Carbon Taxes Are Coming, and We Have Colleges to Thank

Carbon Taxes Are Coming, and We Have Colleges to Thank
From Wired - March 12, 2018

We can all agree that taxes are no fun. But taxes are also what fund public education so our kids can read good, and what keep firefighters employed so our houses dont burn down. And its looking more and more likely that taxes could help our planet from burning down too, with something called a carbon tax. The simple premise: Pump out carbon dioxide, pay a fee.

There's a long, long line of research that shows that carbon pricing is often between 5 to 10 times more efficient than the policies that we already do, says MIT economist Christopher Knittel. Things like fuel economy standards for cars, or renewable energy requirements for electricity companies.

So, great, lets do it! Except, even at the state leveland the blue state level, at thata carbon tax is a tough sell. Earlier this month a bill to institute the nations first carbon tax floundered in the Washington state senate, which is controlled by Democrats. But, a glimmer of hope: Universities are starting to show the politicians how its done. It turns out that colleges provide a fantastic model for how to start thinking about a carbon tax on a state or even national level.

Consider Yale. In July of last year it deployed a clever charging scheme for its buildings, based on facilities' energy use relative to the campus as whole. If in any period an individual building does better compared to its historical period than Yale does compared to its historical period, then that building gets money back, says Casey Pickett, director of Yale's carbon charge project. If it does worse than Yale did, then it ends up paying money.

By pitting individual buildings against their own historical energy usage, the system helps control for the different sizes and ages of the facilitiesa 50-year-old building cant compete against a brand new one, after all. It also adjusts for weather, since you dont want to be comparing your heat-blasting January usage against a less energetically costly April. All the while, the buildings are compared to the school as a whole.

One way not to do it would be what Yale toyed with in a pilot study: Targeted reductions, in this case just by 1 percent. If you hit that, you get money back, and if you do not you have to pay us, Pickett says. But in that case, if there's a cold winter everyone would do poorly and everyone would have a hard time hitting their target.

So Yale has worked itself out a carbon charge system. That's not to say its program would work everywhere. Take Swarthmore College, which counts just 1,600 students. You could almost view our entire college like one department of Yale, says Aurora Winslade, the school's director of sustainability.

Unlike Yale, Swarthmore's departments do not take up whole buildings. So instead, Swarthmores carbon charge comes in the form of a fee: about 1.25 percent of each department's operating budget, excluding salaries. Departments are also invited to voluntarily reduce some part of their budget to bump that carbon fee even higher.

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