Princeton Student Climate Initiative crafts carbon policy with NJ state assemblyman| Apr 1, 2018
Members of the Princeton Student Climate Initiative have drafted a New Jersey Carbon Fee and Dividend Policy, a 94-page white paper outlining a fee-based strategy for reducing carbon emissions and air pollution while minimizing environmental impact.
“What a carbon fee and dividend does is it places a fee on fossil fuels based on their carbon content,” said Jonathan Lu ’18, the founder and research director of PSCI. The carbon fee provides an incentive for companies and individuals to reduce emissions.
Another key aspect of the policy is that tax revenue will be recycled back to low- to moderate-income households and vulnerable businesses in the form of rebates.
“You’re achieving two things with this. The first is that you make the price of fossil fuels relatively more expensive,” Lu said. “The second thing that it does is it returns the majority of the money back to individual households.”
Some of the profits will also be reserved for clean energy initiatives. According to Lu, raising the price on carbon also makes it cheaper to switch to renewable energy.
Lu became involved in January 2017, when he founded PSCI in response to what he viewed as a lack of conversation about climate change on campus.
“Climate change is going to do things like cut the amount of land that can be used to grow coffee by half by 2050, and that’s going to cause coffee prices to rise. Or it’s going to increase the incidence of infectious disease.”
Lu stumbled upon the carbon fee system, which he said has been implemented successfully in countries around the world including Ireland, Denmark, and Canada. As a result of the policy, carbon emissions in these countries have been significantly reduced while the economy has been largely unaffected.
“People need energy to keep their homes warm, to get to work, to fly places. You don’t want to both cut emission and restrict people in their way of living,” Lu explained.
Lu saw carbon pricing as an issue that both Democrats and Republicans could agree on. They were soon encouraged by New Jersey State Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker to write the 94-page policy.
“A lot of it was: This is good; what are the utilities going to say? What are the small businesses going to say? What are the stakeholders going to say?” Lu said.
PCSI’s Carbon Fee and Dividend Policy is based off similar policies implemented in Massachusetts and Washington state. These and other regulations served as a model for Lu, who had no experience with environmental advocacy or climate policy before the project.
Both members of PSCI and students from Princeton High School were involved in the project.
Each member of the group needed to be an expert on one aspect of the problem. Andrew Wu ’21, who became interested in PSCI after hearing about it at Princeton Preview, performed federal and state tax analysis to determine how to best return money back to households. His research led to the conclusion that direct mail of rebates would be more effective than tax credits. He also worked on air pollution analysis and its effect on New Jersey residents.
Wu also mentioned that the group is expanding beyond carbon emissions to investigate how to regulate other air pollutants.
“It can set great precedents for what can happen through the rest of the country,” Wu said. One of the primary aims for the project was to be an example of success for other states to follow.
“It has a very tangible benefit that will have a large impact as well,” said Samuel Moore ’19, another club member.
The team is promoting the policy to other groups in New Jersey, including the New Jersey Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. Lu hopes that gaining broad support for the bill will increase the chances of it passing in the legislature.
Lu mentioned that in addition to Zwicker, New Jersey Senator Kip Bateman and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy support the policy.
“We hope to get them all in the same room so we can discuss what is a policy we can all back,” said Lu.
“A political coalition is one of the things we’re looking to build,” Moore said. While environmental organizations are generally supportive, business groups are often skeptical of environmental legislation, according to Moore.
Moore said the policy should benefit everyone as much as possible.
Amanda Eisenhour ’21 has led advocacy and outreach as the political director of PSCI.
“When we do our research, we’re not just trying to look at studies and crunch numbers. We’re also trying to understand what people’s concerns are. What actually do people care about? The only way to know that is to talk to people,” Eisenhour said.
She has been especially focused on meeting with low-income communities and communities of color, populations which she said have historically been most affected by pollution and climate change.
“Because our policy makers don’t really care about communities that don’t have as much of a voice in our legislature, they tend to bear the brunt of the impacts of our choices,” Eisenhour said.
PSCI and its directors feel their work goes far beyond the New Jersey Carbon Fee and Dividend Policy itself.
“This isn’t just about this one piece of legislation. First of all, we’re trying to be part of a comprehensive energy package for the state of New Jersey. But it’s also about reimagining the environmental movement as a whole as being something more representative of the people actually impacted by climate change,” said Eisenhour.
For Lu, the project has been a way of bringing together activism and research.
“It’s very easy here at Princeton to have your research be only read by one or two people in the world,” Lu said. “It’s very easy for all of the work you’ve done to just be siloed and completely unable to be used by anyone else.”
Lu hopes that he can be an example to other students who want to get involved in an issue, but don’t feel like they have the knowledge or experience.
“I would encourage people to not feel siloed,” he said. “If there’s something that’s important that they feel should happen, they can totally pull it off.”