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Following the release of the University of Michigan’s 2022 climate action report in September, The Michigan Daily spoke with campus community members to discuss their reactions to the report and reflect on the University’s carbon neutrality plan after a year of implementation.
The University announced its carbon neutrality plan in May 2021, committing to the elimination of direct, on-campus greenhouse gas emissions (referred to as “scope 1”) by 2040, achieving net-zero emissions from purchased power (known as “scope 2”) by 2025 and establishing goals to eliminate indirect emissions (referred to as “scope 3”) by 2025.
The plan’s announcement followed the March 2021 release of the final report by the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, a group of students and faculty members tasked with creating a plan for the University to achieve carbon neutrality.
The September 2022 climate action report updated the campus community on the progress the University has made towards their goals, such as reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by 25% between 2010 and 2022. The report also detailed further action the University plans to take in pursuit of carbon neutrality. This includes finalizing a renewable power purchase agreement to get 100% of the University’s power from renewable sources, and laying the groundwork for on-campus solar energy projects, such as finding locations for solar panels on campus.
Ben Van der Pluijm, professor of the environment, said he was not only frustrated with the amount of progress the University has made, but also with the climate action plan’s goals in general.
“I’m quite frustrated,” Van der Pluijm said. “I think (the University doesn’t) make a lot of progress … We’re certainly not the leaders in (climate action) at all. We’re a very wealthy university, and I’d hoped that (the administration) would invest in (climate action).”
According to Van der Pluijm, what the University needs is to make climate action a priority.
“The University needs to decide how serious they are, how big a priority this will become at the University of Michigan,” Van der Pluijm said. “Right now, from my perspective, it is certainly something that we work on, but every company, every institution, every outfit has environmental and sustainability plans on the books. This sounds like one of many. I’d hoped we’d be more ahead of the game.”
The climate action plan also dissatisfied Van der Pluijm because of its focus, which he argued should be on addressing the issues climate change is creating today, instead of focusing on sustainability.
“What we really need to talk about as a University … is what I call resilience,” Van der Pluijm said. “That is, … understanding and reacting to changes that are happening today, and (changes that) will, with 100% certainty, happen tomorrow….Already, people are complaining about wildfires, the temperatures increasing – next year will be the same, and worse, because we’re not turning back the clock on climate change.”
Others are also discontented with the current plan’s focus on sustainability. Dr. Richard Rood, the Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow in the College of Engineering, noted that the current climate action plan needs to shift its focus towards adaptation and turn away from mitigation.
“I think it would be good for (the University) to have a bigger focus on adaptation, and how they’re going to be coping with the consequences of climate change that are inevitable,” Rood said.
Rood also said he would like to see more actions detailed in the plan and less of an emphasis on research.
“I think culturally there is a problem, not only at the University of Michigan but at many universities, that they say, ‘Here are all the things we’re doing about climate change,’ but (all the things are) research,” Rood said. “Research is really important, but for it to have an impact, it’s a multi-year process.”
Despite his frustration over the current state of climate action at the University, Van der Pluijm has hope for the future, primarily because of the new University president Santa Ono.
“We have a new president, and we can certainly kick him a little bit and say ‘Well, you know, we should do better,’” Van der Pluijm said. “And he’d probably listen to that.”
According to Van der Pluijm, however, student activism will be the most effective way to get Ono to embrace climate action.
“(Ono) will certainly listen more to students,” Van der Pluijm said. “I think the students should be very aggressive in talking with Ono … about how they want the future to be shaped, because it is about your future.”
Many student organizations on campus are doing just that, weighing in on the climate action report as well. LSA senior M. Riley List, co-president of the Student Sustainability Coalition, said he was cautiously optimistic about the administration’s climate action efforts in an interview with The Daily, though he was pleased with the research that was done with the Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Project, which funds research for carbon neutrality.
“This administration in particular appears more open to dialogue with stakeholders across the University of Michigan community,” List said. “It’s great that tangible funding is being allocated towards supporting research like the (Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Project and) … expanding energy conservation plans … is also a great step in the right direction.”
List said he hoped the climate action plan would generate a more concrete awareness of sustainability among the general student population and greater campus community.
“I think a lot of students and University of Michigan community members are familiar with the concept of sustainability on some level,” List said. “Putting (sustainability) in a place where it’s seen as a priority, alongside all other priorities that are mutually reinforcing, like DEI 2.0 … is something that I think is going to be a really important impact of this climate action plan.”
List also said he wanted to see more actionable steps taken toward achieving net-zero emissions to establish a strong foundation for the next generation of leaders in sustainability.
“(I would) encourage all of us to consider carbon neutrality within the context of University culture,” List said. “Positions that focus on operational sustainability are important to reaching decarbonization goals, but it’s also about the broader culture of sustainability across campus. And that comes with education, with programming, (with) living learning labs … all of those and more are going to be key.”
Daily Staff Reporters Riley Hodder and Irena Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.