Woodbridge Hall, Berkeley College and La Casa Cultural are among 20 campus buildings that will be included in a six-month-long pilot project to reduce Yale’s carbon emissions.
These buildings — chosen as a cross section of the more than 300 Yale buildings in their energy use, function and size — are taking part in the first step of a three-year carbon charge project recommended by Yale’s Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force in April 2015 and officially unveiled in a Monday email from University President Peter Salovey to the Yale Community. To Yale’s knowledge, the program is the first of its kind at an American university and seeks to change the way people use buildings on campus, said Ryan Laemel ’14, the carbon charge project coordinator.
“We know a lot about the theory of carbon pricing, but we haven’t studied too closely how we move from theory to practice,” Laemel said.
The pilot program divides the 20 Yale buildings into four groups of five buildings, with each group set to undergo a different method of reducing carbon emissions. The first group will be subject to a system of “carbon charges” where buildings whose change in emissions exceeds the group’s average change are penalized $40 per ton of carbon on the margin. $40 is a price that represents the “social cost” of carbon as calculated by the federal government. Buildings that outperform the group’s average during the six-month test period will be rewarded with the same amount.
One of the challenges the pilot program organizers faced was deciding which buildings to include in the program, said Jennifer Milikowsky FES ’15 SOM ’15, the carbon charge project manager. Finding 20 buildings that accurately represent the University’s energy use as a whole was not easy, she added.
Milikowsky said some people briefed on the project thought that working in an old, inefficient building poses an unfair disadvantage for the carbon charge program. In fact, the pilot program’s four methods focus on individual buildings’ energy efficiency, rather than instituting side-by-side comparisons across older and new buildings.
“We’re trying to focus on behavior,” Milikowsky said. An inefficient building often has “low-hanging fruit,” things like open windows or changing the thermostat that can be easily amended to yield large emissions reductions in a short period of time, she said. But in this way, she added, more efficient buildings may have a harder time reducing emissions.
Laemel emphasized that this carbon charge model is “redistributive,” meaning that since all bonuses distributed are balanced out by penalties accrued, the program pays for itself. He added that one potential drawback of the program’s first method of reducing emissions is that it is competitive in nature, and may not promote the sharing of ideas between buildings or departments.
School of Public Health Dean Paul Cleary, who oversees the program’s implementation at the school, said that while some of the four pilot programs use the language of “carbon taxes,” the programs are actually revenue-neutral, meaning that the they are designed solely to change incentive structures and behavior rather than pay for University spending.
The five buildings in the second group will be expected to reduce carbon emissions each by exactly 1 percent, with rewards distributed for additional carbon cuts. Laemel said that while this method may not be revenue-neutral, it does facilitate greater collaboration between buildings to reduce carbon emissions.
The third group of buildings will all be charged $40 per ton of carbon emitted, and then refunded the money with 20 percent of the original fee earmarked toward energy efficiency. Laemel called this method a “forced investment.”
The fourth group is the control group and will not be charged at all for carbon emissions. Like all the groups, the fourth group of buildings will be presented with its energy bill at the end of the test period. This controlled approach is meant to determine whether directly receiving an energy bill has any impact on a building’s energy use.
William Nordhaus ’63, an economics professor and chair of the Carbon Charge Task Force, said the pilot program may show that many different approaches are needed across campus. He said he cannot predict which method will be most effective.
“I wish that I could tell you, but I can’t,” Nordhaus said. “That is why we are doing the different approaches. Let’s see which works best, and where.”
Nordhaus added that different sections of Yale’s campus have different budgets, which affects how carbon charges influence the behavior of people who work there. For example, Nordhaus said the School of Management pays its own energy and carbon bills, while residential colleges and academic departments do not, as their budgets come from the Provost’s Office.
While this initiative is designed to find the most effective way to change behavior in terms of sustainability, Cleary said it is unlikely that the program will result in drastic changes to carbon consumption within the buildings being tested. Instead, he said that moderate gains should be considered as one step in a broader process.
“No one has great expectations for reductions because the world is changing, everyone’s awareness is changing and people are changing, so it’s not like all of a sudden we’re going to get a 30 percent reduction in consumption in some of the buildings and none in the other ones,” Cleary said. “We’re probably talking on the margin, more like 5 or 10 percent.”
Cleary added that the University has considered a few other initiatives specifically targeted at changing incentive structures in carbon consumption, including a carbon tax on individuals within University facilities such as researchers, faculty and students. Such a program would be revenue-neutral and focused on making clear the hidden costs of carbon use to Yale affiliates.
Fossil Free Yale organizer Tristan Glowa ’18 said in a statement to the News on behalf of FFY that experiments like the carbon charge are important but are still not enough to meet the pressing and immediate climate crisis.
“Yale can and should divest from fossil fuel companies to call out their reckless business model that prioritizes profits over the lives of those impacted by extraction and climate disruption,” Glowa said.
Approximately 1 percent of Yale’s annual energy consumption comes from renewable sources, according to the Office of Sustainability.
Correction, Dec. 8: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to poor insulation in buildings as an easily amendable cause of high emissions. In fact, changing the thermostat is a simpler measure.