University of Michigan commits to carbon neutrality

Mark Schlissel University of Michigan

University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel announced that UM will move toward carbon neutrality. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

University of Michigan commits to carbon neutrality

By Catherine Garton

Oct. 4 was a good day. For a moment, I forgot about my looming microbiology exam, and I ignored the latest news from Washington that spun my head in circles. Instead, I celebrated, because my university’s president, Mark Schlissel, made a commitment to go carbon neutral.

This is the first announcement of its kind from a university in Michigan. We even beat MSU to the punch. (Although, lest we get too proud, I should note that our rival OSU is still well ahead of us on climate action. Just some extra motivation.)

Members of the University of Michigan community have been urging our leadership to make this commitment for many months, and the announcement came not a moment too soon. Just a few days later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released one of the most alarming reports I have ever read. The scientists’ conclusions were explicit: we have to confront climate change in this decade. To avoid a doomsday scenario, global emissions must drop by 45% in the next 12 years, and there must be absolutely zero emissions worldwide by 2050. This means we need to start working now, and given the pace of action in our nation’s capitol, action has to be championed at the state and local level. That is why UM’s announcement is so important. As a global public research institution — with a massive healthcare system, over 40,000 students, and almost as many faculty and staff — University of Michigan’s carbon footprint is significant. But if any place is equipped to tackle the biggest threat facing my generation, it must be an enterprising powerhouse like UM. This announcement marked a step in that direction.

Catherine Garton University of Michigan

Catherine Garton is a member of both the Climate Action Network and the Clean Wolverines at University of Michigan. 

This news came quicker than many of us expected, and I do not think that would have been the case without a passionate, community-wide effort. In the past few months, I have witnessed a network of hardworking faculty, staff, students, and community members coalesce around this common goal. Two key groups are the Climate Action Movement (CAM) and the Clean Wolverines. Launched by a student-crafted petition, which now has over 1,200 signatures, CAM has been working primarily to amplify public pressure toward carbon neutrality. We have done so by drafting commitment timelines, building a website, creating allies on campus, and speaking at Regents meetings. At the same time, the Clean Wolverines have been researching legitimate implementation strategies for emissions reductions. As part of this group, students and faculty are conducting feasibility studies for various projects, drawing on the combined expertise of members from across the community. Both halves of this movement are critical for our success.

I have been working on this campaign for a few months as part of both CAM and the Clean Wolverines. Having seen the movement quickly gather momentum in that time, my conclusion is this: we started being heard once we started partnering across campus. When the leadership at UM began hearing the same message from professors, deans, staff, alumni, students, campus organizations, and community members—that is when the needle moved. Individual people play a significant role as well; we are making progress because each person has taken it upon themselves to devote some serious sweat equity to the cause. Additionally, our efforts would not be as well-directed without the guidance and charisma of individual leaders. I know it is possible to have a personal impact, because I felt it myself when I spoke in front of the Board of Regents at their September meeting. Individual actions add up; they make people start to listen. But ultimately, I think what turned a droplet into a ripple was having a coalition of people promoting one vision from multiple angles.

As hard as we have worked to secure this commitment, President Schlissel’s announcement marks the beginning of a much longer journey. I am very conscious of the fact that nothing has changed yet. The University has indicated a commitment, and though we should all savor this moment of success, a commitment means nothing without follow-through. The announcement specified no deadline, no implementation plan, no accountability measures. We must keep UM on the right track by sustaining the pressure that moved our leaders to this point in the first place, and pushing even harder than before.

Not to sound dramatic (although this is not as hyperbolic as it sounds)—our world depends on it.

Catherine Garton is a student at the University of Michigan, studying Microbiology with minors in Applied Statistics and Energy Science & Policy. She is active with UM’s Climate Action Movement, Clean Wolverines, Michigan Climate Action Network and Climate Reality. She also founded a CCL chapter on UM’s campus.