Log Lunch: “Cutting our Carbon: A Participatory Exercise in Which You Choose How to Fight Climate Change at Williams!”

Williams has committed to reduce emissions to 35% below 1990 levels by 2020.

Ever wonder how the college will actually meet its emissions reduction goal? On Friday, March 3, Log Lunchers put their heads together to design a solution.

Environmental Fellow-in-Residence Elizabeth Kolbert and economics professor Sarah Jacobson guided students, faculty, and community members through the wedge exercise—a web simulation which estimates the College’s future emissions based on a chosen portfolio of reduction strategies. Users can view the financial and social costs of each reduction tactic, and toggle emissions sources on and off to compare impacts in the short and long term.

The wedge exercise

Emissions reduction options in the wedge exercise include behavioral changes such as shorter showers, institutional changes such as conversion of large singles into doubles and thermal conservation, a switch to renewable energy generated off-campus, and purchase of carbon offsets.

Kolbert and Jacobson challenged the crowd to consider what they would and would not be willing to give up to fight climate change. Some students felt that doing away with study abroad or winter study would compromise the school’s educational mission, and that reducing the number of trips students can make home could harm students’ mental health. Some advocated for heavily reduced sport-related travel, while others thought this would face too much pushback.

The most controversial emissions reduction tactic discussed was purchase of carbon offsets on the global market. Professor Ralph Bradburd (economics and environment policy) advocated for offset purchase, because, he said, it is the most cost-efficient way to reduce emissions. However, students argued that offset purchase would teach us that privilege can (literally) buy its way out of responsibility. Students also noted that this strategy fails to build energy-saving habits in students.  

Log Lunchers collaborate on the wedge exercise using mobile devices

However, the wedge exercise makes clear that behavioral changes have little impact on the school’s overall emissions.The big-ticket items in terms of emissions reduction are off-campus renewable energy and carbon offset purchase. The wedge exercise implies that purchase of offsets will be necessary for Williams to meet its emission reduction goal, as the school’s emissions would still be above the 35% reduction by 2020 with all other reduction strategies deployed. In fact, to meet short and long term goals, the college will likely need to use every emissions reduction tool it has.

The Williams wedge exercise is derived from an emissions reduction simulation strategy first used in a 2004 paper about global emissions (Pacala and Socolow 2004). It was Kolbert’s idea to bring the wedge exercise to Williams. Students generated the data and designed the user experience of the exercise last summer and continued to refine the exercise during a winter study class taught by Jacobson. The wedge exercise is still being perfected.

Try out the wedge exercise for yourself here! Send images of emissions reductions graphs (use the “Download chart” button) to Sarah Jacobson ([email protected]).

Special thanks to Sofia Barandiaran, Anna Black, Louisa Ebby, Juchan Kim, and Rainer Wasinger!

– Sophia Schmidt ’17