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Students respond to new University sustainability plan

Bring up concerns that plan does not address environmental injustice, food waste

After the University’s March 5 announcement of a new campus sustainability plan — an announcement that followed a year of student input and revisions — students reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of the plan, and how it should evolve in the future. 

The sustainability plan lays out steps for the University to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, human health impacts, biodiversity loss, nutrient pollution and water impacts, in addition to creating opportunities for education and community engagement, The Herald previously reported.

The plan was created with the goal of tackling issues at the “intersection of the most pressing sustainability challenges and  Brown's ability to affect change,” Assistant Provost for Sustainability Stephen Porder wrote in an email to The Herald. 

A draft of the plan was initially written in December 2019 by Porder in conjunction with other faculty and staff members. After holding public comment sessions and collecting online feedback beginning in January 2020, a committee of students, faculty and staff reviewed the feedback and revised the plan, Porder wrote. 

This feedback period saw a wide range of responses that reflected “the varied interests and opinions of our diverse community,” Porder wrote. Many respondents suggested that the plan should have a greater emphasis on engagement with the community beyond the University, which became one of the largest changes, he added.  

Those changes include the creation of a community engagement committee, chaired by Albert Dahlberg, assistant vice president of government and community relations, to oversee how the University’s sustainability changes interact with the larger Rhode Island community. The committee will also include students and experts from campus organizations such as the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Swearer Center. 

The sustainability plan was approved by senior administrators in summer 2020. Revisions continued into the fall after delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Porder added. 

Students will have further opportunities to direct the future of the plan as members of the steering committee, which will have representation from all parts of the campus community, Porder wrote. 

There will also be increased educational opportunities for students, ranging from a greater sustainability-focused course selection to a utilization of these sustainability measures as a “living lab,” Porder wrote. “As important as changing our physical infrastructure is, it is equally or more important that we teach our students, faculty and staff how they can help transition to a more sustainable future.”

Arden Reynolds ’23, who co-founded Brown Climate Action Now and provided suggestions for improvement during the feedback period, is disappointed by the final sustainability plan. “For an institution that has as much power as Brown, (the plan) is really lackluster,” she said. 

CAN hosted feedback sessions last year to host conversations with students after learning that the University released the feedback form but did not have it open for a sufficient amount of time. “The impression that we got is that they didn't really want comments,” she said.

In their comment sessions, CAN found that students overwhelmingly wanted the University to add more goals centered around environmental justice, Reynolds added. The organization gathered these student opinions and submitted suggested revisions to the University during the comment period.

“It was really disappointing to open the plan the other day and see that it was really pretty much the same as the first iteration of the plan,” Reynolds said. “Basically nothing substantive had changed.”

Instead of adding substantial plans to ensure environmental justice, Reynolds added, the University just pays “lip service” to the idea. “It's greenwashing in the worst way. It's greenwashing with people's lives.”

Reynolds is largely disappointed by the lack of environmental justice in the plan because the University is one of the largest employers in Rhode Island and “the people who work at Brown, the people who actually make Brown run, those are the people who are going to be most intimately affected by the climate crisis, and who are affected by environmental racism and environmental injustice,” she said. 

“If Brown has any desire to establish itself as an anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-white supremacist institution, environmental justice is at the crux of of that,” Reynolds added. 

Reynolds does not believe that the plan will make any substantial change without including elements of environmental justice. “Right now, it's a greenhouse gas reduction plan, and that's what we've been saying since day one,” she said. “Sustainability has to incorporate these other aspects of looking at how Brown contributes negatively to the community.”

The University has set its goal as 2040, while they should instead be aiming to achieve net zero emissions before 2030 to set a precedent, she explained. Achieving net zero emissions by 2030 is “the lowest bar and last chance that we have as a society to keep from completely having the world burn up,” Reynolds said. 

While some elements of the plan are on the right track, such as the section on preserving biodiversity, “nothing is great,” Reynolds said. She would like to see the University look to Providence’s sustainability plan, which is “one of the best climate justice plans in the country,” or to other institutions like Amherst College whose sustainability plans commit to achieving climate neutrality by 2030.

Though there are students serving on the steering committee, Reynolds has “no faith that Brown is going to listen to them or …  apply what they're saying.”

The introduction to the plan explains “that Brown is a leader in the world, and they strive to be the leader,” Reynolds said. “They are not leading, they are following, and following on something that is as consequential as the climate crisis.” 

Isabella Luna ’22, former Brown University Dining Services supervisor and member of Brown Sustainable Food Initiative, believes that the plan is on the right track with a focus on diverse elements of sustainability beyond just energy use. But the plan does not address the full scope of environmental issues that it should, particularly when it comes to dining waste, she wrote in an email to The Herald.

“There is still an excessive use of materials and production of waste at the University,” Luna wrote. “The dining program often provides students with food that may not be consumed due to personal preferences and is no longer composting in the way it used to when students ate at (dining) halls like the (Sharpe Refectory) and the (Verney-Woolley Dining Hall).”

Luna would like to see a larger campus effort to compost unwanted food because “food is a huge contributor to emissions,” she wrote. 

The University should also create an improved process for waste disposal during move-in and move-out because of the amount of viable items that students throw away, Luna wrote. “I would like the University to push more for donations and proper recycling.”

Luna also noted the waste the University produces by providing excess pandemic safety and cleaning materials. “I received so much free stuff through the testing program that I already had and would have loved to have been able to donate in some way,” Luna added. 

While she thinks it is “great” that students will be involved in oversight of the plan, she questions how students will be able to continue their involvement as alums. 

Porder hopes that this plan will serve as a conduit to allow all members of the Brown community to learn more about the sustainability challenges faced by the University and how these challenges are tackled. “I hope it spurs us to push ourselves to do more, better, faster on the critical challenges we face on our rapidly changing planet,” he wrote. 

The plan will continue to evolve into the future, Porder added, as it is intended to be a “living document.”

“Some of the issues we identified here may turn out to be less important, or our ability to affect change may be less than we think. Other issues may come to the fore,” Porder wrote. “Sustainability, like many other challenges we face, will have to be a work in progress.”



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