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Various University of Michigan stakeholders for the past few years, including student as well as staff and faculty organizations, have pushed for the University to take an active role in combating climate change by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
The University has responded to these requests by presenting a path for the institution to become carbon neutral and limit emissions so they are equivalent to the amount of emissions sequestered from the atmosphere. The University has committed to eliminating its scope 1 emissions across all three campuses by 2040, achieving net-zero scope 2 emissions by 2025, and establishing goals by 2025 for eliminating scope 3 emissions.
Scope 1 emissions are greenhouse gasses directly released by the University, including emissions from the campus power plant, heating and cooling for buildings and bus transportation. Scope 2 emissions are generated by the electricity purchased from other utilities to help power the campus. Scope 3 emissions are indirect sources of emissions at the University and include commuting to campus (using cars and The Ride buses), food and University-affiliated travel.
This commitment to carbon neutrality followed months of research and deliberation from the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, created in February 2019 and consists of various faculty members, students and advisors to deliver a report with a plan for the University to obtain net-zero carbon emissions. The final report,released in March 2021, outlined specific recommendations on how the University could achieve net-zero emissions.
Community members argue the University’s progress on achieving carbon neutrality has been too slow to address the ongoing climate crisis, with student organizations, such as Climate Action movement pressuring the University for a more aggressive timeline and to reduce emissions by 2030.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body under the United Nations that evaluates climate science, states humans need to reduce emissions to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050 in order to avert the damaging effects of climate change, including natural disasters.
Tom Porter, a former lecturer at the Ross School of Business and a member of the staff, faculty and alumni group Voices for Carbon Neutrality, said he thought the commission report’s goals were ambitious but the University hasn’t taken enough action to implement its carbon neutrality plan.
“We’re off to a bad start on day one,” Porter said. “We could create the greatest plans anytime the University of Michigan puts its mind to it, but it’s not real until they act on it. And the problem is they haven’t acted on it.”
University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen told The Michigan Daily over email “progress is well underway” on the University’s carbon neutrality initiative.
The Michigan Daily looked into questions on the University’s carbon neutrality plan. Here’s what we found.
How much emission does the U-M Ann Arbor campus emit? How much have emissions been reduced by?
According to the latest environmental metrics data, the Ann Arbor campus emitted 523,227 metric tons of carbon dioxide and purchased renewable energy credits for about 8,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the 2021 fiscal year, yielding 515,202 in net greenhouse gas emissions. This total amounts to roughly 5.37 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person. According to MIT’s Climate Portal, one metric ton of carbon dioxide occupies the space of a cube measuring 27 feet tall, wide and long.
Emissions peaked in 2011, when Ann Arbor emitted 721,839 metric tons of carbon dioxide and then-President Mary Sue Coleman announced a commitment to cut scope 1 and 2 emissions by 25% below levels in 2006 by 2025. The Office of Campus Sustainability reports that the University has reduced emissions by 24%, nearly meeting the 2011 goal.
Given that former University President Mark Schlissel was involved with this carbon neutrality timeline and its measures, how is Interim University President Mary Sue Coleman being transitioned into these new responsibilities? How much of a priority is carbon neutrality to her (interim) role and to the appointment of her successor?
Schlissel’s tenure saw major changes in the University’s response to carbon emission reduction efforts. In 2019, Schlissel announced the creation of the carbon neutrality commission, and was set to play a large role in pushing to implement the measures before he was fired on Jan. 15 for an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.
In an email to The Daily, Broekhuizen wrote carbon neutrality “remains a key priority” for Coleman, who was selected to serve as an interim president while the University searches for a successor. Broekhuizen also noted the University helped co-found the Midwest Climate Collaborative — a group of over 25 universities, local governments, nonprofit organizations and corporations that aims to collaborate on climate research and work toward solutions.
In an announcement on behalf of the group on Feb. 3., Coleman said collaboration would be key to addressing the challenges of climate change.
“As we pursue our carbon neutrality goals at U-M, we need to draw on the expertise and passion of our community and engage with external partners like the Midwest Climate Collaborative,” Coleman said. “Together we will produce solutions for the good of tomorrow.”
Activists and community stakeholders have frequently called for broader accountability and transparency to ensure the University follows through in implementing recommended changes and reducing emissions. Does the administration have any plan to provide updates on its carbon neutrality progress?
Broekhuizen wrote that carbon neutrality officials plan to launch an interactive dashboard, which would share specific data and provide insight to the public on the University’s progress in reducing its emissions. She said officials plan to engage with stakeholders via webinars and community members can continue to submit public comments, as was permitted during the carbon neutrality commission, via the Planet Blue website.
The administration also aims to collaborate with student organizations to gain feedback on the ongoing work. Many climate student groups have previously protested the University for its lack of transparency in responding to climate change and moving toward carbon neutrality.
Rackham student Austin Glass, a former student commissioner of the carbon neutrality commission, said he will soon be working on the initiative with the University to communicate with student groups and foster engagement and responsiveness over carbon neutrality work.
“Folks in carbon neutrality decision-making positions at the University are as interested as I have ever seen them in attempting to change the course of the relationship between student organizations and university administration, in particular on transparency and on accountability,” Glass said.
Knute Nadelhoffer, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology, said administrative issues such as the search for a new University Provost and University President may have obstructed transparency and engagement efforts, but that the issues should not distract the University from addressing climate change.
“Having other problems is not an excuse for failing to address what is really an existential problem, a crisis that confronts our ability to function as a civilization,” Nadelhoffer said.
What progress has been made on the commitment to install geothermal heating and cooling systems across campus?
The University adopted the carbon neutrality commission’s recommendation to replace the University’s heating and cooling systems with a geothermal exchange system that would use the natural temperature in the ground to provide heating and cooling as well as power on campus.
The commission estimated the project would cost about $3.37 billion and would be the largest of its kind at any university. The report calls for a phased implementation of the system, beginning on North Campus and U-M-Dearborn.
Broekhuizen wrote the University is beginning a utility planning process for heating and cooling systems on North Campus, where there are plans to install a geothermal system in the new construction for the Leinweber Computer Science and Information Building, an addition to the Bob and Betty Beyster Building. The proposal is expected to be considered by the Board of Regents at its upcoming Feb. 17 meeting.
Are there any updates to share on the approach to electrifying the University’s bus fleet?
The commission report recommends the University shift to electric vehicles and fully decarbonize its transit system “as quickly as possible” in order to reduce scope 1 emissions and support a culture change around emissions on campus.
Broekhuizen wrote the University has created a plan for decarbonizing the entire vehicle fleet. As a first step in this goal, the University has purchased four electric buses that are expected to be delivered this fall, according to Broekhuizen.
Are there any further updates to share on the use of a $25 million revolving energy fund and making buildings more energy efficient?
Broekhuizen referred to the January announcement of a $5 million investment in energy conservation measures throughout the University. The funds would update existing infrastructure in buildings, such as lighting as well as heating and cooling, to make them more energy-efficient.
The investment comes from a $25 million revolving energy fund, which serves as a loan to University units that would be paid back from the cost savings of more efficient buildings. The fund is expected to be fully disbursed in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, according to the press release.
Has the University made progress on its intention to issue requests for proposals and “secure all purchased electricity from renewable sources”?
The University plans to have all of its purchased electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2025 in order to achieve scope 2 carbon neutrality.
Broekhuizen wrote renewable energy sources currently account for about half of purchased electricity on the Ann Arbor campus. She said the University is working on this goal and expects to complete its selections for these renewable energy sources by the end of this summer.
Are there any updates on the search for an executive leadership administrator? Who is set to report to the University President and coordinate carbon neutrality efforts across the University?
As part of the carbon neutrality plan, the University announced it would appoint an executive official who would report to the University President and coordinate carbon neutrality work across campus. The announcement states “the position will be filled through a national search in the months ahead.”
Broekhuizen did not offer a specific answer and wrote, “We look forward to having more to share on this at a future date.”
Porter and Nadelhoffer argued appointing an executive administrator to provide guidance to organize carbon neutrality efforts is one of the most important measures for the University to achieve.
Glass said it is possible the planning for selecting this executive leader may have been disrupted by the removal of Schlissel but noted that it wouldn’t be difficult for the University to explain the uncertainty and provide updates on its progress in selecting the official.
“I do think it wouldn’t go amiss for the University to communicate to the community what the timeline on (appointing the executive official) is,” Glass said. “I appreciate the hesitancy to communicate that sort of thing publicly … I don’t think that it is to the detriment of the community for the institution to say, ‘Here’s where we’re at right now.’”
There are a number of other organizational tasks listed in the University’s carbon neutrality commitment under the umbrella of instilling a “culture of sustainability” and creating more organizational units to establish sustainability efforts. What concrete actions have been taken to implement these measures?
Broekhuizen wrote there has been ongoing work to identify ways to make sustainability a part of campus culture within University departments.
“Meaningful climate action and carbon neutrality require sustained, university-wide interest and support,” Broekhuizen wrote.
Porter said the University should push to make carbon neutrality a priority in its process for hiring new executive officials, including deans, the provost and the president due to their broad influence over the direction of units on campus. He was critical of the job descriptions for these positions not highlighting climate issues as a criterion for applicants.
“How in the hell could you have a position description for a provost that doesn’t mention (climate) when it’s the provost’s responsibility for curriculum and culture change at the campus?” Porter said. “There is no leadership at the University of Michigan at a high level for carbon neutrality.”
Daily Staff Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.