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Internal carbon charge seeks external change

in Around Campus/News by

This year, the college instituted an internal carbon charge in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint and eventually become emission neutral. The carbon charge is imposed on the college by itself, and which is intrinsically difficult to implement. The idea of carbon pricing is a policy idea commonly for mitigating carbon emissions on a national scale, but Swarthmore and other institutions have implemented a version of carbon prices on themselves.

The college is also a leader in the push for a nation-wide tax on carbon, President Valerie Smith signed the Letter on Carbon Action, which was a letter sent by colleges and universities to the Trump administration encouraging him to honor the Paris Climate Agreement, make sure policies are based on the scientific and technical facts, and invest in a low-carbon economy. The college also endorses a nationwide carbon tax and has advertised their advocacy heavily on the college’s official social media. The carbon charge, as well as the advocacy for the national carbon pricing, is an attempt by the college to help combat climate change and is the primary way that Swarthmore is trying to mitigate climate change.

Swarthmore’s carbon charge was modeled after Yale and Princeton’s internal carbon charges, and a goal of the charge is to serve as a model and help advance the case both for internal charges at other institutions as well as for nationwide carbon pricing. Swarthmore’s internal carbon works by raising money for a carbon fund which will be used for sustainability projects.

The charge consists of three parts: a fee levied on department budgets, a shadow price on energy for future projects, and the carbon fund. The fee charge placed on department budget funds the carbon fund. The fee is a flat tax on departments, and the shadow price is an added fee on energy that makes the cost of energy higher to the college than it would be without the self-impose shadow price.

Climate Action Senior Fellow Nathan Graf believes that the carbon charge has been successful in its first year of operation.

I think the Carbon Charge program has been fantastically successful, in particular as a platform for education and engagement on carbon pricing solutions. The baseline levy for the Carbon Charge is currently 1.25 percent of department and office budgets, exclusive of salaries and benefits, which totals about $300,000. For next year’s charge, several departments stepped up and voluntarily contributed an additional $40,000 to the Carbon Charge. I think that level of generosity reflects positively on the program and speaks to the support it has in the campus community,” he said.

Graf also explained what the money raised by the Carbon Charge will be used for.

“The Ecosphere Executive Committee granted final approval for a Green Revolving Fund a few weeks ago. The GRF will use the revenues for the carbon charge on projects that will reduce our emissions and save the college money in the long run. We’re working with Facilities to use much of the first year’s revenue to fund LED lighting upgrades on campus,” he said.

The charge was developed by members of the Swarthmore community including faculty, alumni, and members of the administration. Professor of Economics Stephen Golub highlighted the importance of private institutions like the college instituting changes in light of the lack of climate.

“The carbon charge was the result of the concern about sustainability and climate change and so on, highlighted by the divestment movement, again with discussions we had within the department, we thought the college should do something … It was an attempt to see if we could come up with something we could do concretely about climate change at this college and link up with the national movement to price carbon, that national and international movement, which to economists is the most promising thing you can do,” he said.

Golub also explained the charge in economic terms.

“The idea is that greenhouse gasses and climate change are …  a negative externality [a bad effect on people not involved in a particular purchase], and you can’t leave that to the private market. You have to either regulate it, or put a price on it. There are a number of advantages to pricing over regulation, and we need to do this. This needs to be done on a national and global scale, voluntary efforts aren’t enough. In the absence of the federal government doing anything, individual institutions can step up to the plate,” he said.

The structure of the Carbon Charge is a flat tax on departments, meaning that the charge is not reflective of their actual carbon usage, which would not create an incentive for members of the department to change their carbon usage.

[Carbon within departments] is very difficult to price. How would [the] economics department reduce its carbon footprint? Well, we could turn the lights off, we could shut off our computers, we could make sure our windows are closed, and so on, but there’s no way at present to measure or price that because the economics department is part of Kohlberg hall, and even in Kohlberg, even if we were to do this together with the other departments, there is no way to monitor that very easily in Kohlberg at present. It’s very, very difficult. For Yale, it is a bit easier because they have different schools, and they can monitor that for different institution within Yale,” he said.

Golub also praised the work that has been done by the college and stressed that the carbon charge was part of a larger movement.

“This is the first year, and my take on it [is that] I think amazing progress was made in one year considering the difficulty of this. Again, it’s kind of a crazy thing for places to tax themselves, the government should be taxing us. It’s awkward to implement, considering the difficulties of this, [but] we’ve done a great job […] Any one person or institution can only do so much, but there are two reasons that it matters a whole lot. First of all, everyone should do their part. We’re doing our part, but maybe more important is the signal that it sends out there to the world: that we care; we are a prestigious place, even if small; and that what we can do makes a difference, and if others see that we’re doing this, [then] we’re part of a movement,” he said.

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