Gov. Whitmer vows state will be carbon neutral by 2050

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2020

Gretchen Whitmer. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order yesterday that targets 2050 as the deadline for her state to reach carbon neutrality.

The goal aligns with the warnings of climate scientists, who say the world is running out of time to slash carbon emissions and avoid the worst effects of global warming. The order adds Michigan to a growing list of states that have set deadlines for carbon neutrality.

But there are major hurdles ahead for the Democratic governor and her state.

Whitmer’s executive order offered sparse details on how Michigan would achieve the 2050 goal and an interim 2025 target — leaving that to a future implementation plan. And Michigan’s divided political landscape raises questions about her administration’s ability to carry out its goals.

Whitmer, who was floated as a possible running mate to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, cast state action as a hedge against federal inaction.

“At this very moment, our state is reckoning with the failure of U.S. officials to adequately prepare for the challenges of a global pandemic,” Whitmer wrote in an executive directive that accompanied the order. “We cannot make the same mistake when it comes to impending climate crises of food instability, crop-killing droughts, deadly heatwaves, and intensifying weather events.”

The actions set the goal of ending net carbon emissions by 2050 “and to maintain net negative greenhouse gas emissions thereafter.” It’s a commitment that could be satisfied by increasing carbon sinks to offset any remaining emissions.

It also called for cutting emissions 28% compared with 1990 levels by 2025.

Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy would be tasked with finalizing a plan to achieve those targets by the end of next year with the help of a newly formed Council on Climate Solutions. The department would be responsible for implementing it.

The plan would “focus on near-term objectives that Michigan can achieve in five years.”

The state’s Department of Treasury would be enlisted to support the transition.

During an online forum yesterday hosted by the U.S. Climate Alliance, Whitmer highlighted Michigan’s experience this year with devastating floods.

“COVID isn’t the only enemy that we’re facing right now, and it’s not the only issue that we need to band together to fight,” she said.

Whitmer has made climate action a focus of her first two years in office — overseeing a reorganization of state agencies that empowers climate and environmental justice issues.

But Michigan’s GOP-controlled Legislature is an impediment to statutory action. The state’s automotive industry and carbon-intensive utility sector pose barriers, as well.

“Climate and energy policy are always tough in the state of Michigan,” said Barry Rabe, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.

To date, 23 states and the District of Columbia have established economywide greenhouse gas targets. Nine have set carbon neutrality goals, including Michigan.

Some are state law, while others, such as Whitmer’s order, don’t have buy-in from state legislatures.

“We’re in a window where a lot of Democratic governors are trying to do something related to climate, and if the executive order approach is their only route, carbon neutrality is a kind of popular step,” Rabe said.

The Paris Agreement notes that the world must stop adding new greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by midcentury if it is to have any hope of achieving the deal’s objective of keeping warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with aspirations of a 1.5 C limit.

Much of the world, including Canada, the European Union and China, has announced midcentury neutrality pledges — though China’s target is for 2060, not 2050.