Carbon neutrality commission publishes work plan delineating timeline and approach

Monday, May 20, 2019 - 1:12pm

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Cameron Hunt/Daily

The University of Michigan President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released its work plan at the beginning of May, outlining a timeline and approach for the commission to develop recommendations in achieving carbon neutrality on the University’s three campuses for University President Mark Schlissel.

Jennifer Haverkamp, PCCN co-chair and director of the Graham Sustainability Institute, explained the work plan serves to organize the Commission’s thoughts and next steps.

“A work plan basically is a road map,” Haverkamp said. “The purpose of putting together this work plan is to organize the Commission’s thinking and breakdown the structure of our work to go through this process together as a Commission, so that we have a common understanding of what next steps are and also to share that with the public.”

Schlissel first announced a commitment to carbon neutrality in October and created the Commission in February to recommend steps for the University to achieve this goal. The work plan comes after the first town hall hosted by the Commission in March at Rackham Auditorium, which was at capacity.

The work plan follows significant student, faculty, staff and community activism around the University’s climate initiatives urging reconsideration of the Central Power Plant expansion, divestment from fossil-fuel securities and a timeline for carbon neutrality. Climate activists have also objected to the presence of energy industry representatives on the Commission.

Per the timeline published in the work plan, the PCCN will publish interim progress reports in fall 2019 and spring 2020. The draft final report will be available for public comment and revised in the fall of 2020.

The PCCN originally began as a core 17-member commission led by Haverkamp and Stephen Forrest, professor of electrical engineering and computer science. The work plan will expand the PCCN to include external and internal analysis teams each specializing on a certain topic area and four advisory panels, one each representing students, faculty, university units and external advisors. There will also be engagement and input from the campus community and broader public.

In the work plan, the PCCN stated it will expand the scope of the University’s climate goals by addressing Scope 3 emissions and cross-cutting considerations. Scope 3 emissions are those not owned or controlled by the University such as those generated through off-campus travel by community members and suppliers of goods and services to the University. The work plan provides several examples of cross-cutting considerations, such as institutional policies, equity and inclusion, scalability and transferability and campus growth.

previous University goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2025 is limited to Scope 1 emissions — emissions generated on campus — and Scope 2 emissions, which are associated with purchased electricity.

According to the work plan, the core commission will immediately begin work on “sufficiently ‘high-level’” issues in consultation with the advisory panels and outside experts if needed without delegating them to the specialized analysis teams. These issues include defining carbon neutrality and setting an aspirational date and timeline for its success.

To study topics requiring “in-depth research and analysis,” the PCCN says it will commission highly specialized external groups and create internal groups made up of University faculty, staff and students. According to the work plan, external groups will focus on areas related to campus infrastructure — such as infrastructure master planning — heating and cooling systems and building design. The internal teams will cover a variety of issues including building standards, food, biosequestration and offsets, energy consumption policies, campus culture, communication and external collaboration.  

“These analysis teams are designed to generate the best available inputs to our decision making, to get U-M to its goal of carbon neutrality in the quickest, most cost-effective and efficient route,” Forrest told the University Record.

Haverkamp said topics assigned to the external analysis teams are those benefiting from an outside perspective.

“The external analysis is focused on questions that are more systems-level,” Haverkamp said. “If we contract that out, we anticipate that we’ll get fresh perspective on what new opportunities might be there and get the benefit of external firms that do this on a regular basis for a variety of different institutions.”

According to Haverkamp, the internal analysis teams were assigned issues needing local knowledge of the University’s structure, mechanisms and culture. These teams will be formed in the near future she said.

“We’ve been very pleased by the response to our call for nominations and self-nominations by faculty to serve on the internal analysis teams,” she said. “We look forward to getting those up and running as soon as possible.”

The four advisory panels will provide advice to the PCCN at key milestones and when the group is “stuck,” the work plan says. Advisory panels will also be able to review reports before they are published, participate in workshops related to cross-cutting topics, advise the internal analysis teams and suggest topics for consideration.

“The four advisory panels are a structured way of tapping external expertise and stakeholder input along the way,” Haverkamp said. “They’ll be our sounding board throughout the process.”

To foster engagement and input from the campus community and the broader public, the work plan states there will be “a variety of public forums” and an online tool to gather both general comments and specific feedback on the Commission’s final draft. According to the work plan, core PCCN members and the advisory panels will host “informal engagements” with the stakeholder group they represent throughout the PCCN’s process.

“I think that’s a signal of the very strong commitment to the Commission has to transparency and external engagement along the way,” Haverkamp said. “And we will continue to look for the best ways to share the work we’re doing and to get input from the broader public.”

In March, an estimated 3,000 Washtenaw-area community members attended the Washtenaw County Climate Strike, which ended with a seven-hour sit-in at the Fleming Administrative Building and 10 arrests. In solidarity with the Climate Strike and the sit-in, demonstrators conducted daily study-in’s in Schlissel’s office and said they would continue to do so until their requests for an hour-long public meeting with Schlissel and a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030 were met. In response to these demands, Schlissel and the Commission held a special public session at the beginning of April with community members in a Q&A format.

Additionally, a faculty open letter to Schlissel in support of stronger climate action by the University was signed by more than 400 University faculty.

Lena Swirczek, LSA sophomore and co-president of the University’s chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, said she is pleased the Commission is considering a broad range of topics. Swirczek expressed she continues to be concerned about the involvement of representatives from DTE Energy and Consumers Energy on the Commission and the expansion of the Central Power Plant.

“I am happy to see a wide variety of aspects covered by the work plan like food, building codes, building infrastructure ... so, it’s good to see they’re taking on a lot of issues on campus,” Swirczek said. “It seems the Central Power Plant isn’t covered as much under this — I don’t know how we’re going to reach carbon neutrality in a reasonable amount of time if we’re investing in infrastructure that’s going to last fifty years that relies on fossil fuels.”

Washtenaw County Climate Strike co-organizer Hoai An Pham, a University alum, said she hopes to see the Commission develop more specific goals.

“I think it’s really great that the University has a commitment to carbon neutrality. … I know many places where there isn’t that commitment on a structural, administrative level,” Pham said. “Looking at the document in and of itself, I’m not seeing very specific goals that would the University to working on these in a specific timeframe … I think, when you have very vague goals that don’t have measurable outcomes, it can be really hard to hold yourself accountable for the work that you’re doing.”

In addition, Pham expressed she wants to see the University reach out more to marginalized groups already struggling due to climate change.

“I think I have not really seen examples of the University really engaging with marginalized groups,” Pham said. “For example, if we are only looking at people who are affiliated with the University, that’s also a vast amount of privilege we’re not accounting for.”

Michelle Deatrick, founding chair of the Washtenaw County Environmental Council and a speaker at the Climate Strike, also highlighted climate justice as a specific area she’d like to see addressed by the Commission.

“I would like to see environmental justice called out as a specific goal … and also prioritized by one or more of the teams that are created,” Deatrick said. “I think there should be a specific goal of involvement of people of color and indigenous peoples who are more affected by climate change than other people, and who have expertise and voices that need to be heard.”

Deatrick expressed she is glad to see the Commission’s work so far.

“I am encouraged by the work plan’s creation. It’s ambitious, it’s broad. I’m really glad all three campuses are included,” Deatrick said. “And they did all this in a very short period of time … A work plan can’t contain everything and shouldn’t. As I go through this, I’m looking for where we see accountability, transparency, commitment of resources and staff. I’m looking forward to a follow-up document with more details about those issues.”

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