On Sept. 23, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that intends to cut carbon emissions, create clean energy jobs and achieve carbon neutrality in Michigan by 2050. The order charges the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy with the task of drafting a plan to achieve these goals, which would need to be submitted to the governor by Dec. 31, 2021. While The Michigan Daily Editorial Board welcomes such a plan, the devil is ultimately in the details, and this order contains almost no details. We believe that an effective plan should clearly identify sources of emissions and clean energy alternatives, improve public transportation, have provisions to hold corporations accountable and address environmental racism prevalent in the state of Michigan.

The Energy Information Administration estimates that utilities are the biggest source of carbon emissions in Michigan at 36.5%. Within utilities, the EIA estimates that 92%of the state’s electricity is produced from non-renewable energy sources, with 4 out of 10 power plants running on coal. Even though wind energy production, the largest source of renewable energy in Michigan, has more than quadrupled between 2012 and 2019, wind energy still only amounts to an abysmal 5%of the state’s electricity production. EGLE should come up with a clear plan on helping utilities generate more renewable power and have legal provisions to hold utility companies accountable to their goals. While it helps that Michigan’s two largest utilities announced plans in 2017 to cut down carbon emissions, with DTE Energy in particular stating it would go carbon neutral by 2050, such targets will remain unachievable without sound regulatory support and oversight through instruments like tax breaks, carbon pricing or power purchase agreements. The executive directive doesn’t give any insights into these policy elements.

Beyond utilities, transportation is the second largest source of emissions in the state at 32.4 percent. This high percentage poses two problems. First, Michigan has limited public transportation facilities and is highly dependent on automotive vehicles for personal travel. To significantly reduce emissions, Michigan either has to provide an exhaustive and efficient public transportation system or promote the use of electric cars with an extensive charging infrastructure. Both options require targeted and rapid action by the government and auto manufacturers.

Second, the Michigan auto industry directly employed 291,000 workers in 2017 and contributed to $157 billion to the state’s economy. With California, New Jersey and several other states recently announcing plans to promote electric vehicles, these jobs are likely to be affected if auto manufacturers do not invest in electric cars. Michigan will also lose a portion of the $4 billion in state and local corporate taxes the auto industry pays (as of 2017) if the industry fails to adapt. EGLE’s plan should therefore carefully balance public convenience, employment opportunities and economic impact while still pursuing an aggressive path towards carbon neutrality. While it is encouraging that the executive order asks the Department of Treasury to “explore taxation and revenue strategies to fit Michigan’s changing energy production mix” and minimize loss of employment, it remains to be seen if the plan will deliver on those directives. 

Additionally, one thing that any environmental plan needs to consider is the disproportionate impact that environmental damage has on people of color and low-income communities. Just this past August, EGLE began an investigation into whether it violated the civil rights of East Detroit, a primarily low-income, non-white area, by allowing the expansion of a massive toxic waste plant that had already violated numerous safety regulations in the area, endangering the residents of the community. While this instance does not directly involve climate change, it shows a blind spot within EGLE to the hazardous effects of environmental waste and pollution that are disproportionately placed in poor and minority communities. It is of utmost importance that if EGLE undertakes the large project of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, which it absolutely should, EGLE also makes a concerted effort to combat environmental racism in all of its forms, as environmental justice must be a part of any effective plan to address climate change.

Apart from policy measures to curb emissions from corporate bodies, the plan should also encourage citizens to take individual steps to reduce emissions. An example of an individual step is reducing use of private vehicles by carpooling or using public transportation. Michigan should take inspiration from California’s High Occupancy Vehicle lane policy, for instance, which encourages citizens to carpool and drive electric cars. Another personal step is reducing per-capita meat consumption. The meat industry is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions annually. This high number is because, first, making space for farms and livestock clears trees, which results in a large amount of carbon being released. Second, cows, sheep and goats release high levels of methane through feces and burps. Third, 99% of farmed animals live on factory farms, which use fossil fuels to power their machinery, make fertilizer and ship their products around the world. Even if completely cutting out on meat is not a viable option for each individual, just reducing beef consumption can make a huge difference: For each 50 grams of protein, beef production emits 17.7 kg of CO2 compared to 2.9 kg for poultry or 1.0 kg for tofu. Even when compared to reducing the use of unsustainable food packaging, reducing meat consumption is more effective at lowering GHG emissions. One would have to avoid all food packaging for 11 years to reduce the same amount of CO2 as one year without meat. If everyone reduces their meat consumption by 25%, which is equivalent to avoiding meat about two days a week, it could lead to a reduction of 82 million metric tons of GHG emissions per year. Consciously choosing to avoid meat on specific days each week is a simple way individuals and families with the means to do so can address their own carbon footprint. In their emissions reduction plan, EGLE should include such practical measures that citizens can take on a day-to-day basis along with incentives and penalties to encourage compliance.

The timing of Whitmer’s executive directive also raises questions about the strength of the commitment. With the highly contested and polarized U.S. presidential election just a month away, it is conspicuous that the Democratic governors of several states released their plan to tackle climate change around the same time. California Gov. Gavin Newsom released an executive order on the same day as Michigan to end in-state sales of gasoline-powered automobiles by 2035. However, there are significant legislative barriers these states have to overcome in order to actually enact these plans, calling into question the efficacy of these orders. In Michigan, for example, the state legislature is controlled by the Republican Party, who will likely be unwilling to approve sweeping emission reduction plans during an election year, particularly given that the Republican-controlled U.S. federal government withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. Such legislative barriers, combined with the executive order’s striking lack of details, begs the question if this is merely a tactic to swing undecided voters. But regardless of the potential political motives behind the executive order, climate change is a timely issue and deserves action now. Even if Whitmer’s order was only meant as a publicity stunt, the state of Michigan should use the opportunity to fully address carbon emissions and create a plan for a clean energy future.

While the commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 is encouraging in an era when the existence of climate change is not agreed upon in national politics, the quality of the eventual plan will vary wildly based on what it contains. A plan that contains real solutions for public transportation, renewable energy, corporate abuse and environmental racism will be effective — one that is vague on these issues will be a waste of time. Ultimately, we will not be able to pass judgment on the actual plan until it comes out at the end of next year. For now, we encourage individuals to look for personal ways to reduce carbon emissions to the best of each person’s ability and urge the EGLE to create a plan that will address the real threat climate change poses to humanity.

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