How the carbon charge works

In September of 2016, the Carbon Charge Committee was established to manage the Carbon Charge Program. To understand the program and its implications, we ask: what is Swarthmore’s Carbon Charge Program? And what is its significance of the program outside Swarthmore?

According to Climate Action Senior Fellow, Nathaniel Graf, the Carbon Charge Program has four primary goals: first, to provide a platform to educate and engage the community with carbon pricing solution; second, to incentivize reductions in Swarthmore’s emissions; third, to provide capital for projects that reduce our emissions; and fourth, to build momentum for state, national, and global implementation of carbon pricing.

According to the Swarthmore sustainability website, on-campus implementation of the program consists of three components. A school-wide levy on departments for college carbon emissions has been  implemented, though not yet fully developed. The total tax was calculated by multiplying the college’s carbon emissions by the social cost of carbon, and paid for with a 1.25% levy on all departments and by voluntary contributions.

“Yale University was the first school to institute an internal carbon charge; they have a sophisticated structure in which departments and offices are charged proportionally for their own carbon emissions. At Swarthmore, we don’t yet have sufficiently fine-scale tracking of our sources of emissions to create an analogous structure, so right now we are charging for school-wide emissions in proportion to budget size,” said Graf.

Then, the revenues from those charges is used to support renewables, efficiency, metering, and education projects. finally, a shadow price on projects, showing the social cost of the carbon emissions of the project, is implemented to encourage less carbon-intensive construction projects.

“The money is loaned out to different sustainability focused projects on campus. There was just an article released by the college about LED lights being put in the Fieldhouse in the athletic facilities, and that money was from the Carbon Charge tax,” said Nicholas DiMaio ’19, this academic year’s President’s Sustainability Research Fellow.

According to Graf, a primary goal for the Carbon Charge Program is to provide a platform to educate and engage the community with carbon pricing solution, finding more effective ways to tackle climate change.

“I think what’s really important about carbon pricing is that we’re looking to set an example for other institutions, as well as build political will from students on campus to bring these beliefs to their own community and make a difference. Because ultimately one institution doesn’t make that large of a difference, but if several institutions, and eventually local, state, and national governments implement the policy then is to make a huge difference worldwide,” said DiMaio’19

With no current national policy to cap carbon emissions, the college has put its weight behind the movement to limit carbon emissions. The college is one of the first higher education institutions to endorse such a policy.  

“President Smith was the second president to add her signature to the Put A Price On It campaign’s public letter, endorsing a price on carbon and calling on elected officials to take action towards carbon pricing legislation. She went beyond that initial signature by working with the presidents of Wesleyan, Pitzer, Dickinson, and Vassar to share that letter with other college and university presidents, which resulted in a total of 36 schools that have now signed on,” wrote Graf in an email.

In 2009, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill passed the House of Representatives, but was never brought to a vote in the Senate. According to Graf,  the next time around it is important to have strong mass support for such a bill to pass. And Swarthmore hopes to lead and engage the community to help put a price on carbon.

According to Graf, students who are part of the Sustainability Office or on the Carbon Charge Committee play a strong roll on campus. Currently, the Carbon Charge Committee is working on a weekly newsletter, infographic posters, a community forum, and an op-ed about carbon pricing. Some of the students also engage the community outside of Swarthmore.

Lamia Makkar’21, one of the two first-year student interns for the Office of Sustainability spoke about her work.

“I helped to organize the SCPA conference in October, developing tools and resources for the participants from other schools. Since then have worked on maintaining the network of students and helping the Swarthmore team that is trying to get endorsement from Delaware County Council.”

Any students interested in carbon charge of sustainability is encouraged to reach out to Nathaniel Graf at, or Nick DiMaio ’19.

With enough support from the community, the college would be more well equipped to lead its peers in a worldwide endeavor to combat climate change.

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