Op-Ed | Carbon neutrality is a test

Saturday, February 13, 2021 - 12:25pm

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Design by Grace Aretakis

Achieving carbon neutrality stands as a defining challenge for the University of Michigan and all of humanity. At the end of the fall semester, the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released their drafted recommendations for tackling this challenge. The content and ultimate implementation of these recommendations by the administration and the regents are critical tests of the University’s integrity and an opportunity to lead from the front.

The mission statement mandates carbon neutrality through the language it uses: “The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in … applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” Carbon neutrality fulfills this mission in three important ways. 

First, the most direct action the University can implement to “serve the people of Michigan and the world” is a swift and equitable reduction in the institution’s contribution to climate change, which University President Mark Schlissel acknowledges as “the defining scientific and social problem of our age.” Unfortunately, many students are not confident statements can substitute substantial efforts to address climate change.

Second, “preeminence in applying knowledge” means operationalizing the enormous body of research (including a great deal by U-M scholars). Signifying climate and climate justice as critical issues requires immediate and innovative responses. 

Third, the University’s mission calls for “developing leaders and citizens who challenge the present and enrich the future,” necessitating an institutional environment that encourages and embodies alternatives to the status quo with an aim toward an equitably prosperous future. 

The thorough critiques from the Energy Club at Ross, Climate Action Movement and Voices for Carbon Neutrality exemplify these values and are in agreement on three key issues: 

  1. Calling on the University to center marginalized voices and emphasize racial, social and environmental justice in decision making; 

  2. Ensuring accountability and transparency in implementation; and, 

  3. Acting with the ambition and urgency of today and tomorrow, not the apathy of yesterday. 

In sum, the University values require decisive, comprehensive and just actions to achieve carbon neutrality. Anything less would contradict its mission, deny its knowledge and erode its integrity. 

The scope, complexity and number of changes that must be made to the University’s operations to achieve carbon neutrality will require bold leadership and careful planning. To that end, the University will need to seek input from community members, technical experts, students, staff and faculty, while remaining cognizant of how its plans will impact these stakeholders. The process will be a significant lift, require creativethinking and, most importantly, present a unique opportunity to establish the University’s climate leadership, transform the University’s physical infrastructure and prioritize equitable climate action. 

Taking meaningful action on carbon neutrality would differentiate the University as a leader in the climate space and signal its investment in combating the climate crisis. A well-constructed plan both bolsters the University’s reputation as a world-class research institution and furthers its mission of attracting and developing leaders who can drive societal transformation. By opting for a plan that lacks sufficient ambition, accountability and transparency, the University would risk ceding the opportunity to establish best-in-class climate research programs to other academic institutions while losing credibility amongst current and future leaders needed to implement carbon neutrality plans.

Adopting a bold, standard-setting carbon neutrality plan presents a massive opportunity to renew the University’s existing and planned infrastructure, as climate-conscious investments save money and ensure institutional stability for decades to come. These changes can preserve and improve the facilities that the University uses to conduct its work, provide higher quality education to its students, protect climate-sensitive ecosystems and communities and stimulate economic development. 

This infrastructure transformation will require considerable capital investment, often decided on the basis of return on investment (ROI) calculations. Because ROI does not capture all of the health and environmental benefits from carbon neutrality, the University will need to consider additional public health and environmental factors in order to fulfill its mission while making these decisions. 

In addition to benefiting the University, carbon neutrality initiatives and intended outcomes must also advance equity and inclusion. A strong carbon neutrality plan will prioritize and uplift marginalized populations that have and will continue to experience the worst effects of human-induced climate change. Done right, the University’s plan can and should improve communities’ health and wellbeing. 

By co-creating a prosperous future that benefits all people, the University will have the opportunity to continue delivering on its mission of serving the communities in which it is situated, as well as the people of Michigan and the world. 

In writing this piece, we strive to challenge the past and enrich the future. If the University is to fulfill its mission, if we are to truly be “leaders and best,” the PCCN recommendations must be robust and the implementation creative, swift and equitable. 

We are encouraged by the rigor with which the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality has approached the first steps of developing a carbon neutrality plan, and we ask that their final plan address the three main issue areas raised by the Energy Club at Ross, Voices for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Action Movement noted above. 

These changes, and the diverse perspectives they represent, will lead to a world-class carbon neutrality plan that meets and exceeds the charge given by President Schlissel to design comprehensive measures that address the “defining scientific and social problem of our age.”

Please add your voice if you agree with the Energy Club at Ross’s recommended improvements by signing this Google Form. We are continuing to collect digital signatures for submission to the PCCN. 

The Energy Club at Ross PCCN Review Committee can be reached at ECR-board-2020-21@umich.edu.


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