Just over three months ago, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel announced his signing of the "We Are Still In" declaration, committing the University to supporting the Paris agreement and joining a nationwide group of leaders who are acting on climate change. To me, Schlissel’s action represented the latest of a long tradition of leading on the most pressing issues of the day, from the 1965 Teach-Ins to the first Earth Day. Acting on climate change is a pure distillation of the University’s mission: to “challenge the present and enrich the future.”
But facing up to the climate challenge entails more than signatures. It requires action. The University has committed itself to reducing its emissions by 25 percent by 2025, but fulfilling the ambitions of the Paris agreement to keep the world’s average temperature from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius means even deeper commitment. The world’s leading climate change scientists (including University faculty) estimate a 2-degree world will require an emissions reduction of 80 percent by 2050. If the University is going to seriously consider its role in the climate challenge, we should trust our faculty and set our goals according to the science.
Adjusting our energy and transportation systems to meet that goal would require nothing short of transformational change, and it won’t be easy. While the costs of solar and wind energy have fallen faster than anyone predicted, the investment required to clean our energy would be steep. Further, we’ve known for years that there are ways to reduce our carbon footprint and save money at the same time. At a university where public oversight is a daily reality and operational budgets are public information, we have to make sure the investments we’re making are cost-effective.
Meeting an ambitious goal like 80 percent emission reduction necessitates an innovative, comprehensive solution. We’ll need to reduce our demand for resources where it makes sense, invest effectively in clean energy and offset our emissions otherwise where we can’t reduce on our own. Above all, we’ll need a coordinating principle to make sure our actions are maximizing their benefits.
Coordination doesn’t have to be complicated. At its simplest, working together as a university means counting our emissions where they happen and giving people a reason to reduce the emissions they create. This way, everybody would know exactly when and where they generate carbon emissions, and the individuals who are closest to where energy is used are empowered to propose ways to reduce it. It’s a bottom-up process to meet a collective goal.
And we don’t need to start from scratch. Yale University launched their Carbon Charge Project in 2017, which applies the societal cost of a carbon fee to carbon emissions around campus, then reinvests the collected money each year back into the campus. The result is a campus where each unit is incentivized to reduce its carbon footprint by finding its own low-cost, commonsense solutions. A carbon charge like Yale’s would result in a campus engaged in more intricate, innovative and cost-effective carbon reductions than we could get from a single clean energy project or climate action program.
Though it’s simple in concept, adding a carbon accounting process to a campus with an $8.4 billion budget and 40 different operating units on its general fund will be complex. But we can start small. Yale’s carbon charge started with only six buildings, with a goal to expand across its campus. While carbon charges or taxes work best when they’re applied to many individual factors, they also function perfectly well at small scales. Trying a carbon charge wouldn’t be a major investment. Instead, it’d be an opportunity to test a potentially transformative way of fighting climate change right here on campus.
A carbon charge is not a silver bullet. I agree with the advocates, economists and experts who argue that using a bottom-up approach puts the most pressure on those with the least capacity to adapt and might exacerbate inequalities in pollution exposure. It’s important that we keep the limitations of this type of project in mind. On the other hand, a campus-wide carbon charge is not likely to have the same regressive outcomes as a societal carbon tax. And a carbon charge on campus might be just one of several avenues the University decides to take in its work as a responsible global citizen.
To “challenge the present and enrich the future” isn’t just President Schlissel’s job. It’s reproduced by the actions that each of us take on this campus every day. Getting climate action off the ground has historically been the result of many people working together — just look at the 700 people that signed the #MichiganIsStillIn letter. Let’s advocate for our offices, our departments, our schools and our university to keep track of our emissions. On climate change, let’s be the leaders and best.
Tyler Fitch is a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability studying energy and climate policy. He represented the University of Michigan at the 23rd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties and served as a member of the Michigan & the Climate Crisis Bicentennial Committee in Fall 2017.