The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality has submitted its final report and recommendations for the University of Michigan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
The report includes a collection of 50 recommendations that U-M could take to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions across the Flint, Dearborn and Ann Arbor campuses, including Michigan Medicine.
Recommendations account for U-M’s Scope 1 emissions, resulting from on-campus sources like the Central Power Plant; Scope 2 emissions, resulting from purchased electricity; and Scope 3 emissions, resulting from indirect sources like commuting, food procurement and university-sponsored travel.
Carbon neutrality is achieved when an institution reduces its quantifiable greenhouse gas emissions to “net-zero” — whereby remaining emissions are balanced by investments in carbon credits, or removal or sequestration projects.
The report outlines a pathway for U-M to:
- Reach carbon neutrality for Scope 1 emissions across all three campuses by 2025 — including the use of carbon offsets — and eliminate Scope 1 emissions entirely by 2040.
- Achieve carbon neutrality for Scope 2 emissions across all three campuses by 2025 or earlier.
- Establish, by 2025, carbon neutrality goal dates for Scope 3 emissions categories that are set for no later than 2040.
- Deepen its commitment to environmental justice and strengthen its connections with local communities.
The report marks the culmination of the commission’s two-year endeavor to identify scalable, transferable and financially responsible strategies to reduce emissions universitywide.
“Combating climate change remains global society’s greatest challenge because of its urgency and potential adverse impact on all of the earth’s inhabitants and everything that we do. Success will require the collaboration of many disciplines and all institutions,” said President Mark Schlissel.
“I applaud the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality for leveraging the strengths of our university and broader community to bring forward a comprehensive report. I look forward to reviewing each recommendation with university leadership to determine U-M’s best path forward.”
Seventeen commissioners sat on the emissions-reduction task force, including faculty, staff, students and regional stakeholders. The commission’s broader analysis involved two external consultants — Integral Group and SmithGroup — and 11 internal teams, each examining distinct topics crucial for attaining carbon neutrality.
Approximately 50 undergraduate and graduate students and 17 faculty members served on the internal analysis teams. In addition, the commission received and considered more than 700 public comments over the course of its process from more than 400 U-M students, staff, faculty members, alumni and community members.
The proposed actions are now in the hands of university leadership for further analysis and decision-making. Schlissel, the Board of Regents and other university leaders, upon reviewing the report, will determine U-M’s immediate, short-term and long-term climate actions and plans.
“We’re confident that the steps outlined in our report provide U-M with a bold, feasible and just path toward carbon neutrality,” said Stephen Forrest, commission co-chair and Peter A. Franken Distinguished University Professor of Engineering, Paul G. Goebel Professor of Engineering, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, material sciences and engineering, and physics.
“The report spans emissions scopes, disciplines and leading topics in sustainability, and community input has been critical in making it as thorough as it is. After we released the draft report for public feedback, we received 521 public comments, representing more than 200 campus units. We’re immeasurably encouraged by the interest in and ideas around this work, which push U-M to be a leading university in sustainability.”
Following feedback related to its draft report, released in December 2020, the commission bolstered recommendations pertaining to university organization and culture, and focused on environmental justice implications more comprehensively throughout.
“The commission recognizes the intrinsic connection between carbon neutrality efforts and environmental justice and, accordingly, the need to pose solutions that address both,” the report reads.
“We chose to highlight organizational recommendations and environmental justice considerations in large part because they can foster a culture of sustainability that complements our technical, emissions-reduction recommendations,” added Jennifer Haverkamp, commission co-chair and Graham Family Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute.
“Our community comprises more than 100,000 students, staff and faculty, and our path toward carbon neutrality requires that they all feel empowered, represented and responsible. We’re confident that in this report, everyone will find something directly relevant to their daily experience at U-M.”
Organization and culture recommendations include, among other actions:
- Committing to incorporate environmental justice principles and expertise within future deliberations, decision making and implementation efforts.
- Creating an executive leadership position to help coordinate universitywide carbon neutrality efforts, supplemented by internal and community advisory committees that leverage U-M resources and external perspectives, respectively.
- Integrating emissions mitigation into campus planning.
- Prioritizing central locations for construction projects, and evaluating the need for new affordable campus housing for students, faculty and staff.
- Making significant investments in carbon neutrality research and deployment of resulting innovations into society at large.
- Expanding and supporting carbon neutrality-focused “living-learning labs” across all three U-M campuses.
Emissions mitigation recommendations include, among other actions:
- Converting existing heating and cooling infrastructure on all campuses to an electrified system centered on geothermal heat exchange with heat recovery chiller technology.
- Transitioning U-M’s entire vehicle fleet — including BlueBuses, campus cars and trucks, and maintenance vehicles — to a fully decarbonized fleet.
- Incentivizing commuter electric vehicle use by increasing electric vehicle charging stations across all three campuses.
- Creating a Revolving Energy Fund in conjunction with an internal carbon pricing system to support energy conservation and carbon reduction projects across the university.
- Reforming U-M’s parking policy and investing in ridesharing, telecommuting and cycling infrastructure to spur university community members away from regular personal vehicle use.
Other draft recommendations relate to new building standards to reduce carbon emissions both in their construction and use, alternatives for university-sponsored travel, commuting, plant-forward dining options, upstream emissions, biosequestration and carbon offsets.
Although the commission calls for the use of carbon offsets to accelerate Scope 1 neutrality, a number of commissioners would prioritize the elimination of on-campus emissions over offsets.
While the recommendation review process is underway, the university continues to progress toward its 2025 sustainability goals, established in 2011.
U-M is expected to meet ahead of schedule its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025, through increasing the capacity to generate energy on campus at the Central Power Plant, partly as a product of additional purchased renewable energy from local utilities, and continuing to invest in energy efficiency, both of which were recommended by the President’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee in 2015.
In addition, the Board of Regents has announced it will share “concrete next steps” later this month aimed at investing the university’s endowment funds “in a way that contributes to the essential transition to a low carbon economy.”
STATEMENT FROM THE CLIMATE ACTION MOVEMENT:
The climate crisis is an existential threat that requires a bold, integrated approach. This means addressing fundamental needs such as housing, transportation, food justice, resiliency, and addressing these needs quickly. The PCCN’s final recommendations hint at some small steps toward this, but will require much greater ambition, accountability, investment, and community representation moving forward.
As a result of the advocacy of CAM, the GEO Housing Caucus, and allied groups, the final report makes some improvements upon the preliminary recommendations. For example, it calls for the expansion of affordable, sustainable housing on campus and discusses the importance of robust, community-driven accountability mechanisms to ensure that implementation occurs quickly—two measures we called for directly. There is also more attention to environmental justice in this version of the report, which CAM centered in our advocacy. Finally, the recommended transition of U-M’s central power plant to geothermal is imperative, and we must hold the administration accountable to this recommendation.
However, there are still a number of critical flaws. These include continued reliance on carbon offsets, the far-too-late neutrality target date of 2040, and astonishing lack of detail on energy procurement. There is an assumption of continued and new partnerships with DTE, a utility that still relies extremely heavily on fossil fuels and actively throttles equitable access to clean energy. And while the call for affordable, sustainable housing is an important step, UM must recognize its role in driving rampant gentrification in Washtenaw county, and pledge to donate funding to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti’s affordable housing trust funds. This is critical for both climate mitigation and resilience: if community members can afford to live in Ann Arbor, commuting emissions will drop; when our housing-insecure neighbors have a stable place to live, they are far less vulnerable to acute climate impacts. Finally, this late-game commitment to EJ is woefully inadequate; the fact remains that it was systematically deprioritized throughout the writing of the recommendations.
Thus, while the report takes some steps in the right direction, it falls far short of what the science tells us is necessary: a radical, swift transition to a resilient, carbon free economy, centering the basic needs of our most marginalized community members. The University of Michigan needs a climate justice plan, not just a carbon neutrality plan.
Read statement here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vSKuBAJNJwHzXzJZjMrXaUA2Wc4e1fFcWXOvZ4xa0hCrj8lZDfvDe8NhC3wvaQpzpiwFaeEUisU4MEj/pub