Carbon charge to support sustainable projects

Earlier this month, the Board of Managers put in place a new carbon charge for the 2016-2017 fiscal year budget. This carbon charge will levy funds from academic and non academic departments to support sustainable projects. The goal is to reduce emissions and to promote sustainable solutions as part of the college’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2035.

A focus group made up of faculty and the sustainability coordinator started planning for the carbon charge in the fall of 2015. After community consultation, the carbon charge was proposed to the Board of Managers Committee on Social Responsibility in December 2015. At their meeting this February, the board voted in favor of the carbon charge and allotted $300,000 of the college’s budget towards it.

The new carbon charge is part of the college’s Sustainability Framework, which outlines building sustainability standards, and a commitment to carbon neutrality by the year 2035. According to Aurora Winslade, Director of Sustainability, this commitment is represented in part by the Environmental Studies program, Green Advisors Program, and the Eco-Charrette two day event last year. As a part of the commitment to carbon neutrality, the carbon charge has wide-reaching goals.

“Over time, the intention is to more closely tie the fee to choices that are made so that we can incentivize behavior that reduces emissions,” said Winslade. “It is also a statement that makes it clear that we take climate change seriously, remain committed to our goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2035, if not sooner, and intend to be among those creating solutions.”

The carbon charge is part of an effort to pursue more sustainable solutions and reduce overall emissions. Swarthmore currently offsets 100% of its carbon emissions from electricity by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits, which supports renewable energy development by representing that one megawatt-hour of energy was generated by a sustainable source. “Swarthmore has been purchasing Renewable Energy Credits since 1999 in a quantity to ‘offset’ our campus emissions.” said Winslade. “This is not a substitute for reducing our emissions, but does help fund projects elsewhere that help reduce emissions, in this case the offsets are provided through wind energy.”

The $300,000 of levied funds in the carbon charge will support projects that reduce the college’s carbon footprint. For example, the fund may be used for energy efficiency or renewable energy projects. The funds may also support research or metering projects that aim to raise awareness of sustainability issues and direct informed decisions. One of the main objectives of the carbon charge is to make people more aware of their carbon footprint and possibilities for  sustainability.

“A primary goal of this new policy is to induce positive behavior change by making individuals’ carbon emissions more apparent and meaningful,” said Winslade. “Over time, as both metering & campus awareness of carbon emissions improve through funded projects, new components of the Carbon Charge structure will be added to better link the levy to actual behaviors.”

One main aspect of the carbon charge design is a .5% levy on all academic and non-academic departmental budgets for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. This levy will increase in the following years. Another aspect of the project, which is yet to be implemented, is a fee for every $40/metric ton of carbon dioxide used in construction.

Although an increased levy will be placed upon all departments, the money will not come from faculty or staff salaries. According to Chair and Professor of the history department, Timothy Burke, the .5% levy will not have a significant effect on the department’s activities.

Chair and Professor of the anthropology department, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, expressed support for the charge despite the effects it will have on the sociology-anthropology department’s limited budget.

“Although we will feel the consequences of the carbon charge, we also see this as a contribution to the overall sustainability of the College that we are glad to make,” said Willie-LeBreton. “At the same time, some of our colleagues in Political Science, Philosophy and Economics urge us to appreciate that budgets and financial investments represent our organizational values. So while we are deeply appreciative that the carbon charge has brought many community members together, we continue to work for Swarthmore’s more robust participation in curbing global warming at mezzo and macro levels.”

Winslade expressed that a main part of the carbon charge design is the creation of a “green-revolving loan fund.” With this the college can effectively loan itself money for sustainable projects and create more capital.

“The Carbon Charge will help us invest in both the research and the projects that will reduce our emissions,” said Winslade. “Many of these projects have financial returns, and it is our hope to be able to use some of the funds to establish a revolving loan fund in which projects that have a payback can be financed from the fund, then repay the fund through the savings so that money can then be re-invested in the next project.”

Min Zhong ’19 believes that the carbon charge initiative is a move in the right direction for the Office of Sustainability. “It seems like it’s a big initial financial investment, but I believe that the board and Aurora has put enough thought into this initiative that it is going to work out well.”

Zhong also critiqued the clarity of the board’s message and its exact initiative. Although their general plan and goals are outlined, the board did not explicitly state  how the revenue will be allocated, or what exactly the fee does for the college in terms of achieving sustainability.

“The plan is still really vague [in terms of] what they are letting us know, so it just seems like there is going to be a lot of spending happening but the consequences of that spending aren’t clear yet,” said Zhong. “It’s difficult to get people enthusiastic about what this new carbon plan will achieve if we don’t have a clear idea of how this policy is going to play out.”

Despite the carbon charge, students have expressed the desire for the college to do more to commit to sustainable solutions and divestment. Abby Saul ’19, a member of Mountain Justice, stressed that although the charge is a step in the right direction, it is inadequate to address climate change.

“Due to the urgency of the climate crisis, it is important that we utilize all the tools at our disposal to fight for our collective futures. The carbon charge is one way to do that — but it is far from enough and is not a replacement for divestment,” said Saul. “Initiatives focused on encouraging sustainability on our campus are important, but when faced with arguably the largest crisis of our times, they are simply not enough.”

Zhong communicated similar sentiments that the board’s new plan is a step in the right direction, but leaves room for more steps in achieving sustainability.

“It seems like the board continues to be in conflict with environmental initiatives from Mountain Justice’s point of view, but it looks like they are making a conscious effort to put out a sensible first step towards achieving a goal that would benefit the whole college.”

Although the carbon charge promotes sustainability and the college’s commitment to carbon neutrality, it does not, according to Saul, tap into Swarthmore’s social capital as part of a larger movement to divest from the fossil fuel industry and take social responsibility for climate change.

“The divestment movement works to not only break financial ties with the fossil fuel industry but also to use Swarthmore College’s social capital as a highly respected institution to stigmatize [the fossil fuel] industry whose prosperity is directly linked to the destruction of millions of lives, the environment, and our hopes for a just future,” said Saul. “MJ will continue to campaign for divestment of the College’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry.”

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