What universities really can do to fight climate change: A new proposal

How universities can really affect climate change: Not divestment, but a campus carbon tax

The movement to force university endowments to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies -- coal, oil and gas -- has some obvious shortcomings: For one thing, the effort is relatively painless, since it's unlikely that the endowment returns will be materially affected by taking these volatile companies out of their portfolios (or that the companies will care); for another, it's hypocritical, since university communities remain heavy consumers of the very same energy sources.

That's the view of UC Berkeley energy expert Severin Borenstein, who has just proposed a new, broader, approach. His idea is for every campus to impose a carbon tax on itself. "All expenditures by campus units would be assessed a tax based on the GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions associated with whatever they are buying or activity they are supporting," he writes in a post Monday on the Berkeley Blog.

Borenstein's proposal derives from one that Frank A. Wolak, an energy economist at Stanford, outlined in an op-ed in The Times earlier this year. Their idea is that a campus carbon tax would both constitute a practical effort in the battle against climate change and take advantage of the university's role as a practical laboratory. 

"There are many important details that need to be worked out before such a policy can be implemented on a national scale," Wolak wrote. "What better place to work them out than a university campus?"

Their idea is that every campus department would be assessed a tax based on their activities, as a material incentive to cut their emissions.

Wolak penciled out the scheme in some detail: "Students would pay an extra amount on their term bills for their emissions. Faculty and staff would have the tax taken out of their paychecks. Electricity use, consumption of campus transportation services, gas-emitting activities in research laboratories and buildings, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste disposal would all be assessed.... Stanford could then use the proceeds from this carbon tax to reduce the tuition and fees charged to students and to increase the salaries of faculty and staff in a revenue-neutral manner."

Of course this raises myriad practical issues, but as Borenstein echoes Wolak, "The campus – and countless student seminars and senior theses – would confront the challenges of real-world issues in GHG reduction."

These include determining which GHG emissions to count -- just those within the campus confines, or those triggered on the outside by university activities? How large should the tax be? How should inherently energy-intensive departmental activities be insulated from the cost compared to energy-stingy departments -- a physics department with a high-energy particle accelerator versus an English literature seminar, for example. Who should pay, and how should the revenue (if any) be spent?

"Students coming out of such an experience," Borenstein observes, "would be far more prepared to work in the companies, governments and non-governmental organizations that are grappling with climate change policy within all the constraints of the real world."

Obviously, the big obstacle is persuading a university administration to jump in. Borenstein notes that Stanford hasn't shown any interest in the idea from its own professor, Frank Wolak, though Harvard, Yale and MIT, among other places, are "discussing it." (We'll see.)

But he's right that a carbon tax plan puts meat on the bones of the commitment on climate change represented by divestment, which he terms "cheap talk, because it requires no sacrifice by the divesting organization." Instead of (or along with) the symbolic statement of divestment, why not take a meaningful step?

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