In the past few months, Yale has welcomed speakers ranging from Leonardo DiCaprio to John Kerry ’66 to discuss the impact of climate change. But the University is doing more than just talking about climate change — Yale has also announced plans to go carbon-neutral by 2050 and is taking steps toward that goal.

On July 1, Yale launched the Carbon Charge, creating the world’s first internal carbon market at a university scale. The initiative began less than a year after University President Peter Salovey announced the Yale Sustainability Plan 2025, with the goal of making Yale an international leader in academic exploration of sustainability. In that plan, Yale pledged to eliminate its carbon footprint by 2050, among other sustainability initiatives.

“We’re the first university to have an internal carbon charge,” said Casey Pickett, Yale’s carbon charge director. “The carbon charge is an important opportunity to add to the global dialogue on carbon pricing to find out what does and doesn’t work to reduce emissions.”

According to the carbon market system, administrative units across campus are required to pay $40 per ton of carbon dioxide they produce. Once the money is collected, it is redistributed based on each unit’s level of energy consumption.

If a unit’s change in emissions falls above the average change across all administrative units for a given year, it will receive a charge, while units performing better than the campus average receive a surplus.

“The model works out to be revenue-neutral for the University as a whole while providing a strong incentive to each administrative unit to reduce energy consumption,” Pickett said.

Recently released reports indicate that from July 2016 to July 2017, carbon emissions across Yale decreased by 8 percent. Administrative buildings received reports of their performances last month compared to the University-wide average and their respective charges.

Students familiar with the carbon charge said they supported the initiative.

“Market mechanisms are going to be the key to climate change solutions,” Holden Leslie-Bole ’18 said. “They reduce the need for regulation and help to mobilize a shift toward a green economy while spurring the development of clean technology.”

According to its architects, one of the goals of the carbon charge is to increase awareness of climate change within the Yale community. Gyan de Silva FES ’18 said he believes the initiative will “spread the word” about climate change policy and that it will make new kinds of educational opportunities possible for Yale faculty members and undergraduates.

Still, many students remain unsatisfied with the current rate of progress and the 2050 benchmark. Caroline Hobbs FES ’18 said he believes Yale should set a better example by taking the lead in adopting innovative sustainable practices.

“We need to diversify our energy dependence, invest in a balanced combination of renewables and integrate energy storage design into every new building,” Hobbs said. “This could mean frontloading investment in a combination of small-scale hydroelectric, solar and geothermal.”

In the Sustainability Plan 2025, Yale committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 43 percent of the University’s 2005 level by 2020. Despite Yale’s progress since implementing the carbon charge, the University had reduced emissions to just 76 percent of its 2005 level by the end of last year, prompting some to question Yale’s ability to meet its goal.

Although he acknowledged the work that remains to be done, Brad Gentry, associate dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Management, remains hopeful the goal will be reached, citing a renewed focus on carbon offsets elsewhere in order to compensate for emissions in New Haven.

“Unfortunately, many of the buildings on campus are old and energy inefficient,” he remarked. “Yale is looking off campus to achieve neutrality by including carbon offsets in its plan.”

Economics professor William Nordhaus ’63, chair of the Carbon Charge Presidential Task Force, cautioned against placing too much importance on quantitative checkpoints in general, arguing that they are largely symbolic. He said the best path forward for institutions like Yale is to “put a price on carbon,” as Yale has done with the carbon charge.

While Yale community members continue to debate the value of percentages and projections, students and faculty members alike remain excited about the University’s latest step to achieve neutrality.

“This is a cool case study of how a carbon market on a small scale could work,” Leslie-Bole said. “I’m really excited to see where we’ll be in 2050.”

Alex Reedy | alex.reedy@yale.edu