Nathan Graf, Swarthmore College class of 2016, didn’t study for this. A biology and chemistry double major as an undergraduate, Graf intended to go into biomedical research as a career. “That was my plan before November 8,” he said recently. But with the election of climate change skeptic Donald Trump, he says, “Climate change work got a whole lot more urgent than it already was.”
Graf is Climate Action Senior Fellow in the college’s Office of Sustainability, a new position for which he was hired this summer. He is responsible for the implementation of the college’s new Carbon Charge initiative. Graf and Swarthmore’s Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade spoke recently with the Swarthmorean on the idea and iteration of the carbon charge, which puts the college in the company of Yale University in charging itself for carbon emissions, and putting the proceeds from those charges toward renewable energy development.
Swarthmorean: How does a carbon charge work at Swarthmore?
Nathan Graf: The goal is to have a system whereby we charge departments for the social costs associated with their carbon emissions, and use that revenue to fund emissions-reducing projects. For this first year we’re actually using budget sizes as a proxy for carbon emissions. So based on the total college-wide heat and electricity use, we’ve calculated a total social cost associated with those emissions. That price is $26 per metric ton of carbon dioxide or equivalent greenhouse gas generated. This year, that charge is calculated for each department as a percentage of total budget size, which loosely correlates with emissions. For the pilot year, we allocated extra funds to departments to cover that 100% of that charge.
Aurora Winslade: It does show up on the balance sheet of every department. In order for departments to see it, we gave it out and then we took it back so they would understand what’s happening.
Swarthmorean: How was the charge calculated?
NG: We took all Scope 1 [heat and onsite generation] and Scope 2 [purchased electricity] emissions estimates … and we calculated $26 per metric ton of carbon dioxide or equivalent greenhouse gas. Swarthmore has a challenge in that we don’t have sufficiently fine scale sub-metering of individual buildings, especially since multiple departments share a building. So it’s difficult [to charge on actual usage by department].
Swarthmorean: Will it be reevaluated on an ongoing basis?
NG: EPA publishes an estimate of the social cost of carbon, pegging the 2016 social cost of carbon at around $40 per metric ton … [which] is generally considered a very, very conservative estimate. It omits components of the social cost that are impossible to monetize … some very large and very costly impacts of climate change. Even if you just take that set of baseline impacts plus a calculation of reduced GDP growth based on that, one Stanford study penciled it out to about $220 per ton of carbon, and it gets much higher if you factor in war, migration, instability, etc.
AW: Our target was $40/ton … what we achieved with this first iteration is $26/ton. It is impressive that the college was willing to act this quickly on a proposal this costly when we didn’t have all the details. We said let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Swarthmore is a leader in this, even with an imperfect carbon price, I think Nathan and others are helping to convene the conversation regionally and even nationally about what is higher education’s role in carbon pricing.
Swarthmorean: What do you do to change mindset and behavior within the college community?
AW: Part of what we’re trying to do is empower, educate, and incentivize people to make good day to day choices, but that is only a portion of the energy use. It’s not so much whether you turn off your light, it’s what light bulbs are installed; things individual staff and faculty members have little to no control over. One of our student leaders is developing a green revolving fund, using a portion of the fund for the carbon charge to finance projects that have attractive financial payback to make sure there is capital available for say, a lighting retrofit. Then have savings from those projects pay back the fund over time so we have a continual revolving fund.
NG: One of the more powerful goals is to create a platform for a conversation about carbon pricing and developing solutions to climate change that wouldn’t otherwise be had. I think carbon pricing is a really powerful policy option for fighting climate change that isn’t widely understood or well known.
Swarthmorean: How will you measure success over time?
AW: The big measure is eventually not having to have a carbon charge because we’ve achieved carbon neutrality. It leads to some really interesting considerations, like how much are we willing to pay for carbon-neutral biofuel for our heat plant. At what social cost of carbon do we start to think these options are really the best choice? Because of this carbon charge we’re now engaging in a comprehensive energy strategy process in which we’re working with a regional consulting group to do deep analysis of all of our facilities, our energy infrastructure, renewable energy and energy efficiency options, and really lay out what will it take to get to carbon neutrality.