U-M commits to carbon neutrality universitywide


The University of Michigan will achieve carbon neutrality across all greenhouse gas emission scopes, committing to geothermal heating and cooling projects, electric buses, the creation of a revolving fund for energy-efficiency projects and the appointment of a new executive-level leader, reporting to the president, focusing on carbon neutrality-related efforts.

President Mark Schlissel announced these concrete steps and others at the May 20 Board of Regents meeting, following the recent release of the final recommendations of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. He said the goal of achieving carbon neutrality spans the entire university — the nation’s largest public research institution — including 40 million square feet in buildings, three campuses, an expansive athletics complex and the Michigan Medicine health system.

“Today’s commitments place carbon neutrality at the center of U-M’s mission,” Schlissel said. “To fulfill our mission as a public research university, we must address the climate crisis by leading the way on our campuses and beyond, creating, testing and teaching the knowledge and technologies that will transfer to other large institutions, and inspiring and empowering others to solve the defining scientific and social challenge of our time.”

Goals and initial steps

Following the commission’s guidance, U-M will eliminate Scope 1 emissions (resulting from direct, on-campus sources) by 2040, achieve carbon neutrality for Scope 2 emissions (resulting from purchased electricity) by 2025, and establish net-zero goals for Scope 3 emissions categories (resulting from indirect sources like commuting, food procurement, and university-sponsored travel) by 2025.

To reach these targets, U-M will begin implementing many recommended actions immediately, including:

  • Installing geothermal heating and cooling systems in conjunction with some of its new construction projects, beginning with the Bob and Betty Beyster Building addition on North Campus, as a first step in a phased transition of heating and cooling systems.
  • Electrifying the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campus buses as a first step toward decarbonizing U-M’s entire vehicle fleet.
  • Initiating a campus master planning process that includes carbon neutrality at its center, in collaboration with faculty experts.
  • Making all new building projects compatible with renewable-energy-driven heating and cooling systems, and developing overall standards for new construction and renovation that address increased energy efficiency and lower carbon emissions.
  • Launching a revolving fund for energy efficiency projects, beginning with $25 million over five years. Energy savings will be reinvested into the fund, which will accelerate energy conservation projects on all three campuses and Michigan Medicine.
  • Submitting a request for proposals to secure all purchased electricity from renewable sources.
  • Forming several distinct working groups, consisting of specialists from across the university, to develop roadmaps for implementing a wide range of commission recommendations.

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 through removal or sequestration projects.

In the months ahead, U-M will develop a dashboard to track its progress toward carbon neutrality and keep the community informed.

Culture of sustainability

In addition to the emissions-reduction efforts outlined above, the university will undertake actions to instill a culture of sustainability throughout the U-M. Among them are:

  • Creating a new executive-level leadership position reporting to the president, tasked with managing and coordinating carbon neutrality-related efforts universitywide. That position will be filled through a national search in the months ahead.
  • Incorporating environmental justice principles into the university’s future decision-making, acknowledging that the climate crisis poses the most harm to frontline communities that are historically and unfairly disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
  • Prioritizing meaningful engagement with surrounding communities — Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Flint and Detroit — on how to best address equity and justice issues at U-M’s three campuses, around the region, and globally in the transition to carbon neutrality.
  • Appointing an internal advisory committee, with leadership from units across the university, to help guide implementation toward carbon neutrality. U-M leaders will also engage within and beyond the university to shape the development of a community advisory council to ensure that strategies are inclusive, responsive and supportive of local communities.
  • Working with deans and other academic leaders across the university to identify and support opportunities to integrate sustainability and carbon neutrality into core curricula.
  • Making significant investments in carbon neutrality research and deployment, building on multidisciplinary initiatives like the Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program, the Global CO2 Initiative and the Institute for Global Change Biology.
  • Expanding the Planet Blue Ambassador program to cover the Flint and Dearborn campuses, and investing in the Student Sustainability Coalition to foster greater student involvement.

Drew Horning, managing director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, also will serve as a special adviser to the president to help lead and develop near-term efforts.

Finally, Schlissel committed to studying the feasibility of carbon offsets more closely, citing a desire to urgently combat climate change while making a tangible and just impact, locally and beyond. Although the commission called for the use of offsets to accelerate Scope 1 neutrality, that recommendation was the only one in the report that also was accompanied by a minority opinion, which called for the prioritization of eliminating direct emissions over purchasing offsets.

Regent Mark Bernstein said the steps announced by Schlissel highlight how comprehensive the university’s commitment will be.

“We’re integrating sustainability into the core of our mission,” Bernstein said. “This work applies to every single aspect of our university — every decision, every building, every student, every faculty member, every staff person, every administrator on every campus, in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint.”

“To put it bluntly, the people who have done the least to cause climate change feel the impact of climate change most acutely. That’s why environmental justice experts and communities most effected by climate change must have a powerful voice in shaping solutions,” Bernstein added. “The commission and our community have demanded that we prioritize and integrate environmental justice in our work — and we will.”

Added Regent Paul Brown: “Becoming carbon neutral, in many ways, is our moon shot. But we are definitely not choosing to do this because it will be easy, it will not. We are also not choosing to do this because it is hard. We are choosing to become carbon neutral because it is absolutely necessary.

“This will serve the university, but like our core mission, this will also serve our state and society. This will test whether we are truly the leaders and best, because that is what it will take to achieve this goal.”

Community-focused action

The actions announced represent the initial steps that U-M will undertake in response to the commission’s final report. Schlissel and university leadership expect to announce additional commitments as they continue to review and consider the commission’s 50 recommendations.

Released in March, the final recommendations were the culmination of a two-year process. The commission included 17 members, 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 these 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 commission’s final report is a plan created by our community and for our community,” Schlissel said. “I commend the commissioners, teams and advocates for their thorough analysis, recommendations and commitment. Achieving carbon neutrality at an institution of our size and scope, while also providing transferable and scalable models that others can follow, is a huge, ambitious task.”

Sustainability progress

The May 20 announcement comes on the heels of the university’s revised fossil fuel investment strategies, also unveiled in March. U-M committed to achieve a net-zero endowment — the first such pledge from an American public university.

The revised strategies also called for discontinuing direct investments into publicly traded companies that are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and shifting U-M’s natural resources investment focus toward renewable energy, while discontinuing investments into funds primarily focused on oil reserves, oil extraction or thermal coal extraction.

U-M also continues to progress toward its previously established goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the Ann Arbor campus by 25 percent by 2025. U-M will meet this target, set in 2011, later this year, largely due to a new high-efficiency turbine at the Central Power Plant, and the procurement of wind power from new DTE Energy wind parks.

The wind parks will provide approximately half of the purchased electricity for the Ann Arbor campus. The turbine and wind power-purchase agreement were recommended by the President’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee in 2015.



  1. Nikesh Dahal
    on May 21, 2021 at 12:59 am

    This is great news! The Climate Action Movement has posted a press release:


    It reads:

    After years of community organizing, the University of Michigan (U-M) regents made a historic announcement today, commiting to fully eliminate on-campus Scope 1 carbon emissions by 2040, and acquiring carbon-neutral electricity by 2025, representing significant steps in the right direction. While the plan falls far short of what is needed to adequately confront the climate crisis, the University’s commitment to a definite date for carbon neutrality has been a long-time target of CAM as it provides an essential measure of public accountability. Students and community advocates should be proud of their tireless efforts over the last four years, even when the University responded with arrests rather than open dialogue. However, given the urgent nature of the crisis we are facing, the proposed timeline is inadequate, and parts of the announcement lack specifics, heavily relying on corporate speak that sounds ambitious while containing insufficient substantive commitment. We can and should do better.

    The University should uphold its commitment to the We Are Still In pledge, made by President Schlissel in 2017, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C. This requires cutting global emissions by at least 45% by 2030 according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, U-M’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2040 has no meaningful interim guideposts or timelines, which means there is nothing holding the University accountable to making the immediate reductions over the next decade which are crucial to avoid the most devastating impacts of warming. Indeed, because resources are not distributed equally, this timeline should be accelerated for wealthy institutions such as U-M, with tremendous research capacity and large financial endowments. At minimum, the University must commit to cutting emissions in half by 2030. Failing to do so would violate the implicit commitment it already made as part of the We Are Still In pledge.

    We are concerned that the claimed commitment to environmental justice (EJ) has no concrete actions to substantiate it. Indeed, the Commission on Carbon Neutrality failed to incorporate EJ in any meaningful way throughout its two-year process, failing even to respond to an open letter on behalf of over 3500 students, raising such concerns in 2019. Despite U-M having one of the preeminent environmental justice programs in the world, not a single environmental justice expert or advocate served on the Commission. Far from being centered, the EJ perspective was not even present. While a commitment to centering these principles is laudable, U-M’s own history and the failure to commit to concrete steps for implementation render these simply empty words. U-M must focus on hiring EJ experts and advocates who hold critical decision-making positions throughout the entire process. Most importantly, integrating environmental justice principles requires recognizing that carbon neutrality is, itself, an incomplete framework for climate action. We must also build local resilience to climate impacts and act to account for the historical role our institution has played in driving climate change and the inequities embedded in its impacts.

    U-M claims to be championing a plan that is both scalable and transferable, but fails to address what is perhaps its most powerful lever — its ability to contest the iron grip of the state utilities on how Michiganders get their power. Researchers have shown how Michigan utilities like DTE have captured the legislature, successfully manipulating regulatory regimes to prevent Michiganders from accessing clean, distributed energy generation in favor of the fossil-based centralized energy that drives their profits. Indeed, over strong objections, DTE’s VP for Corporate Strategy was appointed to the Commission itself, despite the fact that the commission’s scope clearly would have implications for DTE’s contract with U-M, worth over $60 million every year. In its two years of operation, the Commission failed to perform the most basic assessment of alternative sources of carbon-free electricity, showcasing an alarming commitment to the status quo and unwillingness to use U-M’s carbon neutrality efforts to promote climate action on a state level. Instead, they are upholding the forces that have prevented meaningful action on climate for the past 40 years.

    Today’s announcement is an enormous victory in the fight for our collective future. The unprecedented threat of the climate crisis provides us the opportunity and the obligation to dramatically upend the status quo and build a more prosperous and equitable future, with clean energy, water, and air for all. This requires immediate and bold action — we will continue to push the University to implement policy commensurate with this challenge. We urge the University to accelerate the timeline for decarbonization with intermediate benchmarks, adopt substantive frameworks for incorporating environmental justice throughout the decision-making process, and work to expand energy democracy across the state through its approach to energy procurement and engagement with state-wide policy.

  2. Elizabeth LaPorte
    on May 21, 2021 at 10:09 am

    Wonderful News. Congratulations to my hardworking colleagues at the Graham Institute and others that contributed to this effort (particularly student volunteers). In recognition of President Schlissel and his commitment and the Regents recent decision, this is taking decisive action to be the Leader’s and Best.

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