Skip to main content

Swarthmore Carbon Charge Program

The climate crisis threatens human health, safety, and well-being across the globe. To avert the worst impacts and keep global heating below 2 degrees Celsius, greater than 80% of remaining fossil fuels must remain unburnt. A sufficiently strong price on carbon presents a fair, feasible, and effective policy to align our economy with that target. To model that policy solution at a college scale, Swarthmore established its internal Carbon Charge in 2016 with four primary goals:

  • Educate the community about carbon pricing as part of the solution
  • Incentivize reductions in Swarthmore’s emissions
  • Provide capital for projects that reduce emissions
  • Build momentum for state, national, and global implementation of carbon pricing

Developed by a Swarthmore faculty and staff reading group in summer 2015 in partnership with community stakeholders, the Swarthmore's internal Carbon Charge consists of three components:

  1. A school-wide levy on college departments for carbon emissions
  2. A shadow price to motivate less carbon-intensive construction projects
  3. Use of revenues from the charge to support renewables, efficiency, metering, and education.

Beyond Swarthmore's campus, we're also working on educating about carbon pricing policy solutions, collaborating with other institutions about internal carbon pricing programs, and lending Swarthmore's public voice to supporting a price on carbon. 

Learn more about the Carbon Charge program below!

The levy on college departments

In order to make the real costs of carbon emissions visible, to foster a sense of collective responsibility for mitigating climate change, and to generate revenue for sustainability projects, the school levies a carbon charge on each department for the costs of Swarthmore's annual carbon emissions. 

In 2015, Swarthmore was responsible for approximately 12,500 metric tons of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gas from our heat generation and electric purchasing. The Board of Managers approved an annual charge of $300,000, which is levied on each office and department as a flat percentage of their total budgets, excluding salaries and benefits. Annually, a number of office and departments generously contributed additional funds to the Carbon Charge, bringing our campus charge close to the EPA’s estimate of the social cost of carbon figure and providing us with greater resources to undertake emissions reductions projects.  

We expect that the Carbon Charge will increase in future years, to more closely align our charge with rising social costs of carbon, but we hope that the impact on college budgets will be counterbalanced by reductions in the college's emissions.

The Carbon Charge Committee is responsible for making decisions about the use of the revenue, changes in the estimated social cost of carbon that we use as the basis to set our carbon charge, and changes in the mechanisms by which department's carbon responsibility is assessed and paid.

The shadow price

Constructing or renovating campus spaces requires a number of decisions based on thoughtful cost-benefit analysis. The shadow price provides a framework for incorporating the negative impacts of Swarthmore’s carbon emissions, both on and off campus, into the cost-benefit analyses.

With a shadow price, the College makes decisions as though we would have to pay $100 per ton CO2e emitted. To implement this, Swarthmore uses a life cycle cost analysis calculator. You can download the most recent version of Swarthmore's life cycle cost analysis calculator here. (Last updated August 16, 2017)

To provide an example of the shadow price, if the College is constructing a new building, it may consider heating the building either with ground source heat pumps or with natural gas boilers. The graph below demonstrates how a shadow price would find that a ground source heat pump is a “cheaper” option because it takes into account the social cost of carbon.

Evaluated total cost = (financial cost) + ((tons CO2e) * (social cost/tonCO2e))

Dark green indicates up-front financial costs, light green indicates maintenance and operations costs, and gray indicates the lifecycle social cost of carbon emissions.


Use of revenues to support renewables, efficiency, metering, and education

The Carbon Charge Committee allocates the revenue from the levy on college departments to energy efficiency and related projects on campus. Read more about the Carbon Fund projects here.

Collaboration with other institutions

Swarthmore is among a small group of schools with internal carbon prices. For example, Yale University is piloting structures for an internal carbon price to find the most effective policy for emissions reduction at a university. Vassar incorporates a shadow price and robust life cycle cost analysis policy into its decision making.

Together, we are working to share the lessons and best practices learned on our campus and help other institutions institute carbon pricing and replicate a shadow price in their institutional context.

Swarthmore is a leading contributor to the Internal Carbon Pricing in Higher Education Toolkit, which provides guides, case studies, and resources to institutions looking to build new internal carbon pricing programs. The Toolkit launched at the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit with an address from Former Secretary of State John Kerry.

Swarthmore is also a member of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, which brings together leaders from government, the private sector, academia, and civil society to expand the evidence base for the most effective carbon pricing systems and policies. President Smith contributed a commentary to their 2018-19 annual report.

Lending of Swarthmore's public voice to support a price on carbon

In Fall 2016, Swarthmore President Valerie Smith was the second signatory of the Put A Price On It campaign's letter calling on elected leaders to take action on carbon pricing: 
“As leaders of higher education institutions, we call upon our elected representatives to act collectively on behalf of current and future generations by putting a price on carbon. We work to prepare our students for thriving futures, over which climate change casts a dark shadow of uncertainty. Putting a price on carbon pollution is an indispensable step we can take to effectively combat climate change.”

Learn more about this and other related efforts here.

  • Swarthmore was also honored to receive a 2017 Sustainable Campus Excellence Award in the Innovative Collaboration category from the International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) for developing our Carbon Charge program and helping to design tools for how to implement a carbon charge in other institutions.


Reach out to us with any questions, comments, feedback or concerns at