John Mirsky, a retired Bosch executive, serves as a City of Ann Arbor Energy and Environmental Commissioner and is a core member of Voices for Carbon Neutrality focused on the U-M, his alma mater.
Countries around the world and their citizens are learning a hard lesson from the coronavirus pandemic: It's imperative to take appropriate proactive measures to avoid the staggering negative consequences of systemic global disasters. This should motivate dramatic and immediate actions worldwide, including by the University of Michigan, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Despite its self-proclaimed title as the “Leaders and Best”, the U-M lags other Big Ten universities in reducing GHG emissions, including its Spartan and Buckeye rivals, as well as other prominent peer institutions. Unfortunately, the U-M’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) actually increased 2.4 percent in FY2019.
In October 2018, U-M President Mark Schlissel finally announced a commitment to “… putting U-M on a trajectory towards carbon neutrality”; a few months later he tasked a Presidential Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) with recommending how the U-M should achieve that goal and developing scalable and transferable strategies that can be used by other institutions and communities.
The same month as Schlissel’s announcement, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a new scientific report. It stated an increase in planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.6 degrees Fahrenheit) will pose “risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth”, consequences similar to those of the pandemic. The report further concluded limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require GHG emissions to be cut in half by 2030, must reach ‘net zero’ by around 2050, and will involve “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.” An IPCC working group co-chair declared “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
The U-M’s PCCN’s final report is not due until this fall, by which time two years will have been spent analyzing and planning. U-M leadership need not wait for the report to act. It can move immediately on several fronts to bend its emissions curve downward to meet or exceed the IPCC’s targets. These steps would not preclude more dramatic measures needed to achieve net zero carbon emissions; indeed, they would pave the way! As such, the University of Michigan should act immediately to:
- adopt dramatically higher energy-efficiency standards for the more than $2 billion in building projects currently in design or on construction hold, otherwise these new and renovated buildings will require future retrofits costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
- immediately launch requests for proposals for system-wide energy efficiency improvements, on- and off-site renewable energy generation, and carbon offset programs.
- electrify its vehicle fleet and plan its maintenance resources accordingly.
- name a VP-level Chief Sustainability Officer and coordinators in each of the 19 U-M colleges and schools who are responsible for driving the journey to carbon neutrality. In parallel it should initiate comprehensive energy and climate action training for leadership, faculty, staff and students since behavioral and cultural change will be necessary at all levels, just as it has been for the University’s strategic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative.
The U-M must chart a collaborative, equitable, sustainable and transformative path to carbon neutrality in keeping with its social mission. Measures taken will also contribute to the economic recovery needed after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.
As environmental activist Greta Thunberg has implored us all, “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”