Days after the Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force presented its blueprint to introduce a carbon charge on campus, students and environmental experts have both praised and criticized the plan.
On Wednesday, economics professor William Nordhaus ’63, the chair of the task force, presented the group’s yearlong research process and subsequent recommendation to roughly 40 audience members in Luce Hall. While Nordhaus explained details behind the carbon charge implementation plan, he stressed that this proposal is “just a blueprint,” adding that he is unsure of its future success. Some faculty and students praised the initiative while others — both at Yale and across the country — have questioned the effectiveness of a university-wide carbon charge.
Joseph Stagner, executive director of Sustainability and Energy Management at Stanford University, told the News that the internal carbon charge, while “well-intentioned,” was a “distracting and ineffective” initiative to cut down on carbon emissions.
“Very little control of carbon emissions is in the hands of individuals, or individual departments,” he said. He suggested that a more effective method would be to adopt a top-down approach in changing the campus energy infrastructure. He added that since 2013, Stanford has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 68 percent because of sustainability decisions made by the university’s board and president rather than through an internal carbon tax.
Shana Weber, the director of Princeton’s Office of Sustainability, said Princeton has been applying an internal carbon tax as a shadowing pricing tool — in other words, a way of dealing with intangible costs — in major building projects since 2006 and is currently updating its carbon tax program. She noted that a tax can be effective for reducing emissions, but suggested that it is challenging to determine an accurate price for the carbon charge. Princeton’s carbon tax is set at $35 per metric ton, compared to Yale’s proposed $40.
Attendees at Wednesday’s presentation also questioned whether the University could more effectively tackle its carbon footprint by tracking the emissions of individual units.
“The idea is very good, but it would rely on a extremely efficient organization, which Yale is not,” mechanical engineering professor Alessandro Gomez said during the talk. “You are trying to hit at the emissions, but we have no control of the emissions.”
One of the changes the task force recommended is more careful control of temperature in University buildings, but Gomez said his building’s temperature is determined by Yale Facilities, not his own department. According to Gomez, the only meaningful way of conserving energy would be to make changes elsewhere — not within his department.
During the talk, Nordhaus said while Yale cannot make a “big dent” in climate change, the University can serve as a leader to influence individual behavior.
“We think our role is not to actually change the global emissions, but to introduce policies, introduce ideas — what I call institutional innovation — to show the kinds of tools that can be used … to change the way people behave,” he said at the talk.
Emily Flynn, the associate director at the Sustainable Endowments Institute, an organization that focuses on campus environmentalism, said she strongly supports tracking energy and resource usage at universities. She believes that increased monitoring of individual departments’ operations will produce new data and identify problematic areas. She added that the SEI has seen a number of universities offer incentives to reduce energy usage, and said Yale’s carbon charge plan is a good method to add an element of “inter-college competition.”
“Yale’s mission is educational,” Provost Benjamin Polak said in his opening remarks at the talk. “[For] Yale to try to design something like this and put it into practice as a sort of experiment is an incredibly important educational thing to do. It’s a win even if we fail because we’re going to learn how hard it is.”
Fossil Free Yale Policy Coordinator Nathan Lobel ’17 said that though FFY applauds any efforts by the University to decrease emissions on campus, the group believes that “sustainability initiatives alone will always be insufficient so long as Yale endorses a business model that is incompatible with a just, livable planet for future generations through its investments.”
The task force recommended that the charge be phased in within three years beginning in the 2015–16 academic year. The period will allow the University to test the recommendations, make actual calculations of carbon emissions and initiate the budget charges for selected units. However, in his announcement of the report, University President Peter Salovey did not explicitly agree to a University-wide implementation within that time frame.