President reaffirms U-M commitment to achieving carbon neutrality


President Mark Schlissel on Thursday reaffirmed the university’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality and thanked the U-M community for its longstanding support of sustainability.

He made his remarks at a public meeting of the university’s Board of Regents.

In February, the president announced the membership of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, and laid out its charge to develop recommendations, including a timeline, for all U-M campuses to achieve carbon neutrality.

A key focus of the commission is to develop a plan that can be used by others in the state and region to achieve the same goal.

“When I committed U-M to carbon neutrality, I knew that we would not be content with simple solutions, interim fixes or symbolic gestures,” Schlissel said. “The problem of climate change is much too large, complex and important.

“When we are at our best, our impact does not stop at the borders of our campuses. We seek to change society, to help others, and to make significant, measurable differences on the world we share.”

Since the announcement in February, some climate action advocates, including U-M students and local community members, have voiced their concerns with U-M’s overall climate action efforts and objected to the lack of a deadline for achieving carbon neutrality.

Other concerns include the inclusion of energy industry representatives on the commission, expansion of the Central Power Plant, and a call to divest from fossil fuels.

The university has long taken the position to shield its endowment from political pressures and to base its investment decisions solely on financial factors. The university will not divest from fossil-fuel investments.

During the meeting, the president reaffirmed his approach to set a date for carbon neutrality when the university has developed a plan to achieve that goal.

Schlissel also acknowledged the longstanding support of the community to reduce emissions, and in particular the work of the 2015 Greenhouse Gas Reductions Committee — consisting of students, faculty and staff — which recommended several of the current efforts underway that have helped the university achieve a significant reduction.

To date, the university has reduced emissions by more than 7 percent from the 2006 baseline. That represents a reduction of nearly 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent to removing 10,500 cars from the road. The university has achieved this reduction while the campus has grown by 20 percent.

The GHG committee recommendation that will have a significant impact on reducing U-M greenhouse gas emissions is the expansion of the Central Power Plant to house a 15-megawatt, natural-gas-fueled turbine.

The plant is a cogeneration facility that produces electricity and steam to provide heat and electricity to most Central Campus and Medical Campus buildings. By using heat that would otherwise be wasted, the system has an overall efficiency of 70-80 percent — about 50 percent higher than conventional power plants.

The new turbine will increase U-M’s capacity to generate more energy on campus and reduce the amount of utility-generated, coal-based electricity it purchases.

“U-M needs reliable heat and electricity to support our public mission. This includes life-saving research, thousands of students who live on campus, and a 24-7 medical center that provides world-class care,” Schlissel said.

“In the near term, there is no viable alternative to fossil fuels at a scale that would not threaten our ability to operate a major research university and regional medical center,” he said.

Preparation for construction at the Central Power Plant is underway, and it is set to be completed in winter 2021.

Other GHG-recommended efforts include continued purchases of renewable energy credits and funding demonstration projects that support research and learning on campus.

The president also addressed concerns surrounding the membership of the commission, noting the importance that the group represent a broad range of stakeholders in order for U-M’s solutions to be scalable and transferrable beyond the campus. The commission’s membership includes faculty, students, administrators and local partners, including energy companies.

“It is absolutely critical for the energy industry to be a part of our pursuit of societal solutions. The companies are the top energy providers for our region and state. They have each made commitments to convert their current generating capacity from fossil fuels to renewables and are engaged in strategy development that will be useful to our own efforts,” the president said.
The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality already has begun to engage with members of the campus community in the initial stages of its work, including through town halls, the commission panels and individual meetings with student activists.

The commission will host a second townhall April 3, and a public session April 9 with Schlissel that will be moderated by Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability Dean.

“I continue to believe that climate change caused by human activity is the defining scientific and social challenge of our age, and that U-M’s approach to involve the regional community, and create scalable and transferable models that can be replicated by others is our best opportunity to produce solutions that will make a difference for the health of our planet and our shared future,” Schlissel said.



  1. Jonathan Levine
    on March 29, 2019 at 8:10 am

    Assessments of the University of Michigan’s progress toward carbon neutrality should incorporate the commute to campus and not be restricted to campus operations. Jonathan Levine, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning

  2. CLAYTON Lewis
    on March 29, 2019 at 8:37 am

    This has the potential to be a national leadership opportunity if U-M sets an ambitious goal. The city of Copenhagen is to be carbon neutral by 2025. Granted, they have a culture and infrastructure of support that we lack, but can we possibly match this? I would like to see us try. An ambitious failure will still be progressive and will show brave leadership. The biggest possible failure would be to set an easily obtained goal out of fear of looking bad.

    • Douglas Kelbaugh
      on March 29, 2019 at 9:05 am

      Not only is an ambitious goal and target date essential, but including Scope 3 emissions is critical, as Professor Levine has stated. Commutes to campus are often long and in gas guzzling, single-occupancy vehicles. America’s per capita production of carbon emissions from transportation and buildings is exceeded only by Dubai.

  3. Noah Weaverdyck
    on March 29, 2019 at 12:21 pm

    A commission comprised of 17 people (with other, full time jobs) simply cannot develop a detailed plan in one year’s time that is fully generalizable and gets us to carbon neutrality as quickly as we need to. At the Wege Lecture two weeks ago in Hill Auditorium, Christiana Figueres (architect of the Paris Climate Accord) noted the difficulty of setting a date without knowing how to get there, continuing:
    “But that cannot stop us. We have to know, what is the final destination? And then challenge ourselves — and invite everyone else to use their creativity, their innovation, their wherewithal — to get us to where we need to go.” [1]

    Others have pointed out the necessity of setting a date from the beginning [2]. It’s not that we lack the technology to achieve carbon neutrality, but rather the leadership and the commitment of resources from the top to get there. The few recommendations of the GHG committee that *have* been implemented have been taken out of context [3], and only in service of the specific 2025 targets established by the previous U-M president. This is despite the fact that the 2015 report [4] recommended much more ambitious targets and most of it is devoted to recommendations for going beyond the 2025 goals. The failure to implement any of these other recommendations, even ones so simple as adopting the stricter building standards (we’ve spent how much on new construction since then?), indicates how important it is to have a public commitment to ensure accountability.

    The fact that the Vice President for Corporate Strategy of DTE is on the commission (not an advisory panel) makes their ability to set an ambitious and science-based date even less likely. U-M pays DTE $60+ million every year for fossil-based energy. They are hugely incentivized to oppose any onsite generation, and to delay any carbon neutrality date to as late as possible. Such actions are expected, given their previous actions [5]. The argument from the heads of the commission that there exist no conflicts of interest because commission members won’t directly accept money to sway their decisions is an insufficient response and does not address the problem.

    I wish that this administration would engage with the substance of the criticisms that have been levied, and with the solutions that have been proposed since the beginning to make this process more effective [6], rather than devote their energy to greenwashing. Students, faculty and staff have tried to engage in every step of the process, including publishing open letters, multiple op-eds, unanimously passed Resolutions, speaking at Regents meetings, and attending Pres. Schlissel’s office hours. At every step we have been rebuffed, told we should focus on getting people to turn off light bulbs, or to lobby the State or Federal government (responsibility and power lies anywhere *but* the University, it seems).
    But this is our future, so we persist.

    These are challenges we can overcome but it requires recognizing the exceptional nature of this crisis, and the need to revisit standard assumptions about timelines, institutional processes, and resource valuation. I still have faith that the University administration will, with some reflection, recognize the responsibility and opportunity we have at U-M to spearhead a just transition to true, science-based carbon neutrality, and the necessary leadership roles the President and Regents must take to ensure that happens.

    We are running out of time and patience is wearing thin. This is our future you are burning, and as young people, we feel that very acutely.


    • CLAYTON Lewis
      on March 29, 2019 at 5:13 pm

      Excellent points Mr. Weaverdyck!

  4. Megan Berkobien
    on March 29, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    This headline is misleading, and Schlissel is simply failing us–students, graduate workers, lecturers, faculty, staff, Ann Arbor community members, Michigan residents, and beyond–and the world to which we belong. You don’t need a PhD to understand his cowardice, but there are many people who hold, or will soon hold doctorates, from UMich who would be willing to say as much directly to his face. He won’t talk to us, though, only those who have money behind them (members of corporate entities like DTE & Consumers).

Leave a comment

Commenting is closed for this article. Please read our comment guidelines for more information.