After over two years of deliberation, research and engagement with community members, the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released its final 104-page report on Thursday morning. The document outlines 50 recommendations for the University of Michigan’s three campuses to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040 as part of efforts to combat the ongoing climate crisis. None of the recommendations are binding — instead, they must now be approved by University President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents.
Schlissel announced the creation of the PCCN in February 2019. The announcement followed considerable activism from students, who called on the University to take action to mitigate climate change. The commission, co-chaired by Engineering professor Stephen Forrest and Law professor Jennifer Haverkamp, consists of faculty, staff and alumni from across the University’s departments and was created to develop a set of recommendations to achieve carbon neutrality.
The commissioners set multiple goals outlining the path to carbon neutrality within three targeted scopes of carbon emissions. Scope 1 includes the University’s direct emissions, including those from the University power plant, the transportation and bus fleet on the campuses and emissions from boilers in University buildings. Scope 2 emissions derive from University off-campus electricity and “purchased power.” Scope 3 emissions are indirectly attributed to the University and include commuting to campus and food procurement on campus.
The final report maintains the targets of achieving carbon neutrality on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2025 and achieving Scope 3 carbon neutrality by no later than 2040.
The final recommendations were initially supposed to be released in December 2020 — instead, a draft report was released and community members were invited to respond, with some unsatisfied by what they considered the University’s unambitious 2040 end goal and reliance on carbon offsets. More than 521 comments were submitted to the commission responding to the draft recommendations. The commission also hosted community forums with the Planet Blue Ambassador Program and the Student Sustainability Coalition in January to engage with stakeholders and solicit additional feedback.
Using carbon offsets
According to the report, meeting the proposed emissions targets will depend heavily on the use of carbon offsets. This is a strategy in which the University would balance their greenhouse gas output by investing in carbon reduction or sequestration that would occur off-campus. Activists have long criticized carbon offsets, arguing they let wealthy institutions essentially pay to emit more carbon and do not directly cut an organization’s carbon output.
According to the report, offsets and carbon sinks would be used as a tool to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025. While the University would not be emitting zero carbon by 2025, they would be sequestering as much carbon as they are outputting at that point, according to the report. The PCCN recommended that the University prioritize achieving net-zero Scope 1 emissions without offsets by 2040.
According to the report, the use of offsets to achieve net zero emissions would significantly reduce the social cost of University emissions. The commission notes that, assuming the social cost of carbon emissions is $50 per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent, offsets from the University would save $325 million in avoided climate change damages.
“An important assumption underlying this recommendation is that the use of offsets to help meet this goal is financially responsible,” the report reads. “Expected carbon offsetting costs for U-M to achieve a Scope 1 carbon neutrality goal are relatively low compared to carbon reduction capital costs and the expected benefits from climate mitigation.”
The report specifies that a majority of commissioners are in favor of using carbon offsets. The minority of commissioners who oppose carbon offsetting believe the administration should prioritize the reduction of direct emissions and accelerate progress towards actually eliminating emissions on campus rather than dedicating financial resources to offsets.
The Climate Action Movement released a statement in response to the final report, pointing at plans for stustainable housing, discussions of accountability mechanisms, and attention to envornmental justice as improvements from the preliminary report. However, CAM also highlighted “critical flaws” in the report, including the reliance on carbon offsets and a lack of specificity on energy procurement. The 2040 carbon neutrality date is “far-too-late,” according to the statement.
“Thus, while the report takes some steps in the right direction, it falls far short of what the science tells us is necessary: a radical, swift transition to a resilient, carbon free economy, centering the basic needs of our most marginalized community members,” the statement said. “The University of Michigan needs a climate justice plan, not just a carbon neutrality plan.”
Plans to reduce Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions
The report outlines several specific strategies for the University to implement to achieve Scope 1 and Scope 2 neutrality with carbon offsets by 2025. Many of the draft recommendations carried over into the final report, including an estimated $3.37 billion plan to transform the University’s heating and cooling infrastructure.
The plan would replace the existing systems on all three campuses with a geo-exchange system that would provide heat by using the natural temperature in the ground. If implemented, this project would be one of the most costly strategies and would be the largest of its kind at any university, significantly cutting campus-related Scope 1 emissions.
Regarding Scope 2 emissions, the commission recommends the administration decarbonize the University’s electrical grid by shifting from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy and purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates. These certificates would amount to investments in renewable energy that are generated off-campus, essentially allowing the University to offset the entirety of its electricity through renewables.
Beyond energy, the PCCN recommends that the University move toward completely decarbonizing their transit fleet, which includes buses, vans, trucks and cars. The report also recommends that the University establish new building standards with more progressive emissions targets.
Though the report proposes a timeline for Scope 3 emissions to be reduced to zero by 2040, targets for each category within Scope 3 emissions should be established by 2025, according to the report. One such category is commuting emissions. The commission proposed increasing investment in electric vehicle charging stations, which would theoretically incentivize campus employees to use electric vehicles, thereby reducing emissions.
Due to recent breakthroughs in video conferencing capabilities and their widespread adoption during the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission recommended that the University de-emphasize traveling long distances for meetings that can be conducted remotely. The report also includes a recommendation to continue using the expanded virtual infrastructure and keep some employees working remotely.
Additionally, the commission recommended that the University should attempt to lower the impact of Scope 3 emissions by offering a more plant-forward approach to their MDining menus and reducing animal proteins, which are more carbon intensive.
The commission did not make any recommendations that addressed divestment from fossil fuel investments, a point frequently mentioned by climate activists at the University. When Schlissel initially created the commission, the issue of divestment was excluded from the scope of work.
The Board of Regents announced a pause in pursuing investments in fossil fuel companies in February 2020. At the February 2021 Regents meeting, Regent Mark Bernstein (D) said the Board of Regents would provide an update on making the University’s investment policy more sustainable in March.
New administrative and academic positions and priorities
Since the draft report was released in Dec. 2020, student activists have expressed concern that the administration will not fully implement the proposed recommendations. In a previous interview with The Daily, Rackham student Matt Sehrsweeney, a member of the campus activist group Climate Action Movement, said the commission needed to ensure the administration pursued the report’s recommended carbon neutrality program.
“There needs to be some sort of mechanism of accountability to make sure that all of these recommendations are actually put into place, because if there isn’t, then these are meaningless,” Sehrsweeney said.
To hold the University accountable to implementing their recommendations, the PCCN asked the University to create an administrative “executive leadership” position. This position would be responsible for reviewing PCCN recommendations and prioritizing their implementation, advising the president on carbon neutrality, representing carbon neutrality interests in executive discussions and developing assessments of progress towards key carbon neutrality goals.
In an interview with The Daily, Forrest discussed how this position could help create a culture at the University that values the importance of climate action.
“It was not so clear in our draft report that really leadership does everything,” Forrest said. “We’re not just talking about the leadership at the very top, but a web of leaders, all the way through the campus with all demographics of the campus at all levels, so that whoever is the president, or whoever are the Regents, or whoever are department chairs and students, that this culture is embedded deeply within the University, because this is a decades-long project.”
The commission also recommended that a community advisory committee be set up to report on progress towards neutrality goals to the public and act as liaisons between them and the University.
“A key purpose of a community advisory committee is to ensure that the perspectives of diverse stakeholders are well-represented and fully considered as U-M develops and implements its carbon neutrality plan,” the report reads.
Representatives on this committee would include at least one graduate student and one undergraduate student, members from all three campuses, those from communities disproportionately affected by climate change and faculty and members of business or nonprofit organizations with direct ties to environmental justice and climate change.
The PCCN also proposed ways to better educate students and hold them accountable for reaching carbon neutrality goals. The report suggests the University create a required orientation module to familiarize incoming students and community members with the University’s climate action goals and commitments to carbon neutrality, as they do for sexual misconduct and alcohol and drug use.
The report also urges all academic units to create a course on how climate change can impact their area of study and provide a list of existing courses that relate to carbon neutrality efforts.
Environmental justice and accountability
The final recommendations focus heavily on campus culture, organizational accountability and environmental justice. During the PCCN’s earlier stages, the Commission often faced criticism for perceived neglect of the latter.
Now, a letter from the commission at the beginning of the report explains that evaluating the recommendations for reduced carbon emissions from an environmental justice perspective must be integral to the process.
“We affirm that the climate crisis poses the most harm to communities that are historically and unfairly disadvantaged and disenfranchised,” the report states. “Each of our recommendations brings with it a different set of environmental justice considerations. Accordingly, environmental justice must be comprehensively interwoven throughout U-M’s climate action plan, rather than being a supplementary step.”
The report defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
The commission underscored the importance of engaging with environmental justice experts and communities which are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. Each recommendation with an appendix has a section titled “Equity and Justice Considerations” to factor environmental justice into the proposed change to campus operations. Related to calls for more consideration of environmental justice are matters of accountability.
“Achieving carbon neutrality will require coordinated action and accountability by all units and individuals throughout the university, and success requires that the structural and cultural architectures align with university goals and the associated work,” the report reads.
Carbon neutrality in the state of Michigan
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report that concluded the damage of natural disasters could be mitigated if global warming were limited to no more than 1.5˚C. The IPCC said humans would have to decrease emissions to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and ultimately achieve net zero emissions by 2050 in order to keep this warming below 1.5˚C.
Local and state governments have taken several actions in response to the climate crisis. The city of Ann Arbor launched the A2Zero plan in March 2020 to achieve carbon neutrality in the city by 2030. Last month, Mayor Christopher Taylor was also appointed to serve as a special adviser on the Global Executive Committee on Climate Action, an international body seeking to enhance sustainability within local governments.
In September 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the state of Michigan would set the goal of going carbon neutral by 2050.
Haverkamp said the release of the recommendations does not mark the end of the University’s efforts to achieve net-zero emissions, but rather a beginning to that journey.
“It’s both the culmination of our commission’s work and the first step for the University’s implementation of carbon neutrality,” Haverkamp said.
This article has been updated to include a statement from the Climate Action Movement.
Daily Staff Reporters Arjun Thakkar and Christian Juliano can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.