In 2011, the University promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 2006 emissions levels. By combining data from the Office of Campus Sustainability and a report by the University President’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee, Fitch tracked the University’s progress and found they will not fulfill this commitment if they continue on their current trajectory.
Fitch was inspired to conduct research on the emissions gap after returning from the November U.N. climate conference in Bronn, Germany. During his time in Germany, he decided to act on the calls for community action.
“When I came back to the University, I thought, ‘The University is my community and they’re behind in their efficiency and we should know how we are doing,’” Fitch said.
If the University fails to reach climate goals, Fitch said he is concerned about not only the environment, but also the motivation to work toward future sustainability goals.
“I’m worried that people will become resigned if we said we set this goal and we don’t reach it,” Fitch said.
Fitch has outlined four emissions pathways – or trajectories – the University and the state of Michigan may take: no further action, using the new Central Power Plant, continuing investment in the University’s energy management program and meeting the state of Michigan’s renewable portfolio standards. Despite the optimistic pathways the University could improve upon, Fitch said the University will likely still fall short of its goal.
To meet the 2025 commitment, Fitch said the University will need to be forward thinking and members of the community will need to take action.
“If we want real change, students – along with faculty and staff and even alumni – can say, ‘These are our morals, this is what we believe in and this is what the University of Michigan can do,’” Fitch said. “I think the administration will be receptive to that.”
One student group moving toward sustainable change is Clean Wolverines, an organization comprised of graduates and undergraduates passionate about emission reduction on campus. Earth Associate Professor Adam Simon, who leads the group, explained the organization formed when several of his students showed a deep interest in improving campus sustainability.
“A lot of students became interested in pulling the curtain back and honestly assessing where we are as a university in relation to our goals,” Simon said. “We are trying to develop realistic scenarios that would allow us to have huge impacts on reducing emissions.”
One such scenario involves the use of geothermal heating, which has been effective at Ball State University in Indiana and in the Michigan State Capitol building.
“In Lansing, the State Capitol building replaced their heating and cooling system with geothermal, and it is now saving them hundreds and thousands of dollars a year,” Simon said. “Not only can it be efficient, but it actually saves money.”
Clean Wolverines member Julian Hansen, an LSA sophomore, is working to garner widespread support for climate action. Working alongside Fitch, Hansen drafted a petition, which now has over 900 student signatures, urging University President Mark Schlissel to pledge carbon neutrality on campus.
“Now that we have about a thousand signatures, we would like to get the deans on board,” Hansen said. “From there, we would take it to the Board of Regents and finally Schlissel.”
Simon stressed the importance of student voices in bringing attention to the issue of emissions to the administration.
“This issue is not on Schlissel’s front burner,” Simon said. “It’s a back-burner issue, and ultimately what we want is for the president and the Board of Regents to make this a preeminent issue on campus. Students often undervalue the power of their voice. What Tyler and Julian and the other members of Clean Wolverines are really trying to do is make sure that students across all the Michigan campuses are aware that they need to make their voices heard or else there will be business as usual.”
When reflecting on the University’s climate goals, Fitch said while the 2025 commitment is a first step, climate goals should be made continuously to increase sustainability efforts.
“I think the 2025 goal is important, but the University has not set a goal for after 2025,” Fitch said. “For a problem like climate change that is on a large scale, the fact we don’t have a plan is a problem and we should be thinking about what we want to do there.”