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Carbon neutral considerations

NMU to work on blueprint for future

Ryan Stock, center, an assistant professor in the Northern Michigan University Department of Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences, takes part in a 2019 climate march with his family. At left is his wife Shilpa Jhobalia, shown with their children Shyan, left, and Lakshay, right. Stock is one of many individuals associated with NMU who want the university to reach carbon neutrality. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Stock)

MARQUETTE — Achieving carbon neutrality at Northern Michigan University is a goal shared by many students and faculty.

How it obtains this goal is still in the works.

One of the most active faculty members in the effort is Ryan Stock, an assistant professor in Northern’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences.

In December, Stock wrote a letter to NMU President Fritz Erickson and the NMU Board of Trustees that urged them to consider making the pledge toward carbon neutrality by 2030 or 2050. He circulated the letter and obtained 1,069 signatures from department heads, professor, directors, students, alumni and others — all affiliated with NMU.

He also received support from 25 institutions that endorsed the letter as well as six letters of support.

That letter was presented to Erickson and the board on Feb. 6, Stock said. On April 5, Erickson circulated a draft strategic plan titled “Investing in Innovation,” which in part dealt with carbon neutrality.

During a recent campus fo, Erickson addressed proposed updates to the university’s strategic plan, which outlines several priority initiatives. Suggested revisions reflect new, post-pandemic focus areas of equity in systems and processes and mind/body wellness, along with strategic outcomes of advancing the rural agenda — and moving NMU toward carbon neutrality.

“I’ve received a request from students, and supported by faculty members and groups on campus, that the university make a statement that we will be carbon neutral by at least 2050,” Erickson said. “Personally, I’m very supportive of that, but I don’t want to make that statement unless we have a plan with a framework for achieving it.

“I’ve seen too many people make a big pledge for years down the line, knowing they won’t be around to see it through. We need to put in the hard work of creating a framework with true action plans that will get us there.”

Zero emissions the goal

What is carbon neutrality?

“The idea of carbon neutrality is to get the carbon emissions to zero,” Stock said.

Ideally, the goal would be to move to lower than zero to reach the carbon negative range, he said.

“But we really want to get our carbon emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions on campus down to zero, because they are major drivers of the climate crisis, and we do have a lot of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases just at our university,” Stock said.

That can impact the community and surrounding environment, he noted.

“We essentially want to bring our university in line with, frankly, common sense,” Stock said. “It makes economic sense.”

He pointed out that in the Marquette region, the estimated average cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity from natural gas is 15 cents compared with the solar energy cost of 7 cents.

Carbon neutrality, he noted, would be economically feasible in the long run.

“By moving us toward carbon neutrality, there are some big upfront costs, but we will be saving money,” Stock said. “Pretty quickly, we’ll start to see return on those investments.”

He acknowledged that if NMU were to switch to solar energy, it probably would reduce its carbon footprint by about a third.

“The longer we wait, the harder and more expensive it’s going to be,” Stock said.

A sustainable future

Stock and others were happy about the support for carbon neutrality expressed in the strategic plan.

“We were through the moon,” he said.

The basic outlines in that plan, according to Stock, include to get lower levels of carbon emission factors on campus, converting the vehicle fleet to electric or hybrid vehicles, increasing the use of solar energy on campus and collaborative sustainability work that involves micro-credential and certification programs.

Student groups, he noted, also have been active in sustainability-related efforts, such as the EcoReps, Gamma Theta Epsilon, Citizens Climate Lobby and the NMU Conservation Crew.

The NMU Board of Trustees in the summer of 2020 approved the Green Fund, which Stock said is a $5 fee tacked on to students’ tuition for sustainability initiatives. That fee is managed by the EcoReps student organization, which vets projects applying for Green Fund dollars.

Shared visions

There’s a strong belief on campus that sustainability can co-exist with carbon neutrality.

Sarah Mittlefehldt, an associate professor in the EEGS department, serves as the co-chair of NMU’s Sustainability Advisory Council. This semester, her students put together a draft for a new sustainability plan: “Northern 2030: Planning for Collaborative Sustainability.”

They focused on a 2030 goal in order to align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which she noted is a framework used by many institutions, cities, states and nations to chart progress toward sustainability.

Mittlefehldt said that she and her students heard from the local community — and at the international level — that sustainable goals, which look at food insecurity, fresh water and other issues, should be considered secondary in urgency to climate action.

“That was one of the priorities they emphasized in the sustainability plan,” she said.

Mittlefehldt and her students presented the draft plan to Erickson and other members of the sustainability advisory council on April 21 as part of Earth Week. Although the plan has not been formally adopted, she said it starts to chart the course for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Stock, who pointed out that the sustainability plan differs from the carbon neutrality plan, has an idea of what the NMU administration wants by way of achieving the latter effort.

“There’s a lot of plans coming out, and I think the president wants to create kind of a ‘brain trust’ of people who have been looking at this for many years and months to come up with one solid carbon neutrality plan, kind of patching all the existing research together,” Stock said.

So, Erickson called for the formation of the Carbon Neutrality Task Force, which will be chaired by Gavin Leach, vice president for finance and administration at NMU.

What drove Stock to write his letter to Erickson and push the carbon neutrality initiative, he said, was to get sustainability institutionalized at a much higher, permanent level at NMU.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out,” Stock said, although he pointed out that 2050 as a timeline goal is less ambitious than he would like.

“I think we can do it by 2035, 2040, but I’ll take any progress,” he said. “It’s better than nothing, and I’m here to champion it all the way.”

Stock said Erickson wants an in-depth, throughly vetted researched and comprehensive plan regarding carbon neutrality. So, he will appoint a task force of people who are driving campus efforts to create that “blueprint” to 2050.

Stock surmised that such a plan will take several months to complete.

“It doesn’t just make financial sense too,” he said. “It also has a lot of benefits to our curriculum. So many of these carbon neutrality initiatives can be worked into current curriculum.”

For example, in Stock’s Introduction to Sustainability class, every semester his students are paired with a local environmental organization involved in such efforts.

Stock said that one of his recent student groups worked with Recycle 906, which collaborated with Northern Lights Dining on campus. His students then came up with a comprehensive composting plan for Northern Lights Dining.

“We’re just working out the details now and it’s likely going to happen pretty soon,” Stock said.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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