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Voices for Carbon Neutrality, a group of faculty, alumni and community leaders from the University of Michigan, hosted a webinar Wednesday to discuss how large institutions can create the organizational change necessary to achieve carbon neutrality.

The group, launched in 2018 in order to serve “as an accelerant to drive the University of Michigan toward carbon neutrality,” has previously supported student activist leaders of the Climate Action Movement and engaged with members of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. The latter released its draft recommendations in December and is currently seeking community input.

After sustained student activism, University President Mark Schlissel created the PCCN in 2019 to move the University toward carbon neutrality. The draft recommendations came from discussions and research from internal analysis teams over the course of the past year. If the suggestions are followed, the University will be on track to reach carbon neutrality for Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2025 and Scope 3 emissions by 2040.

Meghan Zahniser, a panelist and the executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, said universities such as the University of Michigan should aggressively work toward achieving carbon neutrality.

“Frankly, I do worry about relevance for any institution that does not champion for climate justice in general,” Zahniser said. “Institutions that are not championing climate justice will become obsolete.”

AASHE measures higher education institutions’ sustainability performance with a rating system called the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System. The University currently has a Gold rating among the Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum levels.

Zahniser said that top-down support from university administrators is key for driving change on sustainable campuses. 

“What all the carbon-neutral and even the STARS Platinum campuses have in common is a senior leadership commitment in not just setting the goals, but in implementing strategy,” Zahniser said. “They’ve empowered change agents throughout the institution that are systems thinkers and are looking at sustainability holistically.”

Zahniser said major changes have to be made at the systemic level to stem emissions.

“Michigan has such an incredible reputation for its academic program,” Zahniser said. “What I’m hearing is that there are a lot of incredibly passionate people at the University who expect more from the institution.”

Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, discussed some state initiatives to improve sustainability. Some included converting fish hatcheries to renewable power, implementing charging stations for electric vehicles in the Upper Peninsula and chartering electric school buses. 

“It is always important to say that climate solutions are mobility solutions,” Clark said. “Michigan is the state that puts the world on wheels and is the hub for advanced mobility solutions, and so we must lead by example by setting policies that drive changes.”

Ramé Hemstreet, vice president for operations at Kaiser Permanente — the first health care system in the United States to achieve carbon-neutral status — said the University needs more than just vocal support from administrators in order to achieve results.

“Leadership support at critical junctures is essential,” Hemstreet said. “It is absolutely essential to publicly announce ambitious goals and then internally assign accountability for achieving those goals.”

Adam Simon, professor of earth and environmental sciences, said the group looks forward to the release of the PCCN report later this month. Simon said though the University is a huge institution with numerous buildings covering vast land areas across three campuses, he believes carbon neutrality and sustainability practices can be successfully implemented. 

“We are a big university,” Simon said. “But we know it can be done. There is no question that it can be done.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Tom Porter, a member of Voices for Carbon Neutrality. The quote was actually said by Adam Simon. 

Daily Staff Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at varshakv@umich.edu.

 

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