Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

Yale will now use the money it makes from its internal carbon charge program to fund decarbonization initiatives across campus buildings.

Yale pioneered its Carbon Charge program in 2017. The University tracks the amount of energy used in Yale buildings, converts these energy units into their carbon dioxide equivalent and multiplies that number by the price of carbon. Building units are then charged that value, and must pay it to a central pool in the University.

In past years, the University has then redistributed that pool back to the buildings, with the buildings who have decreased their energy usage receiving the largest refunds. In the new carbon charge model, the money is instead put into a central fund to invest in major projects to reduce carbon emissions across campus.

“One of the key points about the carbon charge is it’s this cool example of applied research where we implemented an academic idea and have worked to make that experiment transparent,” said Casey Pickett, director of the Yale Carbon Charge program.

Due to the difficulties of tracking energy use, only 273 of the University’s 500 buildings participate in the Carbon Charge program. Those 273 buildings make up 75 percent of the University’s building emissions, Pickett said. 

Economics and management professor Edward Snyder, who sat on the University’s Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force, explained that the purpose of carbon charge programs is to make the cost of carbon use more accurately reflect the damage it does to the environment. Many peer universities are piloting similar programs, but Snyder says he ultimately hopes the program will be enacted nationwide.

Currently Yale prices carbon at $20 a ton. The new price estimate of carbon under the Biden administration, $50 per ton, will be phased in over three years, Pickett said. 

The new carbon charge model is expected to create larger energy reductions than the older one. While energy levels have decreased on campus since the start of the carbon charge program, the decrease has not been statistically significant enough to establish a causal link, according to Pickett. By giving building managers the ability to make infrastructure changes, Pickett hopes the carbon charge program will have a greater impact.

“It’s really hard to make the substantial gains of the type we really need to make by focusing on that kind of incentive,” Pickett said. “There’s just only so much that individual units can do with their buildings. But we can make more substantial impacts on carbon emissions with some major central investments.”

The carbon charge could, for example, fund the kind of investments that would allow a building to switch to a zero carbon fuel or generate its own electricity, Pickett said. 

Yale was one of the first colleges to implement a carbon charge on its campus. The program has been well received in other universities around the world, including University College London. 

“Because we had so many good supporters internally for the scheme, we were eventually oversubscribed for the pilot,” Joanna Marshall-Cook, a leader of climate actions programs at UCL, said on Yale’s Carbon Charge podcast. “There were more departments that wanted to take part than we could actually support.”

As for the implementation of the program off college campuses, it does seem likely that governments will implement a carbon charge program that will hopefully lead us towards a cooler planet.

“As to whether Yale will be a model — it should be, but I don’t think it will,” Snyder said. “It has more to do with the political feasibility of implementing a carbon charge program rather than the data on the efficacy of the program. It’s really unfortunate to not have a more market-based approach.”

In 2020, the United States greenhouse gas emissions averaged 5,222 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents according to the EPA. 

Correction, Sep. 15: A previous version of this article said that buildings can apply to grants to access the money created by the new carbon charge program. In fact, this is not a fund that individuals buildings can apply to but a central fund designed for larger swaths of campus. 

Isabel Maney covers sustainability and environment. She is a first-year in Trumbull College.