#WhatsNext? After #WeAreStillIn for Michigan

This post investigates the University of Michigan’s position in the generational challenge of climate change. We’ll do that through asking three questions: What responsibility do we have to act?, Will the University meets its #WeAreStillIn commitment? and Are We Acting to Support a World that Warms Less than 2 Degrees? I’ll pull in information from the University of Michigan’s Sustainability Office as well as the 2015 report from the University of Michigan Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee.

The results are, well, a little daunting. If we don’t change something, the University of Michigan will not meet its 2025 commitment and we won’t contribute to an under-two-degree world. In short, we’ll renege on the #WeAreStillIn commitment we made in October. If you’re interested in the story or the gory details, dig in below.

Background: COP23 and the Emissions Gap

Just over three months ago, the University of Michigan’s President Mark Schlissel announced that he’d signed onto the #WeAreStillIn declaration, joining over half of the US’s economy in committing to continuing climate action.

As a part of a weeks-long campaign (alongside Science for the People and Climate Blue) to get the University to commit to climate leadership, I was overjoyed at this announcement. If we’re going to steer society toward a future that doesn’t exacerbate poverty, eradicate coral reefs, and otherwise fundamentally change what it means to be human, we need social movements and institutions that act as leaders. In a 2014 op-ed, Harvard’s President Drew Faust outlined the role of the university along three channels: Continuing research on climate change, modeling a sustainable society, and being a responsible investor. By signing the declaration, I thought, we could become that model of a sustainable society (and maybe we’d get to responsible investing later).

However, #WeAreStillIn is not a binding agreement. There is no requirement to submit information, no commitment to actually reducing carbon footprints, no penalty if signatories shirk their planetary responsibility to “continue to support the Paris Agreement.” As the afterglow of U-M’s agreement wore off, my comrades & I began to wonder if U-M’s signature would result in any change from the status quo.


(The gap between the world’s pledges for emissions and a 2-degree world, from Climate Action Tracker.)

Those doubts traveled with me to Bonn for the UNFCCC’s 23rd Conference of Parties. At the release of the UN Environment Programme’s annual Emissions Gap report release, UNEP director Erik Solheim explained that despite the progress made at Paris, our current commitments would still land us between 2.7 and 3.7 degrees centrigrade. Still, Solheim was optimistic. He invoked the “optimism of the will”:  If civil society pushes institutions toward action, a two-degree world might still be within reach.

The world need to do more to curb climate change, and those who will be affected most are already making commitments to stop it. Where does that leave the US? Michigan? Our University?


This post investigates the University of Michigan’s position in the generational challenge of climate change. We’ll do that through asking three questions: What responsibility do we have to act?, Will the University meets its #WeAreStillIn commitment? and Are We Acting to Support a World that Warms Less than 2 Degrees? I’ll pull in information from the University of Michigan’s Sustainability Office as well as the 2015 report from the University of Michigan Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee.

What responsibility do we have to act?

One of the critical challenges to addressing climate change is the our globally-shared atmosphere: Carbon emitted anywhere affects people everywhere.  The only way to decrease our overall concentration of greenhouse gases is if all actors agree to decrease their emissions. One ‘free rider’, who might save some money by using a cheaper fossil fuel, offloads the climate damages on the rest of the world (and particularly, the world’s most vulnerable populations). This ‘collective action problem’ is the reason that international negotiations and the Paris Agreement are so critical for climate action.

But international agreements don’t happen in a vacuum. They exist in a social environment that we all have a hand in producing. In the wake of the United States’ abdication from the Paris Agreement, unilateral commitments like We Are Still In and European Nations’ commitments to phase out coal have maintained ambition on climate change.

To be sure, the University of Michigan’s emissions are a drop in the collective bathtub of carbon emissions. In 2012, U-M’s total emissions (684,000 metric tons of greenhouse cases) represented 0.3% of the State of Michigan’s total emissions (courtesy of WRI’s CAIT), and a miniscule amount of the United States’ emissions.


But it still matters. On a world scale, the University of Michigan’s 2012 emissions are larger than 13 sovereign nations’ emissions in that period. These 13 countries are individual signatories to the Paris Agreement, and many are participants in the Alliance of Small Island States, who are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. What do these countries’ actions mean if the University of Michigan doesn’t commit alongside them?

Will the University of Michigan meet its commitment to #WeAreStillIn?

In signing onto We Are Still In, the University pledges to “continue action to support the Paris Agreement.” We’ll take that in two ways: First, will the University meet the United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC? and second, will the University’s conduct support a less-than-two-degrees world?

We’ll start with the United States’ NDC. The Obama administration’s submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change set their 2025 target for “26-28% below 2005 levels.” While the US NDC did not set a long-term goal or guarantee action in the short term, its 2025 goals are broadly on par with a pathway to stay below two degrees.

Conveniently, the University of Michigan’s own stated goal is about equivalent to the US NDC. In 2011, President Mary Sue Coleman set a goal of reducing our carbon emissions by 25% from 2006, and “[working] to significantly decrease our greenhouse gas emissions going forward.” The goal is close enough to the US NDC that our performance toward the U-M goal serves as a good approximation.


The results from U-M’s annual sustainability metrics reporting are a little confusing. Our emissions jumped from 2006 to 2011 because of the acquisition of the North Campus Research Complex (methodology explained here), but we’ve been on a steady decline from 2011-2017–roughly in line with the trajectory we’ll need to meet our 2025 goal. We’ve done that mostly through energy efficiency projects and purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates. This graph begs the question: Will the University of Michigan meet its goal?


To understand whether we’ll reach our goal, I’m introducing four scenarios of action, or emissions paths, for the University of Michigan. These are all based on the options and metrics that are lined out for the University in its 2015 committee report, and I’d recommend looking there if you’ve got questions on my methodology. Each emissions path represents a possible pathway for the University to take in the future, based on what’s available.

  • Emissions Path 1 (No further action). If the University pursues no further action, the estimated 1% growth will shift it far way from the 25% target.
  • Emissions Path 2 (CPP). This path assumes the same 1% growth, but includes the Central Power Plant (CPP)’s new natural gas turbine that the Board of Regents voted to move forward with in March 2017. The 2015 report estimated that the plant would abate about 100,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year because it burns fuel much more efficiently than the relatively dirty Michigan electric grid. We don’t know when it will go online, so this scenario assumes the plant gradually decreases emissions until it reaches full capacity in 2025. I’m using the 100,000 tons of abatement referenced in the 2017 signing documents instead of the 145,000 tons of abatement from the 2015 report.
  • Emissions Path 3 (CPP + EMP). This path assumes the 1% growth and the CPP installation, but also includes savings from continued investment in U-M’s energy management program (EMP). I’m happy to see this program see support from the U-M greenhouse gas reduction commission, and while energy efficiency is cited as the most cost effective emissions abatement, it doesn’t have the same impact as changing fuels. Based on the 2015 commission report, we’re expecting to see an additional 1,800 metric tons of emissions abatement per year every year from energy efficiency.
  • Emissions Path 4 (CPP + EMP + RPS). This path assumes the above, plus the continued improvement of the State of Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Last year, Michigan’s 2016 energy law committed major utilities like Detroit’s own DTE to get 10% of its energy from renewable sources in 2015 and 15% by 2021. This model optimistically assumes that after 2021, the percentage will increase by 1% per year until 2050, when it will be 45% clean. The cleaner our grid gets, the less emissions the University of Michigan creates when it uses DTE’s electricity.

The first conclusion is clear: If the University of Michigan doesn’t continue to act past what it’s already doing, it will not reach its goal of 25% reductions from 2006 levels by 2025. By the same token, the University is not on track to meet the US’s intended contribution to the Paris Agreement. Because we’re able to incorporate state policy through the Renewable Portfolio Standard, we know the University can’t rely on state policy to drive reductions in emissions. The university will end up about 40,000 tons of greenhouse gases, or 6%, short of its goal in 2025. In terms of students, our deadline is only two undergraduate cycles away. And because reducing greenhouse gas emissions is often a complex process, this is an urgent problem for the University.

Are we acting to support a world that warms less than 2 degrees Centigrade?

Part of the genius of the Paris Agreement lies in its patience. The initial nationally determined contributions were intended as a starting point for the countries, not representative of the height of ambition. The ultimate goal for the Paris Agreement is to achieve an emissions profile that keeps the world less than two degrees warmer than its long-term average. If we’re going to stay under that threshold, it’s going to take more than 25% by 2025. Especially for wealthy, industrialized countries, we’re looking at deep, fundamental changes to our energy and agriculture systems.

Scientists and decisionmakers have tinkered with what it will take to achieve a less-than-two-degree world since the beginning of climate negotiations. For their 5th assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the scientific authority on climate) relies on representative concentration pathways (RCPs), which roughly correspond to four physical-social-economic scenarios for the globe to take on climate action. RCP 8.5 assumes no climate action, while RCPs 4.5 and 6.0 assume some climate action. The only one that keeps the globe below two degrees is RCP 2.6. That’s the target that the Paris Agreement is designed to hit, and it’s what we’ll weigh the University’s climate commitment against.

Meeting RCP 2.6 is no mean feat. It means an 80% drop in emissions by wealthy, industrialized countries. While I can’t predict that the United States or world will keep to this pathway, I’ll use their emissions trajectory to evaluate where the University of Michigan lands. Will the University reduce emissions in a way that enables the world to stick to RCP 2.6?


I’m introducing another pathway here: the Sustainable Emissions Pathway. I calculated it from  the OECD90 countries’ emissions profile from the RCP 2.6 pathway and setting its proportional trajectory to the University of Michigan’s 2017 greenhouse gas emissions. The result is a curve that the University would have to stick to if it’s going to occupy the same percentage of total emissions as it does now in a scenario where the world sticks to RCP2.6.

The results are, well, a little daunting. Even as the State of Michigan’s RPS reaches up to 45% clean energy, the University is still less than half-way from where it needs to be in order to achieve a truly sustainable emissions pathway. The truth is that we need nothing short of transformative change in our energy and agricultural systems to avoid catastrophe. And as a leading US university, Michigan is perfectly positioned to show it’s possible.

So #WhatsNext?

I don’t know what’s next for the University of Michigan. What the above tells me is that the urgent, existential challenge of climate change presents our university with the opportunity to contribute to a verdant and just world, or resign itself to the status quo. What I do know is that we choose that pathway every day, and that the reason stand here is because of the world’s leading researchers at Michigan. Let’s become the model sustainable society that we’re charged with creating. Let’s fulfill our responsibility to #WeAreStillIn and to the Marshall Islands. Let’s be victors and best.


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