Task force gathers opinions on a Yale carbon tax

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The members of the Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force at the town hall meeting were (from left) Robin Canavan, Sophie Janaskie, Jennifer Milikowsky, and William Nordhaus, chair of the committee. (Photo by Alex Zhang)

A campus forum on the idea of a Yale carbon tax brought up everything from making university departments more aware of their energy usage to getting professors to shut off their computers at night.

Overall, the students, faculty, and staff who attended the Nov. 6 session voiced support for a university carbon tax. If Yale were to establish such a tax, it would be the first major university to do so. In August, President Peter Salovey created a Presidential Carbon Charge Task Force to explore the idea and make a recommendation.

“We do feel this is an area in which Yale can be a leader in the field,” said Jennifer Milikowsky, a graduate student in the M.B.A./Master of Forestry program, and a student representative on the task force.

All aspects of a university charge for carbon use were open for discussion. The task force is looking into what a tax would mean for Yale’s fleet of vehicles, how to account for energy use in buildings that Yale leases rather than owns, how to influence individual behavior of students and staff, and how to implement a carbon charge without unfairly penalizing departments that require higher levels of energy use.

The task force also must determine whether a carbon tax would be in the form of a monetary charge. If so, what would be done with that revenue? “The ultimate goal of the charge would be to reduce emissions,” Milikowsky said. “It’s not to raise revenue.”

William Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics and chair of the task force, suggested the best way to implement a carbon tax would be to include as many sectors of the university as possible. It could be phased in gradually, but take in a broad range of people, departments and activities.

“It’s not just students. It’s also faculty,” Nordhaus said. He added that working on the task force has shown him that some university departments never see their own energy bills.

“Does anyone around the university who flips a switch see a bill?” Nordhaus asked.

Another student member of the task force, Sophie Janaskie ’15 of Yale College, outlined some basics of Yale’s energy consumption. The university uses 3.6 million MMBTU a year, across about 300 buildings. It is the energy use equivalent of 19,000 Connecticut households. Yale generates approximately 60% of its own power at its two co-generation power plants. The remaining electricity is purchased from the local electric utility, United Illuminating Co. Natural gas is purchased from Southern Connecticut Gas to power the power plants.

The university has an ambitious, ongoing sustainability effort in place to curb energy use and reduce its carbon footprint. The exploration of a carbon tax is part of that campus-wide effort.

Audience members at the Nov. 6 forum also asked about the possible impact of a tax on student tuition, retrofitting older buildings to make them more energy efficient, how the pricing for the tax would be calculated, and how the tax would be used for high-performance computing units that provide services to multiple parts of campus.

“These are all things we have to look at,” said task force member Robin Canavan, a doctoral student in geology and geophysics.

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Media Contact

Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332