Op-Ed: The University is dragging its feet on the climate crisis

Sunday, January 3, 2021 - 12:40pm

—

Design by Shannon Stocking

As the tumultuous fall semester drew to a close at the University of Michigan, the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released their preliminary set of recommendations for the critical task of drawing down carbon emissions. This is a long overdue step toward taking responsibility for the University’s role in the climate disaster. Many parts of the proposed plan are exciting and, if planned and executed effectively, could position the University as a beacon for similar institutions. However, there exist several key areas in which the recommendations are critically lacking, and failure to address these will result in missing a monumental opportunity for the University community in the fight for climate justice. 

It is worth first noting those areas that are particularly promising. Chief among these is the proposal to transition the University’s natural gas burning Central Power Plant (which provides campus with heat) to a completely renewable geothermal system — the plant constitutes an enormous percentage of the school’s emissions, and thus a swift transition to renewables is urgently necessary. 

However, there is good reason to doubt that the administration will comply: Just two years ago, they invested in an $80 million expansion of the University’s Central Power Plant. This demonstrated a stunning lack of foresight, but cannot impact future decisions about the plant — a transition to geothermal energy is absolutely paramount. 

Also promising are the PCCN’s recommendations for an internal carbon pricing system and a revolving energy fund, which would provide necessary funding for energy efficiency projects across campus. Noteworthy as well is the recommendation to partner with the cities of Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Flint and Detroit and to jointly lobby the state for science-based energy policies. This recognition of the University’s political capital, and its responsibility to wield it to impact statewide policy, represents an exciting departure from the otherwise technocratic report.

However, aside from these points, the recommendations do not go nearly far enough, beginning with the decision to set 2040 as the target date for true carbon neutrality. The intermediary goal of offset-inclusive neutrality by 2025 is ineffective because it lets U-M keep relying on fossil fuels. Carbon offsets are a mechanism by which an organization funds projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere — e.g., planting trees or installing solar panels — thus allowing them to continue burning fossil fuels.

The International Panel on Climate Change tells us that to keep the impacts of climate change to only mildly catastrophic levels (i.e., 122 million more people facing extreme poverty due to food insecurity, and the death of 90% of the world’s coral reefs) we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. If powerful, well-resourced institutions like the University are waiting until 2040 to eliminate all emissions, disaster is inevitable. 

As the Climate Action Movement has argued for years, we need a just transition to true carbon neutrality by 2030 at the absolute latest. This, decidedly, does not include carbon offsets, which give wealthy institutions a free pass to continue burning fossil fuels. The decision to rely on offsets here demonstrates that actually eliminating fossil fuel use is not one of the University’s priorities. Moreover, offsets are also notoriously difficult to track, and by externalizing the burden of reducing carbon, bring with them a host of environmental justice issues.

The disregard for environmental justice (EJ) represented by relying on offsets is not unique in the PCCN’s work, but reflects an institutional lack of commitment. Despite the University being home to some of the world’s leading scholars in EJ, the administration chose none of these experts to serve on the commission, nor did the commission meaningfully consult local EJ organizations that can speak to the impact the University’s plans may have on surrounding communities. While the commission did eventually form an internal analysis team to study the EJ dimensions of the plan, this team seems to have quietly evaporated. While the commission’s website hosts final reports from all other internal analysis teams (e.g., building standards and commuting), there is simply no such report for the EJ team.

This grievous deprioritization of justice may help explain why an issue as exceptionally urgent as housing has been punted to another plan, to be written before 2025. As U-M’s gentrification of Washtenaw county accelerates, the intersection of climate and housing justice comes into sharper focus: To both minimize future emissions and build community resilience, the University must support sustainable, affordable housing immediately. If a carbon neutrality plan is to address the imminent humanitarian catastrophe that is climate change, pushing aside urgent, local, climate-related crises would be unconscionable. 

Another grave concern about the recommendations is the lack of a carbon budget, which would lay out how much carbon the University can burn prior to 2040. Without a budget to guide campus energy use until then, there is little reason to believe that unsustainable energy consumption will slow, generating catastrophic amounts of carbon in the interim. Carbon budgets have become recognized as absolutely essential to efforts to curb emissions; the absence here is astounding. 

Also absent is the carbon elephant in the room: the $1 billion that the University has invested in fossil fuel extraction. To declare that the University is on track to achieve carbon neutrality while maintaining vast investments in the industry responsible for the climate disaster is absurd and insulting. (And we know now that fossil fuel investments are not only morally reprehensible, but economically illogical as well.)

Finally, and perhaps most critically, this plan has no mechanism to ensure that it is actually implemented. The Climate Action Movement has underscored the importance of creating an accountability structure from the PCCN’s inception, noting it in an open letter in 2018 and more recently proposing a potential structure in a detailed memo. Without such measures, the PCCN recommendations run the risk of meeting the same fate as the 2015 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee report — essentially, left sitting on a shelf.

To be clear, the blame for these shortcomings — the dangerously late carbon neutrality target date, the lack of a carbon budget or accountability structure, deprioritization of environmental justice and silence on divestment — does not fall solely on PCCN members. Indeed, University President Mark Schlissel made explicit that divestment and the power plant expansion were outside of the commission’s purview. But given this critical opportunity, it is a moral imperative for the PCCN to propose recommendations that are in line with what both the science and front-line communities know is necessary, even when that means pushing the boundaries of what we have come to accept as normal.

We hope that the PCCN takes seriously the public input on these recommendations — historically, their engagement with community concerns has been superficial at best and hostile at worst. This exclusionary planning process must be radically altered if it is to meaningfully engage with community input.

The preliminary recommendations make some important strides, but they do not go nearly far enough. As a world-renowned research institution, the University should be leading this fight rather than struggling to catch up. Thus, this plan must be just a first step. While reducing carbon emissions is critical, a carbon neutral future does not necessarily mean an environmentally-just future — what we truly need is a plan that centers not just on carbon neutrality, but climate justice. This plan has opened the door for the University to begin to accept its responsibility in averting climate catastrophe; we hope that this is just the beginning.

Matt Sehrsweeney is a third-year master’s student in the School of Environment and Sustainability and the Ford School of Public Policy, and a member of the Climate Action Movement. He can be reached at sehrmatt@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.