Yale unveils action plan to advance campus climate change goals

The sun shining through trees on Cross Campus.
(Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Yale has announced details of its three-pronged approach to achieving “carbon zero” status on campus by 2050, a sweeping plan that will reshape the university’s approach to the consumption of energy.

The new details address one of the key goals of the Yale Sustainability Plan 2025 (released in 2016), laying out a path to mitigating climate change through campus operations. They provide substantial new funding for overhauling campus infrastructure and researching climate solutions. And they revamp the Yale Carbon Charge — a campus initiative requiring top-level administrative units at Yale to pay for the emissions their buildings produce — which will become a key source of support for efforts to decarbonize the campus.

I am proud of the research, the teaching, and the enhancements to campus operations under way to address climate change,” said Yale President Peter Salovey. “Together, they will enable us to assume a leading role among universities in the effort to slow and adapt to the profoundly disruptive ways our planet is changing. We must continue to think creatively as we act decisively.”

Yale’s Office of Sustainability published the details Nov. 9 on its website.

I am pleased Yale has laid out a concrete plan to move our university toward decarbonization,” said Virginia Chapman, director of Yale’s Office of Sustainability. “It is important to act urgently on climate change to help lessen the burden on those most vulnerable, who will bear the most severe impacts.”

In a series of climate commitments Salovey and Provost Scott Strobel announced in June, Yale said it would reduce actual carbon emissions on campus to zero as soon as possible and no later than 2050. Before then, by 2035, the university plans to have achieved net zero carbon emissions through actual emissions reductions from energy conservation measures, clean energy technologies, and, as necessary, the careful purchase of high-quality, verifiable carbon offsets.

Yale expects that by 2035, it will have reduced actual emissions by more than 65% from 2015 levels.

Additional climate goals announced in June included an increase in relevant research and teaching under the aegis of the university-wide Planetary Solutions Project — a cross-disciplinary approach to complex environmental challenges that was launched in December 2020 — and refinements to Yale’s long-standing ethical approach to investment. Among these refinements was the April 2021 adoption of a new set of fossil fuel investment principles to guide the investment of Yale’s endowment.

Achieving the next phase of Yale’s climate ambitions — eliminating all actual emissions on campus by midcentury — will require a continued shift toward energy efficiency and clean energy. At this time, the most straightforward path to clean energy is electrification. To that end, the university will take the following steps, according to the latest announcement:

  • Systematically assess and ready buildings for electrified heating by improving building envelopes, the barrier between conditioned and unconditioned areas of the building; by installing responsive building management systems to improve efficiency; by creating energy storage capacity; and by preparing rooftops for solar technologies;
  • Develop new, more efficient space-use policies that yield emissions reductions;
  • Design new construction to serve a “zero fossil fuel campus” by minimizing their energy consumption to the greatest degree possible, while providing as much local renewable energy as practical, such as geothermal wells with heat pumps and rooftop photovoltaic solar arrays.

Yale will increase its use of renewable energy overall, according to the plan.

Beginning in the mid-2030s, Yale intends to adopt emerging technologies such as deep Earth geothermal heat, biomass gasification, and green hydrogen. Yale also will continue to install solar energy technology on campus, in combination with energy storage technology.

The main goal for Yale is to reduce actual, on-campus emissions, but it will also supplement its efforts with carbon offsets.

In 2020, Yale used offsets to “retire” 48,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2e) — claiming it against the university’s carbon footprint — to meet the university’s first greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. Yale will continue to retire carbon offsets annually as long as necessary to achieve its net emission target.

In tandem, Yale science and policy researchers will work to improve the functioning of carbon offset markets, which list and regulate carbon offset projects. Assuming they do, the university aims to reach net zero emissions by approximately 2035.

Yale estimates it will cost about $1.5 billion over the next three decades to achieve its climate targets, with all parts of the university sharing in the cost.

Paying for the effort will involve:

  • Modifying the Yale Carbon Charge, a first-of-its-kind internal pricing mechanism in which each top-level administrative unit is charged for the emissions its buildings produce. Beginning in fiscal year 2023, related revenue will be used to fund investments required to reduce campus emissions;
  • Requiring each budgetary unit to contribute funding based on their current emissions; and
  • Increasing the price per metric ton from $20/MTCO2e in fiscal year 2023 to $50/MTCO2e in fiscal year 2025, followed by periodic reevaluation of the rate, to better align with the social cost of carbon.

Yale leaders said revenue from the carbon charge will fund approximately 10% of the investments required to eliminate campus carbon emissions.

Further, the charge will continue to engage the entire Yale community in climate change efforts by ensuring contributions from current building occupants (through their more energy-efficient use of facilities, for example), by creating greater understanding of emissions (through monthly reports of energy consumption, for example), and by establishing a financial incentive for administrative units to reduce emissions.

Additional measures the university will take include:

  • Increasing the amount of capital expenditures for greenhouse gas emission reduction projects from $15 million annually to $25 million by reallocating money from other projects; and
  • Expanding, if necessary, the capital budget to help pay for additional projects.

Meeting Yale’s climate goals and reducing emissions will also require individuals across the university to use energy in campus buildings more efficiently and to reduce travel, university officials said.

We must work together as a university community to address the global climate crisis,” Salovey said. “Achieving these ambitious climate targets will require all of us to shift our behavior. This is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership through the collective actions of students, faculty, and staff.”

Added Strobel: “Climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time. We have only one planet. We must use the full weight of our expertise and resources, as a global research university, to help solve this existential threat.

Our ability to do this together through collaborative efforts of the Planetary Solutions Project, which includes the Carbon Charge program, is crucial to our success.”

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Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-980-2222