Inside Michigan’s plan to battle climate change, decarbonize

Part 1 of Q&A with Michigan EGLE director

Wind farm outside Traverse City in Michigan in August of 2014. (yyy, This image is subject to copyright.)

This article first appeared in the In This Climate Newsletter, a periodical newsletter on the local impact of climate change in Michigan -- sign up for it here, or by using the form at the bottom of this article.

“For Michigan to avoid the future harms of climate change and to enable the state to take advantage of the ongoing global energy transformation, it’s imperative to transition to carbon neutrality.”

Welcome back to the In This Climate Newsletter! I’m Ken. I launched this newsletter to bring climate change to the neighborhood level. How is climate change impacting Michigan right now -- and how will it impact Michigan in the future? What can we do about it?

We’ll spend some time looking at the issues -- and we’ll seek out solutions. We’ll talk to the experts. We’ll educate ourselves along the way.

In this edition of the newsletter, the first part of a deeper dive into Michigan’s plan to decarbonize -- and how the state plans to battle climate change.

In September 2020, the state announced a new goal to become carbon-neutral by the year 2050, and that Michigan will aim to achieve a 28 percent reduction below 1990 levels in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. As of 2016, Michigan accounted for about 3 percent of total emissions in the U.S., the tenth most for any state.

So, how were these goals created and how will we reach them? Enter: Liesl Clark.

Liesl Clark is the director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), and the chair of the Michigan Climate Council, which started officially meeting earlier this year. I had a Q&A with Clark on the state’s climate plans -- here’s part one:

^That's Liesl Clark! (WDIV)

Q: How did the state develop these goals and do you think they’re conservative or ambitious?

Clark: For Michigan to avoid the future harms of climate change and to enable the state to take advantage of the ongoing global energy transformation, it’s imperative to transition to carbon neutrality. For these reasons, Executive Directive 2020-10 set the goal of economic decarbonization in Michigan by 2050, and a 28 percent reduction below 1990 levels in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

These goals were developed based on recommendations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, collaboration with fellow member states in the U.S. Climate Alliance and built upon the state’s previous work on climate change. Michigan’s climate goals are aligned with those in the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Rather than characterize these goals as conservative or ambitious, I’d say they are necessary for Michigan to seize the opportunity of this vital transition, and to prevent irreparable harm to our ecosystem, health, and economic vitality.

Related: 3 biggest things Michigan can do to battle climate change

Q: Which forms of renewable energy do you see Michigan investing in and depending on the most in the next decade and why?

Clark: Clean energy includes a range of resources, from renewable generation such as solar and wind, to energy efficiency and demand response options. Expanding the use of clean energy is crucial to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050. The fastest and surest progress we can make toward reducing Michigan’s greenhouse gas footprint is to make the most of energy efficiency and demand response opportunities throughout the state.

For example, Michigan’s leadership and expertise in the electric vehicle space will lead to energy-saving load flexibility opportunities for our electric grid. From lighting and HVAC systems to building design, smart technologies, and even the structure of our transportation systems, the technologies we are developing here will reduce carbon pollution and cut energy costs. Where energy generation is needed, wind energy continues to have bright future in Michigan – and technology combinations like solar plus battery storage will play an important role in building up our state’s resilience.

All forms of energy – generation and reduction – will need to fit together to complete the puzzle that supports our everyday uses because Michigan residents and businesses depend on it. I’m excited to see what sorts of innovation and systems are produced as our state and nation’s research and development muscle is brought to bear on the climate crisis.

Q: What do you identify as the biggest climate threats to the state right now and into the future?

Clark: Climate change is already directly impacting our public health, environment, our economy, and our families. Throughout the Midwest, increasingly dramatic weather patterns have brought extreme heat, heavy downpours, flooding, impacts to air and water quality, and additional risks to the Great Lakes. More frequent and intense rain events have resulted in devastating floods, hotter daytime temperatures have created higher risks for people with asthma and other conditions, growing zones for agriculture are shifting, and our world class cold-water trout streams are warming.

We’re also seeing harmful algal blooms thriving because of the warmer temperatures and increased nutrient runoff from bigger, more frequent storms that wreak havoc on shoreline properties, overwhelm municipal infrastructure, and have even washed away chunks of our iconic Mackinac Island M-185 highway. Every one of these threats – high heat, more severe storms, flooding and more – will be with us for the foreseeable future, which underscores the necessity and urgency of this work.

Related: What Michigan’s future could look like without action on climate change

Q: What do you think is the biggest hurdle in convincing Michiganders that investing in decarbonization and climate adaptation are worth it?

Clark: We’re all wired to recognize an emergency as an imminent and immediate threat. A tornado, or a flood, for example. Because climate change is a slow-moving emergency, our challenge is to both define the need for urgency in terms that Michiganders will embrace, and illustrate that the solutions can be good for us and our communities.

We know that Michigan can be a leader in clean energy jobs because we’ve done it before. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, our state was home to over 125,300 clean energy jobs. Looking back at 2019, we had more folks working in clean energy than in real estate, computer programming, web developers, and restaurant waitstaff combined. As we recover from this crisis, the clean energy transition continues to represent an opportunity to create good-paying jobs that also help us work toward our climate goals.

Q: How can Michigan use the battle against climate change as an economic driver?

Clark: A key area of economic opportunity for Michigan is in transportation. Our state’s competitive advantages make us a natural hub for innovation and opportunity in the mobility sector– and given the fact that the transportation sector is responsible for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, mobility solutions are climate solutions. Because of this, EGLE works in close partnership with the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification. There is a real synergy between the work of the Council on Climate Solutions and the work of the Council on Future Mobility and Electrification, and a real opportunity to grow the state’s workforce and economy building on these legacy strengths.

(We’ll have part two of this Q&A in your inbox next week)

♨️ Hot reads

  • Work to be done: Recent pledges by the United States and other nations could help cap global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, but only if efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2050 succeed, scientists said Tuesday. More on this here.
  • AC for the air? The U.S. must seriously consider the idea of tinkering with the atmosphere to cool a warming Earth and accelerate research into how and whether humanity should hack the planet, the National Academy of Sciences said recently. The report by the academy, set up by Abraham Lincoln to provide the government with expert advice, doesn’t recommend carrying out solar geoengineering to bounce heat back to space. At least not yet. More here.
  • Bad gasses: In the first Biden administration rule aimed at combating climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to phase down production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, highly potent greenhouse gases commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners. HFCs are considered a major driver of global warming and are being targeted worldwide. More here.

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About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content manager for WDIV / He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter.