Decarbonization challenge, original proposal (April, 2013)

(a pilot program proposed for YANA fellows and alumni in partnership with on and off campus organizations)


Of the world’s major economies, the US has the largest per capita CO2 emissions. (US, 2009: 17.2 metric tons per person; Germany: 9.0 per person; Japan: 8.6 per person; China: 5.8 per person)

To keep the level of CO2 in the atmosphere within limits recognized as safe, the world, led by the US, needs to rapidly decarbonize its energy use. High emitters in the wealthy countries of the West will need to be the leading edge of this change, as developing countries are only just beginning to achieve a modern lifestyle and are still far below the per capita emissions of the US. Solutions will require both enormous investment in new energy systems — renewables and likely nuclear — and in profound behavior change by Americans. (For more information, see video references, and review the science.)

The political system in the US is currently paralyzed because of the lack of public resolve on climate and the polarization between the two parties.

Our premise: the future apparently demands a massive effort in both engineering and behavior, and to support this rapid change, we need Yale students and they need us. How can we offer social and economic incentives to a group of natural leaders to inspire new behavior, and then create a positive cascade by their example? (Providing a response to the call from engineers and leaders like Saul Griffith, Kevin Anderson and Stephen Emmott.)

Can we create a catalyst to collectively help people arrive at the answers they seek?

The chart below shows the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario outlined by the IPCC. In other words, for this to come true, all we have to do is nothing.




The Yale Decarbonization Challenge (YDC) is inspired by this brief report from the accounting firm Pricewaterhouse. Pricewaterhouse summarizes the problem described above by stating that the global economy now needs to decarbonize by 5.1% per year. [Update: September 2014 estimate revised to 6.2% per year.]

Our goal is to decarbonize virtually all Yale alumni lifestyles by 8% per year. (A big number, but doable, particularly in discretionary choices like vacation travel — short trips, or fewer, are immediate successes. Even the attempt would be notable and would put Yale on the map for leadership.)

Students and recent graduates will team up to direct the program, while also helping to inform participating alumni on what they are doing and why. Behind this design is a stream of recent research showing that social connections (even alumni/student connections) can help people think about a positive future, which in turn makes it easier for people to act.

A fundamental part of this solution will be to strengthen the relationships that can make it work — between students, from students to alumni, and between alumni themselves. New relationships are themselves rewarding, and provide positive incentive to the people in program, and to those around them outside of the program.

What is decarbonization?

The MIT-trained engineer Saul Griffith provides a lucid and helpful explanation in this excellent 30 minute video, which covers both the big picture and the steps to decarbonize that he adopted in his own life.

Most of the energy we use at home or for travel comes from fossil fuels, so by using less energy in our daily life, we decarbonize. For someone seeking an 8% cut, that could mean mass transit instead of driving to work, and choosing a vacation nearby over one that involved intercontinental air travel. Other alumni steps might include installing solar panels on one’s house, exchanging one form of energy for another. Our possessions also represent the cost of the energy of their manufacture, so reducing consumption of new material goods is another way to decarbonize. The good thing is that many of the pleasures in life (music, cultural experiences, friends and family) are less affected and perhaps enhanced, except for the travel aspect.

Why do we want to do this again?

MIT has a game showing the path we need to take to keep our habitat functioning well through the lifetimes of current Yale undergrads. To see the simulator game in context: 350 ppm of CO2 is NASA’s top scientist’s recommendation for the upper limit (which we are already past today, at above 395). 450 ppm is the UN politically-agreed-upon upper limit, which was hoped to keep the planet at or below a 2° C rise in temperature, which is a level where climate disruptions to crops and coastlines were expected to be tolerable. At temperatures above that level, the economic and social costs are expected to become severe. [Flash is required to play the game. If you can’t see it, here’s a screengrab and explanation.]

When you play the MIT game (click ‘Experiment 2’ and select ‘20 year delay’ for accuracy) pulling down the arrow controlling carbon intensity is equivalent to gradually parking all our gas-powered cars, rapidly substituting nuclear power or renewables for coal power plants, relying on biofuel for air travel, and also simply using less energy in our lifestyle. (Learning to play the piano rather than flying to Bali for vacation. Or — sailing to Bali, which would be a zero-carbon method, on a very long vacation.)

You can see how hard it is, even as you pull down the arrow, to keep from bumping up above 500 ppm or beyond, because of our energy-intense current lifestyles and the rapid growth of emissions across the world as hundreds of millions of people begin to copy us. (Pulling the arrow down fast essentially assumes you put all new drivers into electric cars. Or onto mass transit, which is even better.)

Here’s my best try. Maybe you can do better — try it! (And if you do better, please take a screenshot!)

In the end, a global agreement will be necessary, and as a precursor, public opinion (in our case, led by a collaborative effort of Yale alumni!) will need to move quickly on this issue to push things forward.

Remember, MIT’s Experiment 2 shows the pace of change necessary. Early intervention is rewarded.

From my effort, it looks like we can’t wait for a later generation to fix this; it looks like we can’t even wait for another graduating class from Yale. Action should start with students that are currently enrolled, because the path moving down works best if it starts virtually immediately.

Here are some tools that guide decarbonization: (perhaps this one is the best for students to work with)

Here is a video of a kid in Nepal practicing decarbonization on his family, which by American standards, probably only has a tiny footprint to begin with. He hasn’t even gone to Yale (yet), and he seems like he’s got the message.

Here are more video resources on a page, including some that may work as learning tools for the program.


Practical notes on structure (this is a work in progress, and suggestions are welcome!):

In the spring of 2014, the YDC team developed a pilot campaign to match students and recent graduates with alumni of all ages. Students made calls to a test group of alumni to figure out their current emissions, explain the issue, and advise on how to reach or exceed the 8% target.

The spring 2014 campaign has been a pilot project with the goal of expansion to the broader alumni community. The experience of running this campaign would be discussed at a ‘symposium on the future,’ developed by the same organizers and held at Yale in October 2014.

Sid Kumar, board member at YAANY, suggested framing the challenge as a competition — ideally, for instance, as a contest with Harvard alumni. (If there was a banner saying “Beat Harvard!” across the top of the main webpage, no explanation about decarbonization, climate or the future would even be necessary, perhaps? Add Princeton too.)


In the first version of this idea, we considered having the students contact alumni and offer a gift of $100 in return for participating in the experiment important to their future. The experiment itself would entail having the students do an energy/lifestyle audit of the alumnus/a, and then make recommendations for an 8% (or greater) cut over the following year, to be self-reported, and presented by the team in the spring of 2015. Perhaps with quarterly check-in points along the way.

The alumnus/a receiving the $100 would be free to keep it, but if they felt the whole project was interesting and important, they could decline the gift, and instead support the project by contributing $200, which in turn would provide gifts for two more alumni. Thus participation would scale the project.

As an added benefit, we could allow alumni to choose one of the two prospects for the next round. (This might be popular, as people undergoing their own audit would have a chance to aim the students at friends from their class.) I am certain I can raise a block grant of a few thousand to start with. Whether student participants should receive stipends is another question. Their work would be worth paying for.

How should the student/alumni interaction work? This is an area that would benefit from creative thought. How should the students interact with the participating alumni? We leave open for students, recent graduates, and YANA members to consider. Alumni can look at online footprint tools themselves, so there needs to be ‘value added’ in order to make the bonding process work. There should be a script for the students, that they can improve on, but that provides a consistent set of goals and points.


Perhaps we can have participants keep journals and collect them on the new service,

(There are many sites that might be interested, like Huffington Post. But Medium has a very clean format.)

Constant problems in climate communications:


problem: people self-select into small groups that care a great deal, while the general public remains indifferent, and also feels disengaged from the issue. A fault also known as: ‘preaching to the choir.’

The consequences are described here:

See Obama’s comments to environmental donors (NYT 4/4/13)

Nicholas Lemann, “What Happened to the Environmental Movement” (New Yorker, 4/15/13)

Charles Blow, “Young People’s Priorities” (NYT 4/27/12);

solution: one method is unexpected messengers. In the NY State campaign for gay marriage, the organizers drew on NHL and NFL athletes to broadcast their message. Demonstrate broad social commitment, so the herd instinct moves people — as detailed in the British report, “I will if you will.”

Recommended messenger: Yale football players past and present. And this year’s hockey team.

Mike Richter, goalie for Yale and for the New York Rangers, in the NHL Sustainability Report


problem: people choose symbolic solutions that are too tangential or modest to have an impact in time, and which draw attention and resources away from the fundamental broad behavior change required to have impact. Frankly, people spend too much time doing things that are not relevant. (I find this true of myself, and true of many of our stories in City Atlas.)

solution: try to delineate high-value areas. Where can the maximum return be found? There are four key areas that consistently turn up. Because we are in an emergency, all four of these should be pursued aggressively, though the alumni decarbonization concept only addresses the first, which is both critical and accessible. The others could be discussed at the symposium, though:

1 – Cultural leadership, particularly with real metrics and outcomes (YDC being one potential prototype).

It’s important to understand that even failure at this option is better than success at almost any other option, simply because it is the honest crux of the challenge. Failure or partial success will still locate attention where attention needs to be directed.

2 – R & D, deployment, and finance of energy technology (Mosaic)

3 – Improving the democratic process in the US (note political scientist James Fishkin’s research; this goal is slow, frustrating, but necessary to support whatever positive results are found elsewhere on this list).

4 – Educating young women and girls, globally (multiple benefits, as cited in climate scientist Eugenia Kalnay’s proposal)


FAQ (in progress):


Q. Isn’t 8% like a flat tax? What if some alumni already have a very small footprint, while others are much bigger emitters?

A. The answer there is that 8% is a start. It may not be perfectly fair, but actually the goal is to engage exactly those high-emitters, and help create a new image of wealth. (Ultimately for people in China, Brazil or India to have something positive to compare to.)

By having one decarbonization goal across the entire group, it simplifies the message and makes it faster to get with the program. For people who have taken very very steep cuts already (ie. living in a monastery), even if they can’t fully get to another 8%, their stories can be an inspiration to everyone else, and perhaps we should account for that in some kind of networking tool like journals. Though in fact the more valuable stories may be from people at the high end.


Q. Is 8% too much, or not enough?

A. Pricewaterhouse calls for 5.1% 6.2% worldwide. To meet the same target, Kevin Anderson’s analysis is that the wealthy countries thus need to decarbonize our richer lifestyles at a rate of 10% per annum. 8% is probably not perfect, but close enough to get started.


Q. What about buying offsets? Can’t people with resources just choose to buy offsets and become carbon neutral?

A. Offsets have had measurement and fraud problems, and so they have acquired a bad reputation, or at best a reputation for ineffectiveness — particularly as a compensation for air travel. As a result, I don’t know of any climate scientist who uses them. Andy Revkin at the NYT also disavows offsets. I would avoid offsets for those reasons. Ideally, real, measurable emission cuts are our goal. This question can be open to subsequent student research, but I believe even less success with real cuts would be better than promoting an illusion through use of offsets.

We might be able to look into clean energy investments though — not as a replacement for meeting everyone’s 8% target, but as an added service and communal effort.

It would be very interesting to form a team of Yale alumni that could examine and maybe invest in Billy Parish’s solar funding initiative Mosaic. (Billy Parish dropped out of Yale in 2003 to become a leader in climate activism and renewable energy.)

A reason to be optimistic: all we have to do to make this work is to get alumni to begin to copy what is already happening in Copenhagen.

Video references

A graphical representation of decarbonization

Comments and feedback

Site mock-up


Richard Reiss | original draft April 11, 2013; updated August 2014



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