Can Michigan become carbon neutral without embracing carbon offsets?

If you appreciate our in-depth reporting and you can help us pay for it, please become a recurring donor to Planet Detroit.


Read part one here for an explainer on carbon neutrality.

Carbon neutrality emerged from COP 26 as one of the key strategies for mitigating global climate change, and President Biden’s climate plan aims for the entire United States to be carbon neutral by 2050. And it was a crucial part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 2020 executive order, which directs state departments to reach “economy-wide carbon neutrality” in Michigan by 2050.

Achieving carbon neutrality is likely to require a combination of emission reductions and carbon offsets – projects that reduce carbon emissions from the environment by planting forests, building renewable energy, or otherwise removing carbon from the atmosphere.

The state’s guidance to its Council on Climate Solutions – the body charged with developing Michigan’s plan for mitigating climate change, appears to largely ignore carbon offsets. Instead, the workgroup’s assignment included:

  1. Identifying and recommending opportunities for the development and effective implementation of emissions-reduction strategies.
  2. Identifying solutions to resolve impact disparities across Michigan and recommending targeted solutions for communities disproportionately impacted by the changing climate

And that's essentially what the draft MI Healthy Climate Plan addresses. The document is long on strategies for lowering emissions and building social justice and racial equity. Environmentalists have primarily lauded the plan while submitting comments to strengthen the recommendations.

But the words “carbon credits,” “offsets”, and “carbon markets” are not mentioned in the document and its appendices. The term “carbon storage” is mentioned once – concerning storing carbon in the state's green infrastructure; a strategy that aligns with the state’s scheme to sell carbon credits from its Pigeon River National Forest to DTE Energy for $10 million in exchange for cutting down fewer trees over 40 years. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said those funds will go into planting trees and managing wildlife habitat to create a “carbon sink.”

The term “sequester” is mentioned twice in Michigan’s plan. The first mention comes from the Energy Intensive Industries workgroup, which recommends that the state and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) support economic development “with emphasis on carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration.” The second mention is concerning the opportunity afforded by Michigan’s 11.8 million acres of agricultural land. The firm Corteva Carbon Initiative, a carbon credit market firm that pays farmers for carbon conservation practices, recently expanded to Michigan.

This lack of emphasis on carbon offsets in the MI Healthy Climate Plan is a good thing, according to climate activists and Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition founder Michelle Martinez. “Michigan must reduce greenhouse gasses to save life on this planet. Techno fixes that merely bolster corporate profits under the auspices of "net-zero" diminish the political possibility for a just transition and rely on unreliable markets pushing off the inevitable phasing out of fossil fuels,” she said. “Greedy corporations rake in the profit, while we are all left behind.”

General Motors announced its goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040 mainly through eliminating tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035 by “transitioning to battery electric vehicles or other zero-emissions vehicle technology, sourcing renewable energy and leveraging minimal offsets or credits.”

Senior GM exec Dane Parker told PBS the company’s “ commitment to be carbon-neutral is a “commitment to change our products and our operational footprint exclusive of carbon credits or carbon offsets.” Dame said GM plans to achieve this goal by spending $27 billion on revamping its product lines; Parker said offsets may be used to mitigate industrial heating.

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan’s goal announced its goal to achieve carbon neutrality in 2021 without an overall date; instead the university aims to achieve net-zero emissions from purchased power by 2025 and eliminate direct greenhouse gas emissions from its campuses by 2040. Its plans include building geothermal heating and cooling, electrifying its bus fleet, and procuring its purchased power via renewable energy.

UM began purchasing renewable energy in 2019 through DTE Energy’s MIGreen Power program, and plans to complete a renewable electricity selection process by summer 2022 that “community engagement, justice and equity, and implications for land use, habitat and wildlife.” However, its options for procurement may be hampered by Michigan utilities’ legal monopoly on electricity generation and distribution.

Special Advisor to the President for Carbon Neutrality Strategy Andrew Horning said UM is establishing a $25 million revolving fund for energy efficiency and clean energy projects to “avoid the ups and downs” in budgeting. “It’s a way to say there's a pool there's a pot of funds upfront for this purpose and the savings that are generated from the investments will go back to the fund creating a perpetual source of funding.” More than 200 projects have been identified for funding, according to Horning.

Will these ambitions for carbon neutrality stick without embracing questionable carbon offsets? A recent study by advocacy organization NewClimate institute studies the climate actions of 25 companies. It found that 24 relied too heavily on carbon offsets and most exaggerated their progress, reducing their emissions by only 40% on average, not the 100% as suggested by the term 'net-zero'. "

What questions do you have about the environment and climate change in Michigan? Please let us know by reaching out to me at NOTE: Please don't reply directly to this email, it will go into a digital netherworld.


SIGN UP for Planet Detroit's free weekly email newsletter

Our reporting 

runs deep.

Get our weekly free local enviro + health newsletter in your inbox with Planet Detroit.

Scroll to Top