The newly convened Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force held its first forum yesterday evening to engage students and faculty on the prospecting of implementing a carbon tax at Yale.

The task force was held by University President Peter Salovey as part of a series of alternative initiatives aimed at tackling Yale’s greenhouse gas emissions, after the University released its decision not to divest from fossil fuel companies in August. The forum at Luce Hall drew roughly 50 students and faculty, and featured a lively discussion about the feasibility of an internal carbon tax, its potential effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and its broader implications for the Yale community.

“We want to provide incentives for different units to reduce their carbon footprint,” Jennifer Milikowsky FES ’15, one of three student members on the task force, said.

As of this year, Yale is only one-third of the way towards achieving the 43 percent carbon reduction target former University President Rick Levin set for 2020 in 2005, fellow student task force member Sophie Janaskie ’15 said.

Panelists agreed that a carbon charge in itself would be ineffective to reduce the University’s carbon emissions.

“Does anyone in the University who flips the switch see the bill? The answer is a very small fraction,” said economics professor William Nordhaus, who chairs the task force.

Task force members all said it is important to make energy prices visible to students and faculty, and to encourage them to take responsibility for their behavior. While the means to achieve this end are still undefined, members were quick to address concerns about how a carbon tax would impact students.

Milikowsky said that there are no plans for students to pay their own heating and electricity bill. Instead, one possibility may be to impose the tax on schools and colleges. Nordhaus said this could spur these institutions to “nudge” students and faculty to reduce their carbon footprint.

The task force highlighted the challenges that complicate their mission. These include addressing difficult questions such as how administrative units should be defined, what sources of emission should be covered and how charges should be set to ensure the tax is not economically burdensome.

“If we can make it work here at Yale, it would be a huge statement,” Robin Canavan GRD ’18, the third student member on the task force.

She added that while some universities are interested in implementing a carbon tax, none have done it to date, giving Yale the potential to lead the way.

Nordhaus said there are several practical advantages to implement a carbon tax. Companies are increasingly preparing for a world where carbon comes with a hefty price tag, he said, and Yale would do well to do likewise. He added that this is especially true because Yale is also a big power generator — 60 percent of Yale’s electricity is generated by the University.

Students from Fossil Free Yale present at the forum said they were supportive of the University’s efforts, but stressed that much work remains to be done.

“While it’s a great sounding initiative, it is not yet a concrete plan,” said Patrick Reed ’16, one of the founders of FFY. Maya Jenkins ’18 added the carbon tax could not be a replacement for divestment.

Still, Phoebe Chatfield ’18 said that FFY members felt encouraged when, during the forum, task force members said the carbon tax would be just one of many initiatives the University would pursue to reduce carbon emissions.

The task force expects to present its report early next year, with a potential carbon tax being piloted as early as next August.

  • SageThinker

    This is very good news. Internal carbon accounting is what is required to reduce greenhouse emissions from any entity. We have to first know where we’re most inefficient and can improve, and then improve.

    I would like to point out that if we moved toward a carbon fee and rebate in the US, then the world would come much closer to a harmonized global carbon fee system, and fossil fuel stocks would automatically be divested by all rational actors — even those who don’t even believe in or care about climate change. I see divestment as an effect, an indicator, that we’re moving in the right direction. Those who divest now will be in a better position to weather the coming storms — both literal and financial.

    Those who divest now are the “early adopters” who lead by showing that moral imperative trumps greed, and that some things are more important than squeezing the last penny of profits from every pound of capital. Those who lead by divesting now are showing the world their prescience, and they help to make a carbon fee and rebate nearer and more real. We, the human species, are amazing and unique among the animal kingdom. We alone have the power to write grand narratives and then change the face of the entire planet as a result. Our current grand narrative is destroying the planet because its logic is that of the cancer cell — growth without bounds, growth without ethics or consideration of the needs of others. This would have been considered a social disease in many other cultures and in deep human history. We are a sick society, but we have the power to heal ourselves by each choice we make, and Yale has just made a historic choice toward the good.

    I have great admiration and gratitude for this initiative.