Schlissel discusses complexity of carbon neutrality goals

Safiya Merchant, The University Record
Release Date: 

President Mark Schlissel answered questions and listened to community members’ concerns Tuesday regarding the University of Michigan’s effort to achieve carbon neutrality.

At a special public session hosted by the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, Schlissel told the Rackham Auditorium audience he shares their commitment to proceed as quickly as possible toward achieving carbon neutrality at U-M.

But, he said, the commission also was charged with engaging widely to capture the collective wisdom and passion of U-M, and to recommend approaches to carbon neutrality that could apply not only on campus, but also in the surrounding communities and region.

“The sad fact is even if we can go carbon neutral as a campus, if it’s only us (and) if it’s not Ann Arbor or southeast Michigan or the state of Michigan or the nation, sadly we’re not big enough to make more than a symbolic difference,” Schlissel said.

Joining Schlissel were three commission members who served as moderators: Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability; Austin Glass, a doctoral student in the College of Engineering; and engineering undergraduate Logan Vear.

Throughout the event, students and other U-M community members asked questions and raised concerns about various topics, including the sustainability of campus building renovations, a Central Power Plant expansion to house a 15-megawatt, natural-gas-fueled turbine, and the carbon neutrality efforts at other universities.

SEAS doctoral student Jonathan Morris cited recent research on methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure and said reports indicate natural gas does not meaningfully contribute to greenhouse gas reduction.

Responding to Morris’ question about when the university will account for the true emissions of the Central Power Plant, Schlissel said the university’s 2015 Greenhouse Gas Reductions Committee originally recommended the installation of the plant’s new natural-gas-fueled turbine. The turbine will reduce the amount of utility-generated, coal-based electricity that U-M purchases.

“What I understand is this turbine, which creates both steam and produces electricity, is twice as efficient right now in terms of the amount of energy we get per volume of gas than our existing ability to do either one of those things separately from one another,” Schlissel said.

“I think it’s beholden upon us to examine the supply chain for the gas that we’re using and buying for our power plant, … understand that supply chain and how much leakage there is, initially account for that leakage as we do our calculations, but then work with the suppliers, who I imagine it’s also in their best interest to minimize leakage,” Schlissel added.

Catherine Badgley, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and in the Residential College, LSA, asked Schlissel to respond to a recent letter from U-M faculty that, in part, urged the university to divest from fossil fuels.

Schlissel said the university does not divest and noted how the U-M endowment helps fund integral components of university operations, including student financial aid, faculty salaries and biomedical research.

“If we begin the process of narrowing what the endowment can invest in, based on very valid arguments and concerns from sincere people, the ability to invest shrinks, the value of the endowment goes down and the institution suffers,” he said.

LSA student Olivia Perfetti asked how the administration will be held accountable for following the recommendations of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, and whether Schlissel would commit to ensuring any recommendations will be executed.

Schlissel said he couldn’t make such a commitment currently, and that it would take away authority from the Board of Regents and himself to make decisions based on recommendations from the commission.

I would welcome a set of recommendations that struck all the right balances and got us to neutrality absolutely as fast as humanly possible while still maintaining the essence of the university and our overall value systems,” he said.

To help keep the university accountable, Schlissel noted the importance of transparency, and said the university will make data public so that community members can follow on the success of efforts to make U-M carbon neutral.

“You’ll have the information that you need to hold us to account,” he said.