Swarthmore’s Carbon Charge and Sustainability Efforts Put College Ahead of Peer Institutions

In February, the Board of Managers approved a faculty proposal to institute a college-wide carbon charge.

The charge will levy a fee of 0.5% of each academic department’s budget. The money gathered will be used to establish a fund dedicated to carbon-reduction projects.

Increasing carbon efficiency has been a major priority of facilities staff for a long time, according to Aurora Winslade, Director of Sustainability. Because of this, Swarthmore is in the lowest 5-10% of carbon users among peer institutions.  

The idea for the carbon charge started in what was essentially a reading group within Swarthmore’s economics department that was interested in exploring carbon pricing, Winslade said.

The theory behind carbon pricing, according to Winslade, is that carbon is not accurately priced in the marketplace. The market price ignores the negative social costs of burning fossil fuels, and a carbon charge is an attempt to correct for this disparity.

The reading group evolved into a faculty group, which developed a carbon charge proposal. They presented the original proposal to the Board in December, which was  “warmly and enthusiastically received by the Board,” Winslade said.

The proposal was also presented at the all-faculty meeting in January. At this meeting, “There were a lot of good questions, but overall tremendous enthusiasm,” Winslade said.  

This original proposal had three parts. First, it called for the establishment of a shadow price on carbon for new building projects. Second, it called for a charge on operational budgets. Third, it called for the establishment of a fund for the reduction of carbon emissions.

The proposal, according to Winslade, asked for $400,000, but the Board chose to create a $300,000 fund for the first year at their meeting in February where the budget for the coming year was approved. The charge will remain a permanent budget line.  

“In my view, if the charge is going to be meaningful it will satisfy three criteria: (1) it has to be meaningful, and should compete with all other budget priorities – otherwise it’s not reflective of how such a charge would work in the broader economy; (2) it should change behavior – specifically, it should reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which should limit its long-term impact on the budget; and (3) it should be a template that other institutions can adopt and modify, as we all build toward a meaningful means of effecting real change.  I believe the plan put forward by the faculty meets these criteria,” Tom Spock ’78, chair of the Board of Managers, wrote in an email.

Winslade believes the charge will have two major impacts, “To help create the right internal incentives to reduce emissions and create funding for the things that will help reduce emissions and also, I think, to make a public statement that we are taking this seriously, this is important and this is something that we as a society need to care about and prioritize,” Winslade said.  

However, there are questions over whether the charge will meet its goals. This year, all operational budgets are increasing. This means that departments will see the carbon charge as a slightly smaller increase in their budget from the previous year.

Biology department head Amy Vollmer thinks her department will not notice the impact of the charge, and looks forward to future steps.

“[The 0.5% budget decrease] won’t be noticed by anyone but me,” Vollmer said. “I don’t think the department is going to feel the change. I think right now it is a way to spread the cost evenly. I am much more interested in finding out what happens next […] developing a rubric that measures whether a department is doing enough.”  

Swarthmore alum Duncan Gromko ’07, does not believe the Swarthmore carbon charge will be effective in reducing energy consumption.

“I welcome Swarthmore’s commitment to spend $300,000 on energy efficiency upgrades and other measures to reduce the College’s impact on climate change. But the carbon charge policy – as I’ve seen it written up – does not achieve the objectives set out by President Valerie Smith in her response to Swarthmore Mountain Justice. Most importantly, the plan as it’s been described will not affect energy demand […] If implemented as written up in Swarthmore press releases and The Phoenix, the Swarthmore carbon charge will not change incentives for energy users and therefore will not affect demand for energy,” Gromko wrote in an email.

The general idea of a carbon charge is not new, but many of the practical aspects of implementing a carbon charges are still being worked out.

“It’s been a major national political issue over the years, with a lot of variations including a ‘gas tax’ and others.  It’s an obvious way to help control emissions, but politically sensitive because such a charge would cost people real money,” Spock wrote in an email.  

However, Winslade said the idea of internal carbon charges in higher education is relatively new and the college is learning is as it goes. The Swarthmore carbon charge comes on the heels of carbon charges established at other institutions, including Yale University. Vassar College is also in the process of developing a charge.

Because of the short timeline between the original proposal and the establishment of the carbon charge, exact details of how the carbon charge will work are still being developed. The charge will likely increase over time, but specifics of the process have yet to be established. A committee will be formed to oversee the fund but it will fall to President Smith to determine who will be appointed to the committee. According to Winslade, the committee will have faculty, staff, and student input.

Potential projects that the fund will be used for include installing low-flow, high-efficiency showerheads throughout campus, contracting an outside company to complete an energy audit to maximize the efficiency of campus buildings, meter installation to measure carbon output, educational programming, environmental research and additional research into potential carbon reduction projects, according to Winslade.

“Our facilities staff have been reducing energy consumption very aggressively for many, many years. So even without this dedicated fund, they have been extremely thoughtful and creative about ways they can reduce energy use,” Winslade said. “Knowing that that money is there, will be there, and the intention is for it to grow over time, really opens up the doors to upping the level of investment and planning that goes into this.”

Vollmer also noted that within the Biology department, faculty are very aware of the importance of sustainability. The department has taken steps to order products with reasonable packaging (i.e. no packing peanuts), to turn off lights in empty rooms and to close windows at night, and to reduce paper waste.  The new biology, engineering and psychology building will also improve the efficiency of the department.  

According to Winslade, the Board also implemented building requirements that mandate sustainable designs last fall. This sustainability framework is meant to make all new building projects meet or exceed the highest standard set out by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a green building certification program.

An issue raised around the carbon charge is how it relates to the Mountain Justice divestment movement on campus.

Winslade and Spock agree that the carbon charge is not meant to be a replacement for divestment.

“It is not a response to divestment. It is a response to the urgency of climate change,” Winslade said.

Spock sees the charge as a different way of approaching the threat of climate change. “I can’t speak for others, but from a Board perspective these are different approaches to the same common purpose – to reduce the threat that climate change will have on our own, and future generations,” Spock wrote in an email.   

However, according to Mountain Justice media outreach coordinator, Sophia Zaia ‘18, a carbon charge will not suffice:   

“I think the carbon charge is really positive in that is shows the school is feeling more pressure to take steps in environmental issues […] but I think that it is not enough,” Zaia said. “To say that only the supply side is important maybe would have worked 50 years ago, before Exxon covered up climate change and there was climate change denial for so long. But we know the crisis is much more urgent than that and we need to be fighting this as a systemic problem.”  

Despite the Board’s refusal to divest, the college has shown commitment to confronting climate change in other areas. The College’s Climate Action Plan commits Swarthmore to achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. President Valerie Smith has also announced a new President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship, which will pair students with faculty to work on a yearlong paid research internship.


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Mariah Everett

Mariah is a junior and double major in Biology and Sociology/Anthropology from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the assistant News Editor for The Daily Gazette. She is a big fan of walking through graveyards, reading about medical pandemics, trying new foods, collecting bumper stickers, and petting baby goats.

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