Commission on Carbon Neutrality releases draft recommendations, seeks community input

Thursday, December 17, 2020 - 10:02am

The University's Commission on Carbon Neutrality releases a draft of recommendations Thursday morning.

The University's Commission on Carbon Neutrality releases a draft of recommendations Thursday morning. Buy this photo
Maria Deckmann/Daily

The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released a 135-page draft report on Thursday outlining a possible path for the University of Michigan to achieve carbon neutrality. The document presents an expansive list of recommendations that, if executed, would alter operations on all three University campuses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The draft recommendations suggest many specific changes to campus operations, including an estimated $3.38 billion plan to eliminate fossil fuels from the heating and cooling infrastructure across all three campuses and install a system that uses the natural temperature of the ground that, if executed as proposed, would be the largest of its kind at a university. If implemented, these two measures would be the most effective in terms of reducing greenhouse gases.

Carbon neutrality is a status for an organization in which the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere is equivalent to the amount of emissions taken out of the atmosphere. If all suggestions are followed, the draft report estimates the University would be able to achieve carbon neutrality for Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2025 and for Scope 3 emissions no later than 2040. 

Scope 1 emissions are the greenhouse gases directly emitted by the University, while Scope 2 emissions are those that are an indirect result of purchasing electricity to operated campus facilities. Scope 3 emissions are the indirect byproducts of campus operations such as commutes to campus, food purchases and University-sponsored travel. 

“The University of Michigan should set these aggressive and ambitious goals to address the urgency needed to achieve carbon neutrality,” the report states. “These goals demonstrate our commitment to addressing the local, regional, and global equity and justice challenges associated with carbon neutrality, and to engaging our campus communities, alumni, and public and private sector partners in that mission.”

The Commission is calling for members of the University community to read the report and submit public comments through an online portal. The portal will remain open until Jan. 22, 2021 for the Commission to evaluate the feedback in February and deliver a finalized report of its recommendations to University President Mark Schlissel, who will determine which sustainability measures should be implemented.

One section of the draft report includes recommendations regarding carbon offsets — a practice in which an institution attempts to balance out its direct emissions by paying to support carbon sequestration efforts elsewhere. The report acknowledges  the controversial nature of offsets and urges the University to aim for neutrality without the use of offsets by 2040. The Commission also calls for offset options to fulfill certain requirements, including verification by a third party organization, while prioritizing offset opportunities that would benefit the University community and the state of Michigan. 

Rackham student Austin Glass, one of the student members of the Commission, said the Commission’s recommendation of only pursuing carbon offsets of a certain standard would reassure critics of the approach.

“I think once people get a sense of what those minimum criteria are, and that they're serious, and that they create a much narrower field of possible options for purchasing carbon offsets, that ... even people who are maybe hesitant about broadly agreeing with the use of offsets in a carbon neutrality goal will be more comfortable with it,” Glass said.

Rackham student Sasha Bishop, an organizer for Michigan’s Climate Action Movement, said she  appreciated how the report recognizes  offsetting all the University’s emissions alone would not be enough for true carbon neutrality. 

“One way in which this report is coming out pretty strong is this acknowledgement that even though (offsets) might be an intermediate step to get us to (the) 2025 goal, it's certainly insufficient to say that it's okay to keep extracting and removing and using fossil fuels,” Bishop said. “So long as we have carbon offsets, we absolutely need to ... move away from fossil fuels entirely, which reliance on carbon offsets does not allow us to do. ”

Other significant recommendations include a measure to source electricity to the campuses through 100% renewable energy; a suggestion to ensure future building standards are sustainable and produce few emissions; the establishment of a carbon pricing model to finance low-cost energy conservation projects; and the creation of a new position for an individual who would advise the president on matters relating to carbon neutrality.

Multiple suggestions from the draft report address transportation, which largely falls under Scope 3 emissions. Among these recommendations are constructing more housing close to the university to reduce the need for students, staff and faculty to commute to campus with a vehicle; making all University vehicles fully electric; adding more electric vehicle charging stations throughout all three campuses to promote commuter use of electric vehicles; advertising ride-sharing and other transportation measures to discourage the use of personal vehicles; and transitioning all University-owned vehicles to a fully electric-powered fleet.

Glass, reflecting on the affordable housing recommendation, said he appreciated how the Commission’s proposals would alleviate student housing and other social justice concerns while tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

“One of the things that I see infrequently but…am always pleased with are when universities are willing to couple their goals of advancing equity and inclusion with their goal of advancing solutions to their contribution to the climate crisis,” Glass said. “Building out affordable housing on campus is one of the few…ways to address equity issues by way of reducing carbon emissions, and I’m glad it’s an approach that the Commission is considering recommending.”

Bishop was critical of the Commission’s plan to develop more specific Scope 3 recommendations by 2025 to achieve Scope 3 neutrality by 2040 and claimed the draft recommendations wouldn’t immediately begin addressing environmental justice issues such as housing, food, and transportation.

“To be punting that off till 2040 is pretty unacceptable in my view, and very clearly showcases why it was critical for them to have a more deeply embedded environmental justice perspective on this commission that they did not," Bishop said.

In the report, one plan from the University travel analysis team explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has promoted the use of video conferencing as a suitable alternative to in-person meetings that require air or ground travel.

“Video conferencing platforms have steadily improved over the past decade, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their use has surged due to technology improvements and increased familiarity,” the report states. “The university should establish and staff state-of-the-art video conferencing facilities in easily accessible locations across all three campuses to facilitate best-in-class hybrid meetings.”

Another proposal calls for the University to collaborate with the state of Michigan and the cities of Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Flint and Detroit to advance the goal of achieving carbon neutrality. 

“The Commission recommends that U-M engage with potential partners and conduct due diligence with regard to renewable electricity options in the State of Michigan to determine whether, and how, it wants to advocate for additional options through potential policy changes at the state level,” the report states. 

Sehrsweeney said the Commission needs to include measures to ensure the administration is held responsible for implementing its recommended carbon neutrality program. He referred to a 2015 report developed by the Greenhouse Gas Committee, which was created by previous University president Mary Sue Coleman, and argued those plans were largely ignored.   

“There needs to be some sort of mechanism of accountability to make sure that all of these recommendations are actually put into place, because if there isn't, then these are meaningless,” Sehrsweeney said.

The report acknowledges the Commission was not responsible for explaining how the University would fund the sustainability proposals. While some of the report’s analysis teams included cost projections, a total cost of all the recommendations was not included. 

“The Commission was not tasked to make recommendations as to how U-M should finance recommended actions and no such recommendations are provided,” the report states. “More in-depth financial analysis and costing would be needed for all recommendations moving forward.”

These financial considerations could prove important in evaluating which recommendations should be implemented, especially amid the losses the University has incurred amid the pandemic. In an interview with The Daily on Dec. 9, Schlissel considered potential shifts that could be enacted in next year’s budget. 

“I do not anticipate having to make drastic cuts,” Schlissel said. “I anticipate having to be frugal, very parsimonious, very careful how we spend our money, having to dip into some of our reserves … We may slow down some new investments that we were contemplating.”

After sustained activism from the campus community, Schlissel originally announced the creation of the Commission in February 2019, assembling a group of faculty and staff from across departments and schools to develop a set of recommendations for the University to achieve carbon neutrality. 

To create these recommendations, the Commission employed 17 analysis teams to conduct research on different subject areas and to develop ideas the University could employ to enhance sustainability.      

After the Commission was established, many climate activists on campus continued to pressure the body to be transparent and specific with their goals. In March 2019, students participating in a seven-hour sit-in at the Fleming Administration that resulted in 10 arrests requested Schlissel commit to making the University carbon neutral by 2030. Activists also criticized the Commission for not considering divestment from fossil fuel industries under the scope of its work and for including officials from the energy industry on the Commission.

Schlissel’s initial charge establishing the Commission created multiple advisory panels to gather feedback from relevant stakeholders, and this included a Student Advisory Panel. The Commission includes just one undergraduate and one graduate student. However, The Daily reported in January that several SAP members felt the Commission had sidelined their role, despite activism and protests urging the University to consider student input and reduce its carbon footprint.

The Commission was originally scheduled to deliver its final recommendations to Schlissel this December, but the timeline was pushed back to February 2021 due to the pandemic.

According to a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body under the United Nations that evaluates the science around climate change, capping global warming at no greater than 1.5˚C would limit its damaging effects of natural disasters. The IPCC stated humans would need to lower emissions to 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

In March, Ann Arbor launched its A2Zero plan to achieve carbon neutrality in the city by 2030. According to the Ann Arbor Living Carbon Neutrality Plan, emissions from the University accounted for 32% of the total 2.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emitted in the city in 2018. 

In late September, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the state of Michigan would aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to address the consequences of climate change.

Daily Staff Reporters Emily Blumb and Arjun Thakkar can be reached at emilybl@umich.edu and arjunt@umich.edu.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here