The creation and implementation of a Yale carbon charge remains up in the air.
In an August campus-wide email, University President Peter Salovey announced that the University would form a Carbon Charge Task Force led by Economics Professor William Nordhaus ’63 to consider the feasibility of implementing an internal carbon tax for the 2015–16 academic year. After nearly three months, three meetings and one town-hall discussion, there appears to be no greater clarity on what the specific mechanism will resemble in practice. Although members of the committee stated that they aim to issue a formal recommendation by early January, several experts, administrators and students remain uncertain whether a tax will ever reach the University balance sheets or create large scale change.
“The critical question of this task force is how to translate price signal across the University into an incentive of behavior change for each and every member of the Yale community,” said professor Dan Esty LAW ’83, a member of the task force. “The truth of the matter is that this is challenging since the everyday student in one of the Yale [residential] colleges does not pay an energy bill, and professors don’t pay energy bills either.”
As a result, Esty said the committee is exploring a wide range of options to apply this measure. He added while the members of the task force set a clear goal to create an internal price signal, the specifics of this charge have yet to be finalized.
He added that the initial meetings have focused on discussing the methodology of calculating Yale’s carbon footprint, specifically which units and departments would be included as part of the calculation. After delineating these boundaries, Esty said the task force will then work towards issuing a formal plan at the start of the calendar year.
One proposal that is currently being discussed is the implementation of a “revenue neutral charge,” according to Jennifer Milikowsky FES ’15, one of three student members on the force.
Milikowsky said this proposed charge will appear as a line-item on a unit or department’s annual budget. The more carbon the division emits, the higher the charge will be.
Since the University would not look to profit from these expenses, she said, the divisions would likely be refunded immediately for these costs.
But Milikowsky also said that, even without a direct financial impact on the divisions, students and faculty will still be incentivized to adopt more sustainable habits.
“Yale has a lot of influence over students and is present in our lives and in our days,” Milikowsky said. “So I think it is a little naive [to think that] if students are not being charged that they are not being influenced.”
Program Manager at the Yale Office of Sustainability Keri Enright-Kato said a variation on this plan would be to begin with this revenue-neutral charge — so that departments get a sense of the potential cost — and to then “ramp up” the actual price in order to spur a greater change in behavior.
Enright-Kato said that though she believes that applying this type of charge is feasible in practice, there remain logistical difficulties that may serve as a challenge to the task force. Some units, she said, do not receive an individual energy bill, since more than one unit can be housed in the same building.
Provost Benjamin Polak said that if Yale were to adopt a carbon tax, the cost would be neutral for the University as a whole. Individual departments, however, could still bear a direct financial impact.
Although Polak is not a member of the task force, and will only be reviewing the proposal once it is completed, he discussed a possible strategy to implement the carbon charge. By using fixed weights of carbon consumption for a certain year, he said, departments across the University could then be charged or rewarded based on their emissions consumed on the margin.
He added that the success of the task force should not be measured in whether or not their proposal becomes formal policy University-wide. It is important to learn from the process of deliberation, he said.
“If it turns out that [implementing a carbon charge] is incredibly difficult for logistical or political reasons or so on, that in itself is a benefit of this [process].”
Still, some students and experts remain unconvinced that the creation of the task force is the best way to improve the University’s overall sustainability.
Co-founder and Director of the Carbon Tax Center Charles Komanoff said while he believed missions pricing is the biggest step that Yale could take to reduce its carbon pollution, other methods may be more effective than a charge.
“Yale is so relatively small an entity that it’s hard for me to see how a Yale carbon tax could be more than a minor symbolic gesture,” Komanoff said. “Indeed, I’m inclined to think that some other readily available measures would likely have greater carbon-reducing impacts.”
Eliminating bundled electricity provided to students and free or discounted parking for students, faculty and staff, he said, are better solutions.
Mitch Barrows ’16, project manager for Fossil Free Yale, said that while any step the University could do to lower carbon emissions is positive, improving on-campus sustainability should not be the sole emphasis.
Yale could shut down their power plant tomorrow, he said, and it would still not be enough to fully combat the issue of climate change.
Still, Milikowsky said that the task force’s success at putting a price on carbon equivalents would demonstrate Yale’s leadership in the field and bring innovation to the University.
“My belief is that it is not one or the other … there is no one way to solve everything,” she said. “For students that don’t think this is enough, they may be right — but that is not an argument for why this isn’t a worthwhile thing to do.”
Yale has committed to a 43 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020.