Wellesley Commits to Ending Fossil Fuel Investments, Achieving Carbon Neutrality by 2040, to Address Urgent Challenges of Climate Change

Aerial photo of Wellesley College

“The College is proud to announce a bold and holistic approach to addressing climate change that includes a comprehensive plan for Wellesley to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040; endowment action to prohibit new investment in fossil fuel funds; and adoption of a set of carbon-reducing community actions approved by students, faculty, and staff,” Wellesley President Paula A. Johnson and Debora de Hoyos ’75, chair of the board of trustees, wrote in an announcement to the College community on April 30.

Led by the E2040 working group, one aspect of the plan for carbon neutrality—which will require an investment of more than $500 million—will replace high-pressure steam heating systems with low-temperature hot water systems over the next decade. “The fossil fuel used for generating heating and cooling energy contributes more than three-quarters of all the greenhouse gas emitted by the campus,” said Dave Chakraborty, assistant vice president of facilities management and planning and a member of the Sustainability Committee and E2040. “It is only by eliminating fossil fuel usage in this area that can we reach carbon neutrality.” By 2040, the College also plans to procure all of the electricity used on campus from renewable sources.

In response to advocacy and engagement by students, faculty, and staff and to mitigate undue risk to the College’s financial returns on the endowment, the board has approved the following measures: Investments with managers whose primary investment focus is on companies in the fossil fuels industry are prohibited; no new investments will be made in private equity funds that focus on fossil fuel investment; and the College will phase out existing partnership interests in private equity oil and gas funds in a manner consistent with fiduciary responsibility.

The community actions students, faculty, and staff have developed, which include changes to dining and catering, transportation, faculty travel, mini-fridges, and heating and cooling, could result in a reduction of more than 2,000 metric tons of CO2 each year. This collective commitment was integral to the board’s decision to approve endowment action.

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the board considered and deferred a petition from the student group Renew Wellesley that asked for the elimination of fossil fuel investments from the endowment. Previous student activism by Fossil Free Wellesley in 2013 and 2014 helped pave the way for Renew, and students presented recommendations to the Subcommittee on Investment Responsibility (SIR) in early 2020. While the board was favorably disposed to consider endowment action at that time, its members wanted to see shared dedication on the part of the entire College community and a comprehensive plan with a broader approach to addressing sustainability and climate change at Wellesley.

Via numerous Zoom meetings throughout this pandemic year, a mix of on-campus and remote students, faculty, and staff took up this charge. Students in the interdisciplinary class Econ/ES 199: Fossil Fuel Divestment: Student Action at Wellesley, working alongside Norma Wilentz Hess Professor of Economics Casey Rothschild, conducted cost-benefit analyses to develop a set of recommendations for reducing carbon and saving money that included limiting red meat in the dining halls, instituting a fee for mini-fridges, and decreasing the number of College buses. These recommendations became a ballot initiative as part of annual College Government elections. The student body approved the measures on March 23.

“There needs to be a broader recognition of just how much our 21st-century lifestyles are going to have to change if we want to mitigate our carbon emissions and have a moresustainable planet,” said Neeraja Deshpande ’23, a student in Econ/ES 199. “I’m glad that Wellesley is dealing with things as a collective as opposed to just making decisions from the top down.” Asking students and faculty to figure out solutions collaboratively emphasizes that these issues are “intrinsically tied to action that we all take, together, as a community,” she added.

Collaborating with various groups to achieve a common goal was a high point of the experience for the students. “As students and faculty worked toward tangible climate-oriented goals, we watched as a lot of hierarchies seemed to dissolve,” said Katie Christoph ’21, a member of Renew Wellesley, Econ/ES 199, and a student-appointed representative to the Sustainability Committee. “It became more about what you could bring to the table and to the conversation.” For Deshpande, who has been studying remotely this year from Arlington, Mass., the project connected her to Wellesley and reminded her that she was a part of a bigger community. “I hope to see more collaborative work at Wellesley, because if this past year and a half has taught us anything, it’s that we need each other more than we ever realized we did,” she said.

Educating their fellow students about their findings and proposal, and getting their support, was not without challenges. Concerns about equity and social justice rose to the forefront when they talked to students, and the College has committed to addressing equity issues that may arise as the recommendations are implemented. “After the [ballot initiative] passed, I felt really humbled. The vote started a lot of hard conversations on campus,” said Kelsey Dunn ‘21, an Econ/ES 199 student and member of Renew Wellesley. “I know it was not an easy choice for the community, and I know many people made their vote in good faith that we will continue to move forward with community participation and equity in mind.”

Starting in March 2020, members of the Sustainability Committee, chaired by Dan Brabander, Frost Professor in Environmental Science and professor of geosciences, began work to develop their own recommendations for faculty and staff actions. Working in parallel with the Econ/ES 199 students, they included changes to dining, such as focusing on a plant-based catering default; changes to faculty conference travel; adjustments to heating and cooling standards in academic and administrative buildings; and a decrease in the use of mini-fridges. Brabander, along with committee members Pinar Keskin, associate professor of economics, and Olivia Shehan, sustainability coordinator, engaged with the community through a series of webinars and meetings of Academic and Administrative Council, and faculty voted to approve the measures at Academic Council on April 21.

Institutions like Middlebury and Smith colleges have demonstrated that achieving sustainability goals is possible at institutions like ours, Rothschild said, and the SIR system provided a formal channel at Wellesley for setting a constructive process in motion in early 2020. “Those of us who had been organizing at the grassroots level had a clear road map for how we could make change occur, allowing us to focus on the key steps and the obstacles that would be in the way in a very concrete way,” he said. “Above all, I have a deep and overwhelming sense of pride in my students, and their many on-campus partners, who accomplished something meaningful that makes Wellesley a genuinely better place.”

Some of the community actions students, faculty, and staff have developed could be implemented as early as this fall, and earlier investments in sustainability are helping the College make early progress on its carbon neutrality goals—Wellesley is on track to meet its goal of decreasing emissions by 37 percent by 2022, four years ahead of schedule.

“The work our entire community has done to come together around addressing climate change at Wellesley is a living demonstration of our mission at work,” Johnson said. “I am so proud of these efforts because they show that both as individuals and as an institution, we can create important change that will benefit the College and the world.”