Environment, Sustainability, and Carbon Neutrality

“The University of Michigan will achieve carbon neutrality across all greenhouse gas emissions scopes. This commitment is comprehensive, spanning our $1.62 billion research enterprise, our 40 million square feet in buildings, our three campuses, Athletics, and Michigan Medicine, which annually serves the public with 2.3 million patient visits, 60,000 surgeries and 5,000 births.” – President Mark S. Schlissel

ENVIRONMENT, SUSTAINABILITY, AND CARBON NEUTRALITY

The threats posed by the climate crisis extend far beyond the University of Michigan community. By bringing together academics, advocates and community leaders, U-M, as a top public research university, has a distinct opportunity to help chart the path forward. Faculty and students from a wide variety of disciplines are working together, in partnership with those on the front lines in communities, to pursue scalable, transferable, financially responsible, and just approaches to combat climate change.

Whether pioneering new practices in carbon sequestration and emissions reduction, furthering renewable energy technologies, or assessing environmental determinants of health, U-M faculty conduct research and scholarship on virtually every aspect of the climate crisis and sustainability. U-M leadership in this area spans all three campuses, including both universitywide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and on-the-ground work within Planet Blue Campus.

Carbon Neutrality

After the release of the final recommendations of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN), President Schlissel announced a series of commitments and initial steps that place carbon neutrality at the center of U-M’s mission. 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.

These and other strategies — the first of more to come in a comprehensive climate action plan — cover the entire university, including 40 million square feet in buildings, three campuses, an expansive athletics complex and the Michigan Medicine health system.

 

  • U-M will create a new executive-level leadership position reporting to the president, tasked with managing and coordinating carbon neutrality-related efforts university-wide. That position will be filled through a national search in the months ahead.
  • U-M will incorporate environmental justice principles into its future decision-making, acknowledging that the climate crisis poses the most harm to frontline communities that are historically and unfairly disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
  • U-M will appoint 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.
  • U-M will develop a dashboard to track its progress toward carbon neutrality and keep the community informed.
  • U-M will initiate a campus master planning process that includes carbon neutrality at its center, in collaboration with faculty experts.
  • U-M will make all new building projects compatible with renewable energy-driven heating and cooling systems.
  • U-M will develop overall standards for new construction and renovation that address increased energy efficiency and lower carbon emissions.
  • U-M will work with deans and other academic leaders across the university to identify and support opportunities to integrate sustainability and carbon neutrality into core curricula.
  • U-M will make 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.
  • U-M will expand the Planet Blue Ambassador program to cover the Flint and Dearborn campuses and invest in the Student Sustainability Coalition to foster greater student involvement.
  • U-M will prioritize 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 as it transitions to carbon neutrality.
  • U-M will eliminate Scope 1 emissions by 2040.
  • U-M will install 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.
  • U-M will electrify Ann Arbor and Dearborn campus buses as a first step toward decarbonizing U-M’s entire vehicle fleet.
  • U-M will launch 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.
  • U-M will achieve carbon neutrality for Scope 2 emissions by 2025.
  • U-M will submit a request for proposals to secure all purchased electricity from renewable sources.
  • U-M will establish net-zero goals for Scope 3 emissions categories by 2025.
  • U-M will form several distinct working groups, consisting of specialists from across the university, to develop roadmaps for implementing a wide range of commission recommendations.
  • U-M will examine the feasibility of carbon offsets more closely, in order to urgently combat climate change while making a tangible and just impact, locally and beyond. Though the PCCN called for the use of offsets to accelerate Scope 1 neutrality, that recommendation was the only one in the report that was also accompanied by a minority opinion, which prioritized eliminating direct emissions over purchasing offsets.

The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, charged with recommending scalable, transferable, and financially responsible strategies for U-M to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, submitted its final report and recommendations in March 2021 following a two-year process

The report includes a collection of 50 recommendations that U-M could take to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions across the Flint, Dearborn and Ann Arbor campuses (inclusive of Michigan Medicine). Recommendations account for U-M’s Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 emissions.

The commission comprised 17 members, including students, faculty, staff and local partners. The commission’s broader analysis involved eleven internal teams and two external consultants; each examining distinct topics crucial toward achieving carbon neutrality. Approximately 50 undergraduate and graduate students and 17 faculty members took part 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.

Progress toward Sustainability Goals

While U-M reviews recommendations outlined by the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, the university continues to progress toward its 2025 sustainability goals, established in 2011. U-M is expected to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goal (to reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2025) this year — three years ahead of schedule. To achieve this, U-M is increasing the capacity to generate energy on campus at the Central Power Plant, purchasing additional renewable energy from local utilities, and continuing to invest in energy efficiency; each as recommended by the President’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee in 2015.

Alongside more than 20 other North American universities, U-M is part of the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) — a program administered by the environmental organization Second Nature — in the quest to share knowledge and ideas to accelerate climate change solutions, and collaborate with local, regional and national institutions working to achieve their climate goals.

U-M carries a storied history in environmentalism and sustainability, including a role in the nation’s first “Environmental Teach-In,” which drew more than 15,000 participants. The event served as a model for the events of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. In the 1980s, U-M helped to pioneer the environmental justice discipline. In the early 2000s, the university began accounting for its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Planet Blue

Planet Blue refers to the breadth of U-M sustainability work, whether it pertains to multidisciplinary research, operations, or campus involvement. Planet Blue Global Impact represents U-M’s sustainability-related research and academic programs, across all U-M schools and colleges, and in particular, the School for Environment and Sustainability, the Graham Sustainability Institute, and the Erb Institute. Because sustainability is such a multifaceted topic, Planet Blue Global Impact delves into a number of distinct areas, including: Climate & Energy, Conservation & Restoration, Environmental Justice, Environmental Policy & Business, Food Systems, Human Health, Sustainable Infrastructure and Water. U-M offers approximately 700 sustainability-related courses, and there are more than 800 faculty experts working on sustainability-related topics across the university.

Planet Blue Campus represents all of U-M’s campus-focused sustainability operations and outreach efforts, including much of the work of the Office of Campus Sustainability (OCS), the Planet Blue Ambassador Program, Student Life, Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, the Student Sustainability Coalition, M Dining, the Campus Farm, the U-M Sustainable Food Program, and others.