Op-ed: Fossil fuel is not the path to carbon neutrality
The scientific consensus is unequivocal: To curb climate change, humanity must act with existential urgency or face devastating impacts. The recent 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report recommends cutting global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Other research, like the alarming recent findings on sea level rise and Greenland’s rapidly melting ice sheet, implies that we need to act even more swiftly to avoid potentially catastrophic tipping points.
Fortunately, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel has pledged to make the University of Michigan carbon neutral. His administration just announced the formation of a committee to make recommendations towards this goal. Unfortunately, we are way behind the curve. Other universities are taking the challenge seriously, like Stanford University, which is switching to 100 percent solar energy by 2021. Closer to home, our Big Ten rival Michigan State University has installed a system of solar carports that produce 15,000 megawatt hours of power annually, while Ohio State University now generates 26 percent of campus electricity with wind power. Others are already implementing aggressive carbon neutrality plans, like the University of California system, which set an ambitious target of cutting emissions by 2025.
Disappointingly, our primary strategy at the University for confronting the climate crisis has been to double down on fossil fuel infrastructure. This past summer, the University finalized an $80 million plan to upgrade the U-M Central Power Plant and to expand our capacity to burn natural gas. According to University estimates, the project will improve efficiency and partially help us to meet our previous GHG reduction goals.
But from a climate standpoint, this move is deeply troubling. First, this decision ignores the emerging science that demonstrates that methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure are much worse than previous estimates and may erode the potential transitional benefits of this fuel source. Second, and most importantly, investing in yesterday’s infrastructure locks our university into continued fossil fuel reliance for decades to come — a move that is diametrically opposed to the rapid decarbonization timeframe established by the IPCC.
We can learn from others who have already made this same mistake, such as the UC system, which is struggling to meet their carbon neutrality goals because of the dead weight of their extensive natural gas infrastructure that was expanded decades ago. Fortunately, they have already done most of the research necessary to guide us away from this same quagmire, while still meeting campus heat and electricity needs. Not surprisingly, the first recommendation is to stop expanding natural gas infrastructure.
This is, in fact, doable at the University and there are many innovative examples around the world, starting in our own backyard with MSU and OSU — both of which are saving money to keep tuition costs down by switching to renewable energy. At the University, the experts that actually run our central power plant say that we can make the transition, but what they need are the directive and the resources. That means leadership from University administration, not just the formation of another committee.
In fact, in 2015, Schlissel’s previous Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee made the recommendation that any upgrades to our central power plant should come in tandem with an aggressive plan to transition our infrastructure away from fossil fuels. This was four years ago and yet there is still no plan in place. Their report even admits that the central power plant plans are “... unlikely to be viewed as the action of a climate leader or to engage the campus community in the vision and implementation of GHG reduction.” And yet, embarrassingly, the University Office of Campus Sustainability continues to brag about this misguided plan, seemingly taking pride in our increased reliance on natural gas.
While we must give Schlissel credit for aspiring towards the right goal, it is crucial that we press the University to do it the right way. On that, there are two important perspectives. First, if we aspire to actually reduce the climate impact of our campus, we must have scientifically sound and transparent accounting. The only emissions metric that matters is the total impact of our actions on the atmosphere, which requires a holistic approach — incorporating methane leaks and all.
Second, echoing Schlissel’s own vision, our impact must be much broader than the individual footprint of our campus. As one of the world’s largest and most prestigious public universities, we are in a unique position to lead on this issue and to set an example to inspire other institutions to also take this challenge seriously. Our tremendous capacity for research and our ample resources, including the impressive $5 billion we recently raised, can be mobilized to partner with communities and inspire climate solutions around the world.
In fact, other universities — like, you guessed it, OSU — have already been doing this by collaborating with local governments and municipalities to develop extensive plans for decarbonization, in turn making their efforts replicable on a broader scale. To do the same here in Michigan, we must be a good community partner and set an example by actually committing to ambitious climate action, not just questionable baby steps.
As Schlissel stated in this week’s announcement, “Climate change is the defining scientific, social and environmental problem of our age.” To meet the challenge, we need, “… long-term, comprehensive measures, because the problem of climate change is much too large and complex for simple solutions or interim fixes.” I couldn’t agree more.
Jonathan R. Morris is a doctoral student at the School for Environment and Sustainability and is also a member of the Climate Action Movement. This op-ed is adapted from a speech delivered at the December 2018 Board of Regents Meeting.