Carbon and Values: Change Begins on Campus

In a few weeks, world leaders will gather in Paris seeking agreement on measures to reduce emissions that are warming the Earth. In past years as head of the World Resources Institute, I would have been caught up in a frenzy of preparation: Analysis of each country's position; strategy meetings; exchanges of political gossip about the latest machinations of industries and countries; press briefings. To be honest, I am glad I will not be there. I can get more done in our college community here in Western Massachusetts, working with students, staff, and faculty to change our practices and reduce emissions.

Yes we desperately need a global agreement, and governments must take action. But meantime on our campus, we are actually reducing emissions - right here, right now - and we are engaging the students who will eventually have to lead massive changes in global energy and industrial systems, to fix the mess my generation will leave them. We have the power to make change where we live and work.

There are 120 million residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. contributing to our country's greenhouse gas emissions. No strategy to control climate change can succeed without property owners ensuring our buildings be operated and built more efficiently. Buildings in the U.S. use 75% of our country's total electricity and are responsible for 45% of our greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

This is important for a residential college like Hampshire. Our students spend much of their time in our buildings for dining, studying, and living. They learn from what we teach and also from how we operate, and the choices we make. The design and operation of our campus centers speaks volumes about what we deem important.

The most rigorous standard for building design I know is the Living Building Challenge (LBC). It requires that buildings make their own energy, harvest their own water on site using natural processes, treat their own waste water, and avoid toxic materials. Fewer than 10 buildings worldwide have met the Living Building Challenge, and each new one forces manufacturers to push the boundaries of what is possible, creating new technologies, materials, systems, sealants, and much more.

Construction of two Living Buildings is underway at our campus here in Amherst, Mass., the only place in the world where two are rising at the same time. One will be the new headquarters of the Hitchcock Center For Environmental Education which will use our lands to teach children about the natural world. The other, the R.W. Kern Center, at the center of our campus, will house high-tech classrooms, group workspaces, caffeinated social space, and our Admissions and Financial Aid offices. To accommodate this 17,000-square-feet center, we eliminated the roadway and its motorized vehicles from the center of campus, converted that space back to meadows and pathways, stopped mowing to help reduce emissions, and recaptured that space for enjoyment by our people.

These buildings represent who we are, what we do and what we believe. Even in our cold New England climate, their operation will produce zero CO2 emissions. Our mission is education, so students helped design the Kern Center. Our architects from the Cambridge firm Bruner Cott spent many hours in community meetings with students and others, exploring our culture and helping us define our aspirations - a real-life course in sustainable design. A variety of courses are already using the building and its remarkable systems as teaching tools this year, ranging from Microbiology and Applied Mathematics, to Computer Science. A game design course will embed puzzles in the building to use curiosity and delight to engage visitors in learning.

The Kern Center will cost about 10% more than a high-performing academic building of similar size. Of course it will also cost less to operate, so we'll recover that premium. But really the building's value to us is in what it teaches about possibility, and the questions it compels us to ask about what is right in how we impact our surroundings. Honestly, why are buildings today built any other way? What will compel the construction of more living buildings? Necessity. Threats to our communities and our lifestyle posed by global warming. Responses by engaged citizens acting on their values.

Our design of Kern has spawned a related campus project, one of equal importance. We're planning to install a 19-acre solar array next year so our campus will be 100% dependent on solar for electricity on an annualized basis. Over 800 institutions have joined Hampshire in signing the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which requires the College to develop a Climate Action Plan, incorporating a strategy to achieve carbon neutrality. While the signatory colleges are facing obstacles in reducing emissions from the electric power sector - some state governments and utility companies have been actively opposed to renewable energy - most are taking action to reduce energy use, and scores are shifting to solar, wind, and other forms of low carbon energy.

As soon as we get regulatory approval we will install large-scale ground-mount solar power systems on campus, following an Impact Study between our partner SolarCity and Eversource, the local electric utility. The exact size and output of the system will be decided based on the study's findings, but our plan is to begin construction in the spring and to be the first US residential college able to supply all our electricity needs from on-site renewable sources.

The cost is plummeting and these projects are quickly becoming not only affordable, but profitable. Our conversion from fossil fuels to solar power is projected to save us hundreds of thousands of dollars per year over our current electricity costs. Hampshire intends to earmark some of these savings for energy-efficiency projects and academic research. The technology has advanced such that even snowy, New England schools can benefit while our students study and hopefully improve on those benefits to spur more progress.

No change in habits is too small. I mentioned we stopped mowing 10 acres of lawn, saving thousands of dollars and avoiding 1,300 lbs of CO2 emissions every year. Our ecology classes see the rewards while tracking our impact, including in the form of the return of species of birds including nesting Boblinks and Kestrels.