Sarah Eckinger

Yesterday, Yale became the first American university to introduce a program of carbon charges.

The program, which charges buildings on Yale’s campus that exceed a target amount of carbon dioxide emissions, was unveiled in April 2015 by Yale’s Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force. And on Nov. 19, at a White House summit on climate change, the University officially pledged to implement it. The six-month-long carbon charge experiment, beginning with December’s energy bill, is one limb of a larger network of climate change programs that bring Yale in step with President Barack Obama’s carbon emissions goals at the ongoing United Nations Conference on Climate Change taking place this week in Paris. Dozens of Yale faculty and students, including 60 students from Yale College and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, are traveling to Paris over the course of this week to attend additional conferences on the topic of climate change.

“The pledge is to do better than we already are,” said Yale Office of Sustainability Director Virginia Chapman, who represented Yale at the White House last month. “As far as we know, Yale is the only institution planning to test an internal carbon charge.”

Over 200 colleges and universities signed the White House pledge to move toward low-carbon energy, but each school made further commitments that varied from institution to institution, Chapman said. In addition to beginning the carbon charge experiment, Yale pledged to expand its sustainability plans to more fully include the academic community by increasing teaching and research on climate change, instead of simply targeting Yale’s facilities and its carbon emissions. Current academic programs that focus on climate change include the Energy Studies Program through the Yale Climate & Energy Institute, which is in its third year, and the environmental studies major.

The carbon charge program, which is at the heart of Yale’s environmental goals, comes after a recommendation by the Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force earlier this spring that Yale implement such a program within the next three years. Yale’s pledge now moves the carbon charge program from a recommendation toward a reality, although the program remains merely in the preliminary planning stages.

The program establishes a competition between all campus buildings to reduce emissions. All 365 of Yale’s buildings will eventually be divided into units, like residential colleges or academic buildings, and each unit will be charged for any excess carbon emissions. Only 20 Yale buildings, divided into four or five units, will participate in the pilot program. The April report said that while individual units will be charged, the entire program will not incur any significant net charges for Yale, since rebates given to more efficient building units will balance the charges for less efficient buildings. Because the program is experimental, the exact division of the building units and the system of charging has yet to be worked out, although students across the University have already begun to brainstorm.

For example, James Ball FES ’16, a professional school coordinator at the Office of Sustainability who studies sustainable housing, said that Kroon Hall — the F&ES building that could be considered one unit under the carbon charge program — would compare its own emissions over the next year to its average emissions over the past three. If Kroon Hall exceeds its usual carbon emission average, Ball said, F&ES would be charged $40 for each ton of carbon. However, if Kroon Hall performs better than its usual average, the F&ES unit would get a rebate.

“It’s innovative and it’s a zero-sum game,” Ball said of the program. “There are winners and losers.”

According to Chapman, Yale will be evaluating the effectiveness of different pricing schemes in the piloting of the carbon charge program. More information detailing the specifics of the pilot program will be released by the end of the semester, she added.

But while Yale takes steps on its own campus, students and faculty are addressing climate change on a global level as well, attending the Paris talks which aim to draft a universal agreement to take serious steps toward slowing global warming. Since he took office, Obama has sought the aid of colleges and universities to make commitments similar to Yale’s recent pledge. In Paris, Obama aims to strike a deal that commits the United States to reducing roughly 27 percent of its carbon emissions in the next 15 years.

Chapman said the White House summit was designed to generate momentum in the days leading up to the UN conference.

As Yale positions itself as a leader in the effort against climate change, both on campus and worldwide, students emphasized the importance of collaboration between students and administrators.

“There needs to be high-level commitment and then there needs to be bottom-level participatory work,” Ball said. “This is just one side of a broader sustainability effort.”

Martha Longley ’18, a research assistant at the Office of Sustainability, said she thinks Yale is already perceived as a leader, adding that she hopes other schools will follow the example Yale set with its recent pledge. Longley is traveling to Paris to deliver a presentation at an event held by the International Alliance of Research Universities simultaneously with the UN conference.

Like Ball, Longley emphasized the need for student involvement in making Yale more sustainable. The Office of Sustainability funds many student projects and employs the Sustainability Service Corps, a group of students who advocate for more environmentally sound practices on campus.

In recent years, student groups like Fossil Free Yale have criticized Yale for continuing to invest in fossil fuels. While some FFY members said they see Yale’s pledge a sign of progress, they pointed out that the pledge does not address the role of divestment in fighting global warming. FFY organizer Elias Estabrook ’16 called elements of the pledge “commendable” but said it has a “significant hole.”

“There’s no real mention of Yale’s role as an institutional investor,” Estabrook said.

Yale Law School professor Jonathan Macey LAW ’82, who chairs the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, said he supports the pledge, noting that it aligns with a letter Chief Investment Officer David Swensen sent to Yale’s fund managers last fall urging them to focus on climate change in making investment decisions.

On Tuesday night, F&ES professor Ben Cashore made a Skype call to Kroon Hall from Paris, sharing his thoughts on the climate conference with an audience of several dozen students and faculty. He said that while there was a lot of enthusiasm at the conference, he questioned whether anything would actually be achieved.

“Perhaps we have a little bit too much excitement,” Cashore said.

According to the Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force report, Yale directly or indirectly emits around 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.