The University of Michigan President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality conducted its first public town hall meeting Monday, updating the campus community on progress, welcoming input, and laying the foundation for future public engagement by the commission.
More than 100 students, faculty, staff and community members attended the two-part event led by commission co-chairs Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, and Stephen Forrest, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and former vice president for research.
The event at Rackham Assembly Hall kicked off with a short presentation on the scope of the commission’s work and the approaches it will employ, and how its focus is beyond reaching the current greenhouse gas reduction goal. This portion also included a Q&A session and was livestreamed for those who could not attend in person.
During the second half of the event, participants engaged in small-group discussions with commission members to brainstorm ideas in response to questions, such as what examples of success exist at other universities U-M should consider, and how U-M could ensure all community members support and have personal accountability for helping achieve carbon goals.
“The interest by the community is huge,” Forrest said, acknowledging the event sign-up was full within 24 hours of being promoted. A second town hall following the same format and agenda is scheduled for April 3.
“This is the challenge of our time. It is up to the commission, our colleagues and the community to come up with sensible scalable, economically viable and socially just solutions,” Forrest added. “Anything we do here must be scalable and inform other communities of our size.”
In February, President Mark Schlissel charged the advisory commission with developing recommendations, including a defined goal and timeline, for U-M to achieve carbon neutrality in a way that could be replicated by others in the region and state.
The scope of the commission’s work spans all three U-M campuses and includes carbon emissions and sequestration, energy sourcing, and technology and behavioral change.
The commission’s work is underway, having conducted two meetings and its first town hall in the month since being announced. In addition to U-M faculty, staff and external representatives, the commission includes two student members: Austin Glass, a second-year postdoctoral student in climate and space sciences and engineering; and Logan Vear, a junior in civil and environmental engineering.
Glass and Vear bring the student perspective to the commission and are leading efforts to organize the student advisory panel to capture the input of the broader student community on all three campuses.
“The student advisory panel to the commission aims to involve students of all major fields — conservation to art to labor — that interact with reaching a carbon neutral university,” said Vear. “The deep interdisciplinary and intersectional nature of climate change and, therefore, climate change solutions necessitates collaboration with people — in our case students — of all perspectives.”
“Two of the biggest challenges facing the commission are in ensuring that the actions we propose are economically viable and socially equitable,” said Glass. “I aim to faithfully advocate for every student on campus and member of our community, especially those who will be most heavily impacted by the decisions the university will make upon the recommendations of the commission.”
Other advisory panels being formed include two expert panels — one of faculty and one of external experts — and a University Advisory Panel to take into account unit-level considerations across the university.
The commission’s 16 members were selected based on their experience in the areas of energy and sustainability, some with a long history of working to reduce U-M carbon emissions, as well as others for their role as key partners necessary for creating solutions that can benefit the regional community.
The decision to include a representative from Michigan utilities DTE Energy and Consumers Energy on the commission has raised questions among some climate change advocates citing concerns of conflicts of interest.
The university has responded that it is critical for the energy industry to be part of U-M’s exploration of scalable and transferable solutions given that these companies are major energy suppliers to the region and state. In addition, each company is developing carbon-reduction strategies to shift to more renewable or lower-carbon energy sources that could aid U-M’s efforts.
Haverkamp stressed the importance of community input throughout the entire process, especially at town halls and in opportunities for public comment on the interim reports and on the draft final report of recommendations.
Forrest also noted the importance of culture in creating behavior change that supports a net-zero world, and the significance of engaging the university community in the work to create accountability.
While the commission’s scope is focused on the future and on establishing a path toward carbon neutrality, U-M remains committed to reaching its existing goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025, and plans to do so ahead of schedule.
Current projects underway — and out of the scope of the commission — include the expansion of the Central Power Plant to accommodate a 15-megawatt gas turbine that is expected to significantly reduce emissions — an estimated 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to 9 million gallons of gasoline used in cars.
The university also is finalizing an agreement to purchase renewable energy generated in Michigan.
Both projects were among the 2015 recommendations of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee — consisting of students, faculty and staff — that the president charged to develop recommendations to accelerate progress toward the university’s 2025 sustainability goal.
To date, the university have achieved a more than 7 percent emission reduction from its 2006 baseline — nearly 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to removing 10,500 cars from the road — and has done so while the campus has grown by 20 percent.