Carbon-Proxy Pricing

Somto Okonkwo ’21 | News Editor

Smith has made many commitments to support sustainability and address climate change, including one to become a carbon neutral campus by 2030. Part of Smith’s goal is to educate women so they can become leaders in improving sustainability and tackling climate change. Some of the academic offerings and organizations created to reach this goal include the environmental science and policy major; Eco-Reps passionate about sustainability and environmental justice; the climate change concentration; the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design & Sustainability (CEEDS), whose goal is to graduate women who excel at integrating knowledge across disciplines in support of environmental decisions and action; the Bicycle Kitchen that provides the Smith community with bike rentals as a way of being more environment friendly; and the Engineers for a Sustainable World, an organization aiming to develop innovative solutions to the challenges facing sustainability. Others include Divest Smith College, Green Team, Smith Students for Food Justice, SmiTHrift and SCOPES, among others.

According to a review of Smith’s campus improvements and academic initiatives, our emissions on campus have dropped by 20% since 1990. 91% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the provision of electricity and the heating and cooling of more than 100 buildings. The remaining portion comes from air travel, faculty and staff commuting. 37% of food and beverages served in dining halls in 2015 were local, community-based or third party verified, up 22% in 2014.

Breanna Parker ’18 completed an honors thesis called Designing a Proxy Carbon Price Strategy for Smith College, advised by Alex Barron (environmental science and policy), Susan Sayre (economics) and Dano Weisbord (sustainability and campus planning). According to this strategy, Parker defined carbon proxy price as a tool that acknowledges and internalizes the social, ecological and economic costs of emitting one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCDE). For carbon emissions from design and construction projects or other future expenditures, this price creates a virtual cost that can be included in financial decision-making. Unlike a carbon charge, the proxy carbon price is not paid to anyone; it is simply used to inform decisions.

Smith is involved in a group that brings together stakeholders from the higher education sector and experts in carbon pricing policy, known as The Carbon Pricing in Higher Education Working Group. It is led by Yale University, Second Nature and Swarthmore College and supported by the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition with partnership from Smith College, Arizona State University, University of British Columbia, University College London and George Washington University. The role of the working group is to support colleges and universities that wish to model carbon pricing on campus, and to explore the role of U.S. higher education in advancing carbon pricing on a state, regional or federal level.

Parker’s research recently won a prestigious Campus Sustainability Research Award from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. She recommended an amount approved by Smith’s Committee on Sustainability to set its price at $70 per metric ton of emissions.

In a recent interview with Parker, she said she got into Smith wanting to pursue a degree in astronomy. However, after taking classes in environmental science and sociology, her focus was shifted to more complex and urgent problems that face humanity. “I believe that climate change is the most daunting challenge facing society today, so I wanted to use the privilege of my education to make a difference by researching a potential climate solution of proxy carbon pricing for my thesis,” she said.

For Parker’s research project, her greatest resource was working with people. She acknowledged Weisbord, who empowered her to think creatively about systemic solutions through an internship on the Community Climate Fund — a fund to generate carbon offsets locally to support the community and the environment — and her adviser for her thesis, Dr. Alex Barron, an excellent teacher who expanded her way of thinking to encompass a systems world view. In her interview, she said, “I really appreciate that they always gave me the space to express my thoughts and ask questions while empowering me to be creative in the development of the proxy carbon price strategy while grounding me in practicality of creating institutional change.”

Having in mind that she had good support, she embarked on the project with the hope of ultimately creating positive and sustainable change at the Smith that gave her the best knowledge. She faced some fear in undertaking such a large project to influence campus climate policy, “but I felt that I had the support I needed from my advisers Alex and Dano which encouraged me to go forward with the project,” Parker said. 

As a matter of fact, her greatest challenge was writing and managing the thesis. She said, “It was definitely a learning lesson in project management as much as it was on proxy carbon pricing.” 

Parker now works as an energy analyst at Competitive Energy Services. Her interest still remains in researching ways to incorporate her thesis research of proxy carbon pricing to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

While Smith has taken drastic measures towards reaching its goal, there are still many steps that have to be taken, and it starts with the consciousness of each student towards a more sustainable campus and world at large.

Sophian Smith