Why Middlebury Should Implement an Internal Carbon Charge


This is the third in a series of three op-eds from the carbon pricing campaign at Middlebury. The first was focused on the federal level, the second was focused on carbon pricing in Vermont and this one endorses a carbon pricing mechanism at Middlebury College. To learn more or to get involved, come to Sunday Night Environmental Group at 8 PM at Hillcrest.

Middlebury prides itself on prioritizing environmental leadership. Our robust Environmental Studies curriculum is the oldest of its kind in the US, the Middlebury School of the Environment fosters learning beyond the classroom, and numerous environmental clubs and organizations actively engage with the climate movement beyond the boundaries of Twilight Hall and the college Knoll. Middlebury’s carbon-neutrality announcement in 2016 showcased our ongoing commitment to climate leadership. But there is room to grow and a responsibility to fulfill. As a recognized model for institutions that value social, environmental and economic sustainability in Vermont and beyond, Middlebury should redouble its contribution to climate action by implementing an internal carbon charge and acting as a leader for other institutions to do the same.

Since the Obama Administration, the country’s widened partisan rift has immobilized the White House’s progress on issues of climate change and carbon legislation. Arguably, President Obama did not do enough to enact carbon legislation, and in 2010 a Republican-controlled Congress thwarted his cap-and-trade proposal. President Trump’s election and his subsequent decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement then became symbols for the government’s heightened divisiveness and the demise of federal leadership on issues of climate change. With Congress mired down by partisanship and a presidential administration hostile to climate action, lawmakers will respond only in the face of united, staunch and coalition-driven lobbying.

Examples abound for the power of coalitions to drive positive change. For instance, according to Diane Toomey’s article “Why This Tea Party Leader is Seeing Green on Solar Energy,” the Georgia-based Green Tea Coalition has fused the conservative ideal of energy independence with the environmentalists’ demand for clean energy into a compelling case for solar power. In 2017, the Climate Leadership Council presented their “Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends,” whose proposal to enact a carbon tax reconciled pro-business and environmental values. In Vermont and other states, coalitions such as Energy Independent Vermont (EIV) have worked assiduously to collaborate with and engage different actors in grassroots campaigns. There is momentum, and it is growing. Colleges and universities should also participate and play an expanded role in this uphill struggle to regulate carbon and protect our environment.

The first step toward strengthening Middlebury’s commitment to environmental sustainability is a clear one. President Laurie Patton should join 35 other college and university presidents in endorsing the Higher Ed Carbon Pricing Initiative, a national campaign which amplifies the call on lawmakers to support carbon pricing. Carbon pricing has more bipartisan support than any other climate legislation because it can facilitate economic growth as well as cut carbon emissions. For instance, an in-depth independent study conducted by a respected group of economists, Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), found that a carbon price in Vermont rising from $10/ton to $100/ton over a decade would result in net job growth, increased gross state product and reduced carbon pollution. As a self-proclaimed leader in environmental sustainability, Middlebury should harness its platform and endorse a campaign whose proposal is one of the best and most feasible options available for climate change mitigation. Middlebury’s use of carbon credits to certify “carbon neutrality,” while a valuable contribution, is not enough. Middlebury’s endorsement of carbon pricing will give state- and federal-level policy adoption greater legitimacy, align with the college’s sustainability mission, and pressure local, state and federal government officials to address an issue of rising salience.

In addition to expressing support for carbon pricing at the national level, Middlebury should buttress its environmental mission with a more concrete step: an internal carbon charge. An internal carbon charge is an effective policy tool for institutions such as Middlebury because it not only accounts for greenhouse gas emissions but provides economic benefits and incentives for abatement. For instance, a charge on departmental budgets commensurate to their aggregate greenhouse gas emissions (multiplied by the social cost of carbon) incentivizes more efficient energy use, technological innovation and behavioral change in order to reduce the cost of the charge. An internal carbon charge behaves the same way that a state- or federal-level carbon price does: it makes clean energy cheaper than dirty energy. Greater efficiency standards and a shift toward sustainable technologies would result in emissions reductions as well as reduced energy costs, which would not happen without the incentives a carbon charge provides. Moreover, the revenue collected from the charge would fund further sustainability projects and education efforts on campus. This critical element would create a feedback loop of behavioral change alongside increased investments in sustainable energy alternatives.

Swarthmore and Yale have been pioneers among institutions of higher ed in implementing versions of this policy on their campuses. For example, Swarthmore College’s Carbon Charge has three main elements. According to “Swarthmore Carbon Charge Program” on their college website, the first component is a 1.25 percent tax on departmental budgets to account for the social cost of Swarthmore’s annual carbon emissions, with the generated revenue to be earmarked for further sustainability and energy efficiency projects. The second element is a “shadow price” on the projected greenhouse gas emissions of new construction and renovation projects. This shadow price adjusts cost-benefit analyses for construction projects such that the projected costs reflect the social cost of carbon, thus making it more prudent to invest in sustainable technologies for each new building. The third and final element is the development and strengthening of education initiatives and an emphasis on encouraging behavioral change in the community.

The Carbon Pricing campaign under Middlebury’s Environmental Council proposes the designation of a committee comprised of students, faculty, staff and administrators in charge of determining the structure of this policy at Middlebury. The purpose of the committee would be to establish the parameters for the internal carbon charge, with the aim of reducing the college’s carbon emissions and using the funds to invest in sustainable projects that ultimately save the college money. A guiding principle and priority for the committee would be to prevent the carbon charge from resulting in increased tuition costs or decreased salaries. Finally, the committee would ensure continual engagement and transparency between students, faculty and staff in order to promote democratic decision-making, evaluate the efficacy of the policy in the post-implementation stage, and heighten adaptability.

Middlebury should reinforce its commitment to environmental sustainability by implementing an internal carbon charge. In the absence of federal leadership in climate policy, states, coalitions and grassroots organizations need to mobilize to fill the gap. Middlebury should too.

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