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The Planet Blue Ambassador Program, a student organization that works with the President’s Commission on Climate Neutrality to draft carbon neutrality recommendations, held community forums Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the preliminary draft recommendations from the PCCN, which were released in mid-December. The virtual forums, co-hosted by the Student Sustainability Coalition, featured community members on Wednesday and students from all three University campuses on Thursday.

The draft recommendations emerged from discussions and research by internal analysis teams over the course of the past year, publicized by a series of webinars and discussions. The commission began work when University President Mark Schlissel created the team in 2019 in order to help the University move toward carbon neutrality after sustained student activism demanding increased attention to the climate crisis.

The commission plans to use suggestions offered during these forums, as well as those submitted through a public comment portal, to finalize their recommendations and present them to Schlissel in February.

In breakout rooms, some community members disagreed with the commission’s suggestions regarding commuting. Commuting is classified by the PCCN as a “scope three” emission — a category which includes any “off-campus” emissions that can be traced back to the University.

The commuting policies outlined in the PCCN report include improving cycling infrastructure, such as bike paths. Victoria Green, a University business systems analyst, expressed concern about the current biking conditions on the Ann Arbor campus. 

“In my University jobs, to get a cup of coffee, I’ve had to bike on State Street over (I-94),” Green said. “These are horrible locations that are wildly unsafe.”

Green said she was frustrated that the report proposed a single, safer bike path from Central to North Campus instead of a more concrete plan for cycling infrastructure everywhere on campus.

“To get people on bikes, we need a transportation network, not just ‘let’s connect our two campus pieces,’” Green said. “To effect change and people, you have to have them see cycling as a valid alternative in many ways.” 

Many students, like LSA sophomore Sharon Ma, a member of the Climate Action Movement, said the report showed a lack of oversight and accountability on the part of the University.

“There is a lack of carbon budget (in the draft),” Ma said. “Without a specific number that tells us how much we should be emitting each year, there’s a possibility that the University would emit way more than it should be.” 

Ma said the lack of budget could encourage the University to put off focusing on carbon neutrality until 2040, the year they promise to fully achieve the goal by. 

Since the commission formed in 2019, student activists — particularly those involved with the Climate Action Movement — have called on the University to be transparent with their carbon neutrality goals and divest from fossil fuel industries. In March 2019, students sat-in at the Fleming Administration Building in order to put pressure on the University’s administration to set a specific year for reaching carbon neutrality.

Sam Limerick, Rackham student and CAM member, added in the chat that the University’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2040 is less ambitious than that of President-elect Joe Biden, who plans to achieve a carbon-free power sector by 2035.

Limerick suggested shifting toward a more climate-friendly food procurement system in order to promote equity across the University and hoped the revisions to the draft recommendations would better address labor interests.

“There wasn’t anything in the report about purchasing guidelines, guidelines for ensuring fair labor practice,” Limerick said. “The University really could stand to gain a lot in terms of promoting equity and justice if it actually laid out guidelines and recommendations for ensuring the fair treatment of people who are harvesting and growing and delivering this food to market.” 

Other activists in the student session brought up the draft report’s emphasis on using carbon offsets to eliminate scope one emissions — which are emissions produced by any properties and buildings owned by the University — by 2025. Carbon offsets pay for activities that directly emit carbon by reducing carbon emissions elsewhere. The PCCN mentioned in the draft that it would be difficult to achieve the 2025 goal without carbon offsetting.

LSA junior Lena Swirczek, a member of CAM, said she hoped the reliance on carbon offsets would not hinder the University’s ability to achieve carbon neutrality.

“I understand that you have to transition things, but we have so many experts in our faculty, we have so much money,” Swirczek said. “There is an over-reliance on carbon offsets for a model that is supposed to be applicable to other institutions in moving our goals forward.”

Like past PCCN meetings, members at this week’s community forums discussed the importance of institutionalizing progressive decarbonization plans rather than relying upon individual student action.

Many policies outlined in the report, including increased emphasis on composting or creating an educational requirement about climate action, led attendees like Public Health junior Ellie Holmes to believe that the University would shift the burden onto students to lower emissions. 

“I would hope (the University’s approach) avoids the fallacy that individual action is the way to go,” Holmes said. “That’s a can of worms that I would like to avoid.” 

LSA freshman Jarek Schmanski, a facilitator for this week’s meetings, emphasized the importance of student involvement and activism in achieving carbon neutrality. 

“Having the students know about the report, about the progress, is critical,” Schmanski said. 

Daily Staff Reporter Christian Juliano can be reached at julianoc@umich.edu.

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