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University launches strategic sustainability plan

Plan addresses fossil fuel emissions, biodiversity, protecting human health

The University launched a strategic plan for campus sustainability March 5, outlining “aggressive actions” they will take towards mitigating environmental challenges, according to a University news release. 

The plan consists of the next steps the University needs to take to reduce its environmental impact across five areas: reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, human health impacts, water impacts and biodiversity loss. The plan prioritizes actions based on urgency, efficacy of potential solutions and the University’s ability to execute these solutions.

“The key five areas, with a tone of environmental justice running throughout each, are key global sustainability issues for which Brown can make a direct impact through operational changes,” Jessica Berry, director of the Office of Sustainability, wrote in an email to The Herald. “The important factor in deciding what areas to focus on was what made sense for the University to tackle given its mission and scope of its operational impact.”

A steering committee composed of student, staff and faculty members, co-chaired by Berry and Assistant Provost for Sustainability Stephen Porder, will oversee the implementation of the plan. 

The first goal laid out in the plan is to reduce quantifiable campus emissions by 75 percent by 2025 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. The University will also quantify indirect emissions and create a reduction plan for them by 2023. 

The University began efforts towards the first goal — reducing fossil fuel emissions — in 2019 by joining a wind farm in Texas and a solar farm in Rhode Island, which will fully offset on-campus energy use. To further reduce fossil fuel emissions, the University will adapt the central heating system to run off recycled biofuel by 2025, or will enter a purchase agreement for renewable natural gas to offset heating energy use until the net-zero transition is complete in 2040. 

The University will also transition to electric vehicles over the next five to 10 years, and ensure that campus buildings are as energy efficient as possible. Additionally, the University will work on quantifying other contributions to fossil fuel emissions, such as student and faculty travel, and subsequently create concrete steps to offset them.

The plan also commits to reducing nutrient pollution by 15 percent by 2025, and 25 percent by 2030. Because food consumption makes up 85 percent of the University’s nitrogen footprint, the plan proposes reducing red meat and dairy consumption on campus by substituting other protein sources and plant-based meals. 

The third objective laid out in the plan is protecting human health, which entails reducing the use of potentially toxic chemicals on campus, decreasing campus air and noise pollution and determining how climate change will impact Brown community members. The University will create a “red list” of chemicals that will no longer be used on campus, reduce the use of pesticides and ensure Dining Services does not use packaging with harmful chemicals. It will also lessen the use of noisy and gas-powered equipment on campus such as leaf blowers and vehicles. 

The University has also committed to reducing water use and pollution. The Office of Sustainability will launch a three-year exploration of the University’s current stormwater management system to quantify the potential benefits of changes such as installing grey water recycling systems. 

Finally, the University will reduce material purchases, and source remaining material purchases with biodiversity in mind. There is not yet a concrete plan for these reductions, but the University will create a committee to review potential plans to reduce biodiversity impacts and provide recommendations by fall 2021. 

“We can't manage what we don't measure,” Berry wrote. “It is essential for us to understand our impact on these areas before we set specific goals.”

The plan also prioritizes community engagement and education through goals such as sharing sustainability lessons with the University community and other “local, national and international entities” trying to mitigate climate change, according to the report. The University will increase sustainability research opportunities for students and use campus infrastructure changes as a “living laboratory” to allow students to understand the challenges of implementing sustainability. 

Porder will lead a Committee for Sustainability Education, which will create a plan to integrate sustainability curriculum into course offerings. He will also lead a Community Engagement Committee to evaluate how the University’s sustainability initiatives should account for environmental inequity in the larger Rhode Island community. 

The Office of Sustainability will also host 12 to 15 interns each year to help implement and track the plan’s progress, Berry wrote. 

The University initially began work on the sustainability plan in 2019. It released a first draft of the report and held a community feedback period in early 2020, The Herald previously reported. The feedback during this period was ultimately positive — 76 percent of respondents to online forms “agreed” or “somewhat agreed” with the plan’s goals and steps, according to the report. 

Many respondents encouraged a larger focus on economic and social sustainability and on how the University’s sustainability initiatives can contribute to Rhode Island at large. This feedback led to a larger emphasis on education in the final plan. 

Over the past several years, the University has taken other measures to reduce its environmental impact, President Christina Paxson P’19 wrote in the plan’s introduction. These efforts include the 2019 net-zero commitment and the sale of  90 percent of investments in fossil fuels by the beginning of 2020. 

The University has also worked to increase energy efficiency and improve transportation, waste diversion and healthy spaces, Berry wrote. 

Moving forward, the plan will be a living document that will “evolve over time based on goals achieved, new information, changing campus landscapes” and more, Berry wrote. 

“This plan will allow the University to make informed and prompt decisions on how and when to allocate resources toward sustainability initiatives,” Berry wrote. “It will enhance the positive impact our decisions have on the environment and showcase Brown as an innovator in strategic sustainability planning.”


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