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Michigan can’t wait until 2050 to reach zero emissions, environmentalists say

A letter signed by representatives of 40 organizations says the state needs an accelerated timeline for phasing out carbon emissions.

Though environmental groups applauded Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order this week as a first step in putting the state on a path to carbon neutrality by 2050, a coalition of Michigan environmental justice advocates say it doesn’t move the state fast enough to address the climate crisis.

The Detroit-based Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition published in an open memo to the governor the day of her order saying that the state needs to aim for “100% pollution-free, renewable energy by 2030.”

The letter, signed by representatives of 40 organizations, raises concerns about the order’s three-decade-long timeline as well as its apparent openness to emission offsets, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power.

“The climate crisis is upon us in Michigan and there is no time to wait,” the letter says, urging the state to aggressively pursue clean energy and “reject the false solutions presented by the oil and gas industry.”

Whitmer’s executive order makes Michigan the ninth state to commit to achieving carbon neutrality. Beyond emission reductions, the order directs state agencies to help communities and workers transition to a clean energy economy. It also requires a focus on solutions for “communities disproportionately being affected by the climate crisis” and development of a climate plan that’s fair for “underserved communities.” 

“These bold actions will provide critical protections for our environment, economy, and public health, now and for years to come,” Whitmer said in a statement. “It will also position Michigan to attract a new generation of clean energy and energy efficiency jobs.” 

Jamesa Johnson-Greer, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition’s climate justice director, called the timeline “conservative” and noted that industry — like DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, the state’s two largest utilities — have already committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and 2040, respectively. 

“We’re at a point in the crisis where we know we have the next 10 years to act to stave off the greatest impacts of the climate crisis … so we need to act now,” said Johnson-Greer, who also raised concerns about how much the state might rely on offsets to achieve the goal. The state this week also announced a carbon credit program in which it will use more than 100,000 acres of state forest to absorb carbon emissions. Carbon emitters could buy carbon credits from the state, which would use the revenue to plant more trees. Whitmer said the program would offset industry’s impact on the environment. 

“We don’t want to see market mechanisms and market solutions in Michigan,” Johnson-Greer said. “It will be detrimental to the state and serve to increase emissions, as we learned from other [environmental justice] communities living under these mechanisms.” 

The order comes as the state is beginning to experience significant impacts from climate change. A recent University of Michigan study found the Great Lakes basin’s temperature is rising faster than elsewhere around the nation. Meanwhile, an unprecedented swing and rise in the Great Lakes’ water levels and extremely high levels of precipitation are also linked to climate change. 

Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club who sits on Whitmer’s Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, applauded the state for highlighting climate-related issues often ignored by state leaders, like environmental justice, public health and transitioning workers. 

Whitmer ordered the Michigan Department of the Treasury to assist and develop programs for communities and workers who lose jobs and revenue as the economy is decarbonized, though details on how that will work aren’t immediately available.  

“It’s important that this plan is not just about emission reductions,” Onwenu said. “We have to do more to make sure people’s health and workers are protected. In my view, this is the only way to build a coalition and public support to get these orders and legislation passed.” 

He also noted that the order directs the Michigan Public Services Commission to consider environmental justice issues as it regulates utilities. 

The orders’ aim to “achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality,” is commendable, said Natural Resources Defense Council Midwest Director Samantha Williams, but she added that she would like to see “a bit more oomph and clarity on the near-term targets.” 

“The 2020s are the critical decade for action on climate change, and if we are not on course with really ambitious levels of building out renewables and electrifying the economy,” she said, “then it’s going to be hard to meet those long-term goals.”

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