Swarthmore implements a Carbon Charge, but what will be its effects?

This year, the Office of Sustainability is implementing a carbon charge on each department at the college. Swarthmore and Yale University are currently the only two institutions of higher education to impose such a charge for carbon use. The charge will be equivalent to 1.5 percent of each department’s budget and will raise about $300,000 this year.

The charge is being implemented after a group of faculty recommended creating an internal cost for carbon last year. The money from this fund will be spent on projects to improve sustainability at the college. A Carbon Charge Committee will be formed to determine how the money will be spent.

The sustainability office hired Nathaniel Graf ‘16, as well as two student sustainability fellows, to research the implementation of the carbon charge and suggest future directions for the college to take to increase its environmental friendliness. The sustainability office has grown from one to three full-time staff members in the last year. However, it is unclear who will be on the carbon charge committee and  how the money raised from the charge will be spent.

Professor Stephen Golub of the economics department explained that the carbon charge came out of informal discussions with a group consisting mostly economics professors, including himself.

“The original idea was to have some sort of a shadow price. That is, when you build a building, you look at the costs of productions of building the building and you also include the cost of carbon emissions.”

Golub explained that idea of a carbon charge grew out of that cost, and the administration picked up the idea and implemented this year.  

Chair of the engineering department Carr Everbach said that the carbon charge would have a small but not unfelt effect on the department’s budget.

“Engineering will have to pay about $800 this year out of our budget.  While this is a relatively small fraction, it is a lot of money to a student we might pay to work as a grader or lab assistant.  We will probably just shuffle our money around slightly differently this year; for example, we may not upgrade some equipment as quickly,” said Everbach.

Everbach explained that the department’s budget has not increased since 2010, which meant that even small cuts put some strain on the department.

While Everbach noted that the new Biology, Engineering and Psychology building would have more efficient heating and cooling systems, he said that the department was limited in its ability to reduce its carbon footprint when it did not have data on its own electricity usage.

“We have no idea how much electricity we use annually… If we knew the carbon costs of our actions and had immediate feedback, we could make better decisions.  Another example:  all faculty travel should be logged in regardless of how booked, and a carbon estimate made and tallied by the college.”

The carbon charge is being implemented and studied by the sustainability office. Graf, who graduated last year with degrees in biology and chemistry, was hired specifically to study the carbon charge. He explained he would have several different roles in his job.

“Broadly, my job will be to support the Carbon Charge Committee in their work, mentoring and working with the President’s Sustainability Research Fellows on the carbon charge, and helping other colleges and universities explore internal carbon pricing at their own institutions.

When asked about possible uses for the funds, Graf offered a number of possibilities: “The funds from the Carbon Charge may be used for renewable energy installations, energy efficiency projects, improved metering, and education/behavior focused initiatives.”

Graf also brought up the idea of a “green revolving fund.” This fund would be a pot of money that departments could draw from to offset the cost of making purchases of more sustainable goods-for example L.E.D. light bulbs, which are more efficient but also more expensive than regular light bulbs. Graf also emphasized that a big goal of the sustainability office was to increase knowledge among students about what they could do to combat climate change.

The lack of data on the electricity usage of individual departments is a problem the Sustainability Office is also examining. Sustainability Coordinator Melissa Tier, ‘14 explained that, while the office has some data on electricity usage, it would not be enough to implement a carbon charge that was based on the actual greenhouse gas emissions of individual departments.

“Metering is currently used for facilities and sustainability staff to keep close track of energy data. We don’t have the metering to analyze [individual departmental emissions] yet,” said Tier.

Tier explained that more comprehensive metering would be critical to developing a more rigorous carbon charge in the future. “We don’t have a one to one ratio of buildings to departments. Because our metering is very high level, we can’t make distinctions between departments in the same building. The Science Center has a lot of high energy users in the building, so how do we distinguish between, say, physics and CS?”

In addition to the carbon charge, the college also purchases so called “carbon credits” to offset greenhouse gas emissions. These purchases are not funded by the carbon charge and go towards things like planting trees, which reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Without the purchase of carbon credits, the college’s total carbon emissions have actually been increasing in the last few years. Tier explained that the sustainability office was aware of this issue.

“We are aware that purchasing RECs to offset our emissions is not sufficient by itself.”

Some students expressed the belief that while the carbon charge was an appropriate measure, it was not enough. Stephen O’Hanlon, a leader in the Mountain Justice movement, thinks the college can and should do more.

“The carbon charge is a step in the right direction but it is nowhere near enough and not in line with the scale and scope of the climate crisis …in order take the climate crisis seriously as an institution we need to do everything we can to create political change.”

While the college is clearly devoting significant resources to sustainability efforts, data shows that Swarthmore’s carbon emissions have actually been increasing in the last several years. It remains to be seen if the efforts by the college will actually translate into real reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases.

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