all of the College’s assets are invested in pooled investment vehicles alongside other investors (and Amherst cannot direct its investment managers to buy or avoid specific securities), the investment staff and the investment committee of the Board of Trustees actively engage with managers with regard to their policies and practices around environmental responsibility, having frequent formal and informal contact with them to inquire about and discuss a variety of socially responsible investing matters. The College formally incorporated an evaluation of environmental risks into its Investment Policy Statement in 2015. Since then, an important component in its evaluation of investment managers is an assessment of how well they incorporate environmental considerations into their investment processes. In 2015, the College sent a formal letter to all its managers stating its expectation that they will carefully incorporate a consideration of environmental responsibility into their work. Amherst received responses from nearly all of the managers detailing efforts in this area. Since then, the College has continued to inquire about and monitor their efforts. A member of the investment staff meets with each of the roughly 75 investment managers at least once every 12 to 18 months. In these in-person meetings, Amherst inquires about, reviews and evaluates aspects of each investment and its management, including sustainability policies and practices.
Because of manager-confidentiality agreements that the College is required to sign as a condition of investing, Amherst is prohibited from sharing or attributing specific policies and practices to any given manager. However, the following example is representative of practices at most of the College’s investment managers:
One of the College’s longest standing non-marketable, private equity managers operates under the following set of written “ESG” principles that it applies to all potential investments:
Environmental: stewardship of the environment; responsible use of land, water and local resources; and compliance with local, state and federal regulations;
Social: health and safety of employees, contractors, landowners and stakeholders; and opportunistically utilizing community outreach where impactful;
Governance: Management reporting on ESG issues; strong risk management systems; and monitoring ESG performance within portfolio companies;
This manager utilizes these principles in the screening and diligence process for new investments, and exercises a number of techniques during its ownership period to improve each company’s ESG practices. The manager, on request, shares with Amherst investment staff its pre-diligence ESG assessment as well as ongoing analysis and assessment of each investment that demonstrates their commitment to ESG practices.
The College’s influence on these matters is meaningful, in part because it is not alone: its perspectives and approach to sustainable investing are shared by many of the largest university endowments, including Yale, Princeton, MIT and Stanford, to name a few.
The Amherst College Investment Office produces a high-level Investment Sustainability Report annually; the most recent is the FY 2016-17 report. In addition to the initiatives highlighted in that report, the College has leveraged its name and wielded influence by agreeing to be a signatory to several other climate initiatives, including:
- Letter in support of the continuation of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) addressed to the governor of Massachusetts, asking that the RGGI continue to increase the ambition of the program beyond 2020. The RGGI is the nation’s first multi-state cap-and-trade program designed to reduce emissions. Since its implementation in 2008, electricity sector GHG emissions in RGGI states have fallen by 45 percent below 2005 levels. RGGI has raised $2.5 billion for use in energy efficiency, clean energy and GHG abatement programs. Member states are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland.
- Letter to G20 with recommendations to join/ratify the Paris Agreement, implement the 2015 Global Investor Letter on Climate Change’s recommendations and improve climate-related financial disclosures (September 2016). The College had also signed the Global Investor Letter on Climate Change.
- Letter to President-elect Trump, Members of Congress and Global Leaders at COP22 in Marrakech to affirm commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and a low-carbon economy in the United States (November 2016). COP22 was the UN Climate Change conference held in November 2016.
- Global Investor Letter to G20 Governments on Climate Change, demonstrating the broad swath of subnational and non-state actors throughout the United States that are forging ahead and are committed to doing their part in helping to drive down carbon pollution and fight climate change (June 2017, in response to President Trump’s announcement that he would pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement).
Separately, the Amherst investment staff and Investment Committee continue to reshape and redirect the College’s investments in private energy. These modifications further diversify and broaden portfolio exposure to opportunities that are focused on environmental sustainability. Over the past several years, the College has significantly reduced the number of managers it has allocated investments to in the traditional fossil-fuel industry as it has sought to invest in a broader array of sustainable natural resources, which includes investments in all energy sectors: renewables (wind, solar, geothermal), storage, energy efficiency technology and energy infrastructure, as well as sustainable timber, minerals and agriculture.
As of June 20, 2017, some 7 percent of the College’s endowment was in natural resources of all kinds. This category encompasses a mix of timber, minerals, agriculture and all energy sectors, including renewables (wind, solar and geothermal), storage, energy-efficiency technology, energy infrastructure and more traditional fossil fuels (oil and gas). Amherst embraces an “active engagement” approach by making its views known to current and prospective investment managers and by aggressively seeking to participate in collective efforts to influence action to address the real and acute problem of climate change.