In 2019, the University of Michigan established the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, a group of representatives elected to achieve carbon neutrality on campus within the next two decades. The University has divided its goals, ranging from indirect “Scope 3” emissions, “resulting from indirect sources like commuting, food procurement, and university-sponsored travel,” to the most direct “Scope 1” emissions from on-campus sources. Various structural and cultural priorities have also been introduced, including the electrification of campus buses, the exploration of geothermal investments and sharing recommendations with students and different University campuses.
“Fossil fuels divestment is a movement that seeks to sap money from the fossil fuel companies and stigmatizes the use of polluting fuels like coal and natural gas,” said Christopher Brown, policy chair of Students for Clean Energy, a student-run organization dedicated to promoting clean energy on campus.
There are trillions of dollars invested in the major oil and gas companies, some of the primary culprits being Exxon and Chevron, and their power plays a significant role in anti-climate lobbying at the federal level. As they are economic and political institutions of great strength, it feels impossible to rid them of their almost authoritative grasp, but by limiting our investment into these corporations we can reduce their impacts on our climate.
The case for fossil fuel divestment is a widely debated one, a socio-political taboo due to our decades-old attachment to the oil and gas industries. An institution supported by Democrats and Republicans alike due to its moneyed benefits, the dominance of fossil fuels in American society is seemingly indestructible. Yet the movement towards fossil fuel divestment is one rooted in a plethora of economic and social benefits, some of which have already been revealed.
In the last decade, the equity prices of fossil fuels have diminished and their volatile bankruptcies have proven that they are unstable, guiding individuals and firms toward more sound and less environmentally destructive investments. Beyond its environmental benefits, there are many financial benefits to moving away from fossil fuels, as it tends to diversify the economy and boost revenue. One of the key battlegrounds in which the fight for divestment has taken place is the university.In the last few years, dozens of universities in the United States have pledged to completely divest from fossil fuels, with the University of Michigan being among the original campaign members.
“In the University’s new climate report, they claim they have made more steps to sustainable investing by discontinuing direct investments in companies that are the largest contributors to greenhouse gasses,” Brown said of the recently published Climate Action Report, a document that outlines the University’s commitments and their status.
Universities across the country are increasingly becoming more committed to sustainability initiatives and research, from a reduction in single-use plastics to changing lab procedures to be more energy efficient. Although these practices are impactful, they only provide a bandage to the wound of climate change that has been exacerbated by the actions of institutions and individuals alike. This is why higher education has to move toward a direct focus on the divestment of fossil fuels.
Students at universities across the country, from Vanderbilt University to Harvard University to the University of Michigan, have demanded that their administrations take action, and while many have divested from their oil and gas partners, there is still a gap in the efficacy of these promises. Brown states that the promise of sustainability at the University of Michigan “doesn’t keep up with their emissions reductions targets, which aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from 2025,” and that “currently, the University has achieved a 25% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”
While the University has reduced a large percentage of its emissions, it is still not enough. Remaining on task is integral to the future of sustainability on campus, but the climate crisis does not abide by a singular timeline –– fossil fuel consumption and emissions must be minimized on a greater scale if the University would like to play a more significant role in alleviating the havoc wreaked by climate change. The University’s key to success is not only in its investment opportunities, but also at the core of the mission of the institution: its students.
Brown sets forth a call to action for the University to follow: “As one of the highest ranking public institutions in the country, this university serves as a model to other campuses like it. A successful climate action program would demonstrate that a net-zero future is not only possible, but that it is necessary.”
Students across the country have urged their universities to act swiftly in the face of climate change, whether it be through protests, sit-ins or letter campaigns. In an op-ed from last year during his tenure at the University of British Columbia, incoming University President Santa Ono urged universities to take the threat of climate change seriously, and most importantly, to involve student organizations in the process through task forces, open reports and empowerment. In the fight against climate change and toward effective divestment strategies, students hold the power. Students should continue to use their voices to demand their universities act as if the future is on the line, which, unfortunately, it is.
The University of Michigan has the funding and reach to do incredibly impactful things to alleviate climate change, but in order to properly reach their set goals, the University must work harder and alongside the student population. President Ono’s incoming administration and the University’s Board of Regents must focus directly on the importance of fossil fuel divestment, doing the required research and taking direct and substantial climate-saving action on campus, no matter the cost. Treating students as equals in this process is necessary, and taking the perils exacerbated by fossil fuels seriously is a matter of life or death — we need fast and effective divestment and emission reduction now.
Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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