Carbon charges on travel: Imperfect yet important

Brodie Leo

On Nov. 17, the Campus Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) presented a drafted policy proposal for faculty consideration: a carbon charge on College-funded travel. Reducing emissions from travel is a necessary step that the College must take to limit its emissions, yet the current version of this policy appears neither equitable nor sufficient.

In brief, individual faculty members would pay a Climate Damage Charge for the carbon dioxide emitted during flights. (While the policy would apply to College-sponsored student and staff travel as well, I’ll focus on the potential impacts on faculty for the purposes of this op-ed.)

In order to help cover this charge, the College would allot a carbon offset prebate credit in proportion to faculty members’ research funding. Should travel-related expenses from the carbon charge exceed the carbon offset prebate, equivalent funding would be subtracted from the research funding. Faculty members who do not exceed their carbon allotment would be allowed to keep the remaining prebate funds. The goal of this policy, called the Travel Emissions Reduction Plan, is to incentivize faculty members to reduce emissions from travel, particularly air travel. To accomplish this goal, the policy would use a social cost of carbon in dollars per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted, and derive a prebate based on departmental research allocation funding.

While formulating my response to the policy, I wanted to make sure I had a proper understanding of it, so I spoke with Director of the Zilkha Center and CEAC member Tanja Srebotnjak, who helped develop the policy. She explained to me over email that the policy acts “just like an environmental tax … to address the problem that airplane tickets do not (currently) include a charge for the traveler’s contribution to climate change and the societal consequences of it,” and that the prebate “provides a floor that enables a certain amount of air travel before the [policy] applies in order to protect vital [travel].”

Faculty are discussing the policy, with some in support and others in opposition to it. Chair and Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Gregory Mitchell, among others, opposed it, citing a perceived inequity in the policy, whereas Professor of Psychology Steve Fein and others supported the policy.

Community members raising concerns about equity were not dismissive of the proposal’s goal — reducing carbon emissions produced by College-sponsored travel — but rightfully question whether the current form of the policy is the best means of accomplishing that goal. Mitchell’s concerns about equity arose despite the fact that the policy draft has a section labelled “equity.” The policy acknowledges that “some [faculty members] travel more than others and thus would pay more in Climate Damage Charges,” yet whether or not this acknowledgement yields a fair policy is debatable.

In an email to me, Mitchell wrote that the policy is “racist” and “anti-intellectual.” He argues that faculty who work abroad in more distant regions such as Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South America are both more likely to exceed their prebate and are more often international faculty or faculty of color. I agree that these concerns have serious implications and warrant investigation.

This policy seems to pit against each other Williams’ values of global education and environmental sustainability. As Mitchell puts it, “the policy issues fines to faculty and staff for doing their jobs.” Mitchell’s desire for a policy that preserves the research of faculty of color, and therefore a core value of the College, is valid and merits further discussion.

Both Mitchell and Fein offer their own potential solutions to the inequity of the plan. In an email to me, the former argues that junior faculty, who are under pressure to perform research to gain tenure, “should be exempt as well as visiting assistant professors, who often need to travel to conferences for interviews to secure their next teaching contract or else face unemployment.” 

While generally supportive of the proposal, Fein argues for a method for appealing the tax on an individual basis, suggesting in an email to me that “anyone who feels that their travel is truly essential to their work could write a brief explanation justifying their need, and they could get a waiver so they are not taxed.” Overall, I am glad that faculty members such as Mitchell and Fein are addressing equity as a serious issue, and their proposed solutions should be considered, discussed, and built upon to improve the policy.

Moreover, in its current form, the proposed policy may not even be effective at limiting travel-related carbon emissions. While well-intentioned, the policy appears to lack ambition. Currently, faculty members’ travel will start to affect their budgets only at 24,000 miles traveled per year (assuming a $3,000 research budget, which may vary by department and faculty member), which is roughly one trip around the globe. While the prebate encourages the reduction of inessential travel, the policy is quite lenient. Although this policy might, over time, become more effective as faculty become increasingly aware of the social cost of carbon emissions, even Srebotnjak admits that “the effect of the proposal on actual air travel behavior would remain to be seen.” As time passes and data is collected, an effective policy must be flexible in order to achieve more aggressive emissions reduction goals.

CEAC should be commended for a policy that affirms the community’s desire to examine its behaviors with the most negative environmental consequences and prioritizes shared goals. The proposal aims to reduce the College’s transportation carbon emissions, and also instigates important discussions about community values. The current policy, however, will benefit from ongoing community scrutiny of its particulars, especially in regard to the equity of its design and application. The College administration — not faculty — will eventually decide whether or not the proposal is enacted, but the College should listen to voices like Fein and Mitchell, who support the intent of the policy, but are offering valid criticism in regards to implementation. Overall, while insufficient in its current form, the policy imagines a positive step toward achieving more ambitious goals.

Brodie Leo ’25 is a member of the Williams Environmental Council (WEC), and is from Columbus, Ohio.