U-M commits to universitywide carbon neutrality

May 20, 2021
Written By:
Adam Fisher

A flag with the Block M. Image credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography

The University of Michigan will achieve carbon neutrality across all greenhouse gas emission scopes, committing to geothermal heating and cooling projects, electric buses, the creation of a revolving fund for energy-efficiency projects and the appointment of a new executive-level leader, reporting to the president, focusing on carbon neutrality-related efforts.

President Mark Schlissel announced these concrete steps and others at the May 20 Board of Regents meeting following the recent release of the final recommendations of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. He said the goal of achieving carbon neutrality spans the entire university—the nation’s largest public research institution—including 40 million square feet in buildings, three campuses, an expansive athletics complex and the Michigan Medicine health system.

“Today’s commitments place carbon neutrality at the center of U-M’s mission,” Schlissel said. “To fulfill our mission as a public research university, we must address the climate crisis by leading the way on our campuses and beyond, creating, testing and teaching the knowledge and technologies that will transfer to other large institutions, and inspiring and empowering others to solve the defining scientific and social challenge of our time.”

Goals and initial steps

Following the commission’s guidance, U-M will eliminate Scope 1 emissions (resulting from direct, on-campus sources) by 2040, achieve carbon neutrality for Scope 2 emissions (resulting from purchased electricity) by 2025, and establish net-zero goals for Scope 3 emissions categories (resulting from indirect sources like commuting, food procurement and university-sponsored travel) by 2025.

To reach these targets, U-M will begin implementing many recommended actions immediately, including:

  • Installing geothermal heating and cooling systems in conjunction with some of its new construction projects, beginning with the Bob and Betty Beyster Building addition on North Campus, as a first step in a phased transition of heating and cooling systems.
  • Electrifying the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campus buses as a first step toward decarbonizing U-M’s entire vehicle fleet.
  • Initiating a campus master planning process that includes carbon neutrality at its center, in collaboration with faculty experts.
  • Making all new building projects compatible with renewable-energy-driven heating and cooling systems and developing overall standards for new construction and renovation that address increased energy efficiency and lower carbon emissions.
  • Launching a revolving fund for energy efficiency projects, beginning with $25 million over five years. Energy savings will be reinvested into the fund, which will accelerate energy conservation projects on all three campuses and Michigan Medicine.
  • Submitting a request for proposals to secure all purchased electricity from renewable sources.
  • Forming several distinct working groups, consisting of specialists from across the university, to develop roadmaps for implementing a wide range of commission recommendations.

Carbon neutrality is achieved when an institution reduces its quantifiable greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero—whereby remaining emissions are balanced by investments in carbon credits, or removal or sequestration projects.

In the months ahead, U-M will develop a dashboard to track its progress toward carbon neutrality and keep the community informed.

Culture of sustainability

In addition to the emissions-reduction efforts outlined above, the university will undertake actions to instill a culture of sustainability throughout U-M. Among them:

  • Creating a new executive-level leadership position reporting to the president, tasked with managing and coordinating carbon neutrality-related efforts universitywide. That position will be filled through a national search in the months ahead.
  • Incorporating environmental justice principles into the university’s future decision-making, acknowledging that the climate crisis poses the most harm to frontline communities that are historically and unfairly disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
  • Prioritizing meaningful engagement with surrounding communities—Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Flint and Detroit—on how to best address equity and justice issues at U-M’s three campuses, around the region, and globally in its transition to carbon neutrality.
  • Appointing an internal advisory committee, with leadership from units across the university, to help guide implementation toward carbon neutrality. U-M leaders will also engage within and beyond the university to shape the development of a community advisory council to ensure that strategies are inclusive, responsive and supportive of local communities.
  • Working with deans and other academic leaders across the university to identify and support opportunities to integrate sustainability and carbon neutrality into core curricula.
  • Making significant investments in carbon neutrality research and deployment, building on multidisciplinary initiatives like the Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program, the Global CO2 Initiative and the Institute for Global Change Biology.
  • Expanding the Planet Blue Ambassador program to cover the Flint and Dearborn campuses and investing in the Student Sustainability Coalition to foster greater student involvement.

Drew Horning, managing director of the U-M Graham Sustainability Institute, will also serve as a special adviser to the president to help lead and develop near-term efforts.

Finally, Schlissel committed to studying the feasibility of carbon offsets more closely, citing a desire to urgently combat climate change while making a tangible and just impact, locally and beyond. Although the commission called for the use of offsets to accelerate Scope 1 neutrality, that recommendation was the only one in the report that also was accompanied by a minority opinion, which called for the prioritization of eliminating direct emissions over purchasing offsets.

Community-focused action

The actions announced represent the initial steps that U-M will undertake in response to the commission’s final report. Schlissel and university leadership expect to announce additional commitments as they continue to review and consider the commission’s 50 recommendations.

Released in March, the final recommendations were the culmination of a two-year process. The 17-member commission included faculty, staff, students and regional stakeholders. The commission’s broader analysis involved two external consultants—Integral Group and SmithGroup—and 11 internal teams, each examining distinct topics crucial for attaining carbon neutrality.

Approximately 50 undergraduate and graduate students and 17 faculty members served on these internal analysis teams. In addition, the commission received and considered more than 700 public comments over the course of its process from more than 400 U-M students, staff, faculty members, alumni and community members.

“The commission’s final report is a plan created by our community and for our community,” Schlissel said. “I commend the commissioners, teams and advocates for their thorough analysis, recommendations and commitment. Achieving carbon neutrality at an institution of our size and scope, while also providing transferable and scalable models that others can follow, is a huge, ambitious task.”

Sustainability progress

The May 20 announcement comes on the heels of the university’s revised fossil fuel strategies, also unveiled in March. U-M committed to achieve a net-zero endowment—the first such pledge from an American public university.

The revised strategies also called for discontinuing direct investments into publicly traded companies that are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and shifting U-M’s natural resources investment focus toward renewable energy while discontinuing investments into funds primarily focused on oil reserves, oil extraction or thermal coal extraction.

U-M also continues to progress toward its previously established goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the Ann Arbor campus by 25% by 2025. U-M will meet this target, set in 2011, later this year, largely due to a new high-efficiency turbine at the Central Power Plant and the procurement of wind power from new DTE Energy wind parks. The wind parks will provide approximately half of the purchased electricity for the Ann Arbor campus. The turbine and wind power-purchase agreement were recommended by the President’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee in 2015.


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