A Climate Neutral Williams at Log Lunch: What Does it Mean, and How Do We Get There?

Pictured: Log Lunch lecturer Dr. Tanja Srebotnjak smiles at the camera.

On March 4, the Log Lunch community gathered to learn about the future of sustainability at Williams from Dr. Tanja Srebotnjak, director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams. After a long career in environmental analysis and advocacy, Srebotnjak joined the Williams community in 2021 and has done tremendous work analyzing the college’s environmental impact and setting goals for a more sustainable future.

Srebotnjak began her talk by introducing the differences between a number of frequently used terms when discussing institutional sustainability: carbon neutrality, net-zero, 24/7 carbon-free, and carbon negative. She explained how carbon neutrality, in which institutions aim to reduce their net carbon emissions, can be understood as a less ambitious path, given that it relies upon investing in carbon offsets and allows institutions to continue emitting carbon. Net Zero, by contrast, seeks to avoid emissions and replace fossil fuels before seeking offsets, while 24/7 carbon-free aims for around-the-clock carbon-free electricity, and carbon negativity seeks to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. 

Srebotnjak discussed how institutions of higher education have pursued climate action in recent years. Climate action formally began amongst colleges and universities in 2006 with the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions and increase climate-related research. Over 650 institutions have since signed on to the ACUPCC. She also noted that over 1,000 universities from around the world have declared their commitment to becoming net-zero by 2050, in accordance with the United Nations Race to Zero initiative. She also noted the growing movement for divestment from fossil fuels in college endowments, which struck a chord amongst the Log Lunch audience, many of whom are student activists for divestment. 

Before explaining the specifics of the Williams Climate Action Plan, Srebotnjak noted the difference between three different “scopes” of carbon emissions. Scope 1, she explained, targets greenhouse gasses directly found on campus, from central heating, vehicles on campus, and more. Scope 2 encapsulates indirect emissions caused by purchased electricity, and Scope 3 includes other indirect emissions, from employee commutes to air travel, food miles, and other goods. Using this framework, Srebotnjak noted Williams’ progress towards limiting carbon emissions in each category. Since the college now sources 100% of its electricity from renewable sources, the purchased electricity or “scope 2” emissions are optimized.

To improve emissions in Scope 1 and 3, however, the college will need to fundamentally reform the central plant and HVAC system, while also electrifying campus vehicles, reducing travel emissions, and improving food-related emissions. Through impact investing and community partnerships in accordance with the new Strategic Plan, the college is moving toward these goals, but net-zero remains many years away. Srebotnjak concluded by answering questions from community members, offering more details on how exactly carbon offsets work and how we can creatively improve transportation emissions.

Students, faculty, and community members enjoyed a lunch of Yemeni flatbreads, spicy lentils, a beet-yogurt dip, and salad with daikon radish, carrot, oranges, romaine with a pomegranate and walnut vinaigrette. Mighty Food Farms provided the beets, carrots, and radishes to put some beautiful colors on everyone’s plates. 


Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.