Colleges: self-impose a carbon tax

Dear college & university students, we can do something about climate change right on our nation’s campuses, with or without action by Congress: push to create an internal or “shadow” carbon pricing system. That’s right—colleges should consider imposing a carbon tax on themselves and including it on student bills.

Here are some more details via Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times:

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?”


Wouldn’t it be better for the world if Stanford and Berkeley were competing to self-impose a carbon pricing system before the other one does?

Internal carbon pricing systems have strong precedent in the private sector, where more than 1,000 companies are already moving forward with programs to attach a cost to their carbon emissions. Microsoft, as a well-known example, even saves money doing it. The company charges its internal business units a fee that curbs the company’s wasteful energy use and resulting carbon emissions, then plows the savings into energy innovations.

When colleges and universities follow suit, the world would reap a bonus on top of cutting carbon pollution: early experience with carbon pricing for the next generation of voters—and America’s future business leaders, journalists, lawyers, academics, and activists.

For more information, see “What universities really can do to fight climate change: A new proposal,” Los Angeles Times; “Microsoft Leads Movement to Offset Emissions With Internal Carbon Tax,” The New York Times; and “Putting a price on risk: Carbon pricing in the corporate world,” CDP.