University forging ahead on carbon neutrality work

As individuals across the globe rally for urgent action on climate change, the University of Michigan is moving forward on its path toward carbon neutrality with several actions, including joining a coalition of universities working on climate change solutions.

U-M joins 20 other North American universities in the University Climate Change Coalition — a program of the organization Second Nature — in the quest to share knowledge and ideas to accelerate climate change solutions, and collaborate with local, regional and national institutions working to achieve their climate goals.

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“The problem of global climate change is far too big for any one institution to solve alone. Collaboration and engagement are key to creating real and lasting solutions that will benefit our society,” said President Mark Schlissel.

Other actions — driven by the U-M President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality — include:

  • Coordinating the next community forum to be hosted by the commission Sept. 25.
  • Selecting faculty leads for the commission’s internal analysis teams, which will tackle topics such as commuting, food and campus culture.
  • Continued engagement of the student community in carbon neutrality work, including a call for applications for student researchers to join the commission’s internal analysis teams.
  • Seeking proposals from external firms to conduct an analysis of current heat and power infrastructure on the Ann Arbor campus.
  • Addressing key challenges through commission subgroups, such as carbon accounting methodology and investigating methane leakage through the natural gas supply chain.

This week, U-M will host its annual event celebrating sustainability at EarthFest from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 19 on the Diag. The celebration also marks the start of Earth Day at 50, a yearlong series of events, lectures and exhibits dedicated to bringing the U-M community and partners together to explore the current impact on sustainability and how to rise to the challenge of creating a better future for the planet.

Schlissel accepted a recommendation from the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality to join the University Climate Change Coalition and signed a letter Aug. 29 making that commitment. UC3 membership will provide U-M the opportunity to collaborate with key research institutions and external partners to share and gain knowledge to accelerate climate change solutions.

The announcement comes amid a global call by individuals around the world for urgent climate change action ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23 in New York City.

Commission work continues

Since its creation in February, the commission has been working on recommendations, which will include 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.

“The commission has been working hard throughout the summer on concrete elements of our plan for how and when U-M can meet its goal of carbon neutrality,” said Steve Forrest, co-chair of the commission and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, physics, and material sciences and engineering.

“A truly impressive roster of U-M faculty has answered our call to lead research teams. With their help our progress will only accelerate,” added Jennifer Haverkamp, co-chair of the commission and director of the Graham Sustainability Institute.

The commission co-chairs will host a U-M community forum from 4:30-6 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Rackham Graduate School to provide the community with an update on the group’s progress, answer questions and gather input on specific research topics. The presentation also will be livestreamed.

In May, the commission released its work plan, which serves as a roadmap for navigating the urgent and complex work required for developing U-M’s path to carbon neutrality.

The commission’s first interim progress report is expected to be released later this fall.

Internal analysis teams

Delivering on a key objective identified in the workplan, the commission has selected faculty leadership for eight internal analysis teams. Each team is charged with conducting in-depth research and analysis on a specific topic related to carbon neutrality pathways.

To assist in the work, the teams are hiring several student researchers who can provide deep analysis of challenges presented.

Faculty leads will be present at the community forum to hear ideas directly from the public as they begin their work that will help inform the commission in developing its recommendations.

Engaging students

Student input and ideas also are being shared with the commission and incorporated into their recommendations through the Student Advisory Panel — a group of 14 students representing the Ann Arbor campus. The panel is still seeking student representation from Flint and Dearborn campuses.

In addition, Student Life recently facilitated a student-driven meeting between the Office of Campus Sustainability and a handful of students that represent sustainability-related organizations on campus to discuss how to further engage these groups in the work of the commission.

“The Student Advisory Panel serves a crucial role in the commission’s work,” said Austin Glass, student commission member and a commission liaison to the student advisory panel.

“The panel continues to be consulted at important milestones and solicited for feedback on all of our policy-creating work documents, and the member students have provided important guidance and input as we have developed our Internal Analysis Teams. The student feedback is valuable because we will need bold and novel ideas to tackle the challenges we face in achieving carbon neutrality, and our thoughtful and creative student body should be the commission’s partner in proposing and developing these ideas.”

Tackling challenges

The commission also is making headway on tackling some of the larger challenges to becoming carbon neutral, such as bringing in outside experts to conduct an analysis of U-M’s current heat and power infrastructure with the goal of exploring more sustainable strategies for the future.

To better understand the impact of the infrastructure in place today, a subgroup of the commission is exploring carbon accounting methodology which includes methane leakage in the natural gas supply chain. Its analysis will provide the commission and U-M leadership with baseline data against which to measure progress.


  1. Jonathan Morris
    on September 18, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    Glad to hear the commission is making progress. When will the University of Michigan join others, like the University of California and divest the endowment completely from fossil fuels?

  2. Noah Weaverdyck
    on September 18, 2019 at 4:46 pm

    I was initially elated to hear this, as I thought we were finally joining hundreds of other institutions as a part of the Second Nature Climate Leadership Network (CLN). We advocated strongly for this, both privately and publicly, and received support via unanimous resolutions from student governments across U-M’s campuses and through the Faculty Senate almost a year ago. (We also all called for a science-based target date for carbon neutrality — it’s not hard to find, we employ climate scientists — but are still waiting to hear back).

    Unfortunately the University Climate Change Coalition is not the CLN. It sounds good too, but it lacks any of the actual accountability or commitments that the CLN has, such as adhering to standardized reporting metrics for emissions, and a timeline for setting a date for carbon neutrality. U-M’s participation in UC3 could be hugely beneficial, or it could be meaningless public relations fodder. Time will tell I guess.

    This also does little to satisfy the consistent request from the community to establish *concrete and well-defined* commitments and accountability measures to the emissions reductions necessary for a stable future. U-M’s history of not following the recommendations of its previous sustainability committees, and its refusal to take responsibility for continually *adding* to the $1.2 billion it has invested in fossil fuel companies, is why we cannot simply “trust” that the administration will do the right thing here.
    We have 40 years of history demonstrating otherwise, and time is simply running out.

    There are excellent people at U-M pushing hard for progress here and so we must celebrate even modest wins such as these. So to everyone pushing for this and more, inside and out of U-M, thank you and keep up the good work!

    Further reading:
    Time to Lead on Climate:

    Effectiveness of a Carbon Neutrality Commission:

    DTE and Consumers Energy:

    Climate Strike and Arrests:

    Natural Gas and CPP Expansion:

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