The University pledged in 2019 to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and cut its emissions by 75% by 2025, simultaneously unveiling multiple projects to reach these goals.
While the University maintains that it is on track to reach its 2025 target with a new solar farm scheduled to be completed at the end of this year, reaching its annual carbon emissions targets would require the University to decrease its carbon emissions by a total of 30,593 metric tons in the next three years, according to its website.
In the past three years since the plan was announced, the University has dropped its annual carbon emissions by 9,455 metric tons.
Getting to net zero
The plan includes an agreement with a wind farm owned by the Clearway Energy Group in Fisher County, Texas. The University made a long-term agreement with Clearway to purchase renewable energy credits from their turbines, which became operational in June 2020.
From Texas, the University will offset 8 megawatts — roughly 30% of electricity on campus, according to the Office of Sustainability.
The University has also funded the development of a solar farm located in North Kingstown, Rhode Island which is currently under development. The farm, known as the Dry Bridge project, is located on a “240-acre field on a former gravel pit.” The project aimed to begin operating in early 2022, offsetting 70% of campus electricity.
“We will meet the 2025 target with the (renewable energy credits) provided by the three solar projects and one wind project,” Jessica Berry, director of the Office of Sustainability, wrote in an email to The Herald.
But the North Kingstown project is not ready yet, despite being slated for completion earlier this year, according to the Sustainability Office’s website. “The Dry Bridge project has seen many hurdles in its development,” Berry wrote, adding that “Brown is an offtaker and neither developer, owner or operator, so many of these hurdles have been out of Brown’s control.”
Energy Development Partners, the firm responsible for building the project, did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, Berry wrote, the project is “very near completion,” with operations expected to begin by the end of 2022.
The University also expects to save over “$80 million through 2040” as a result of the power purchasing agreements, Berry wrote, because state law mandates that Brown receives credits on its utility bills for the purchasing agreements.
Berry noted that “work is underway with three engineering firms to implant the decarbonization roadmap that was developed over the past few years.”
Additionally, the University announced in its 2021 Sustainability Strategic Plan that it would work to electrify its vehicle fleet and create charging stations across campus.
“The University has placed orders for several electric vehicles and is in the process of installing fleet EV charging stations for those vehicles,” Berry noted. “Brown’s new vehicle purchasing policy requires that any vehicle purchases must be electric unless there is a valid reason it cannot be.”
Currently, the University has one electric vehicle and has ordered five electric vans, though delivery times have taken longer than expected, wrote Matthew Force, fleet manager at Business and Financial Services, in an email to The Herald.
And a thermal efficiency project meant to reduce emissions, replacing the central heating system’s steam with hot water, was completed in 2020, Berry wrote.
Is net zero enough?
Baylor Fox-Kemper, professor of earth, environmental and planetary studies, emphasized that the University’s timeline still outpaces what “a lot of other institutions are contemplating,” noting that many are waiting on a 2050 or 2075 end date.
He speculated that the COVID-19 pandemic may have delayed the projects, mainly because initially proposed numbers and timelines resulted from budgetary and policy expectations years in advance.
But the University’s plan could benefit from more intermediate emission-reduction targets, Fox-Kemper said.
Instead of dropping sharply to a specific target by a certain date, or to net zero by 2040, the University should consistently work to limit its output year-by-year, Fox-Kemper said.
“Net zero doesn’t actually mean zero effects to climate change,” he said. “What matters to the climate is accumulated emissions.”
And even when the University reaches net zero, it “won’t be guilt free … because we have a legacy of emitting,” he said. A more accurate account of the University’s climate impact would include those past emissions.
Net-zero pledges also often involve the use of carbon offsets, carbon-saving agreements between organizations, a controversial tactic for limiting emissions.
“It’s not real carbon savings,” Fox-Kemper stated, because an entity that promises to lower carbon emissions may not have emitted regardless of the promise. Additionally, he said, “transparency is very low.”
Berry stressed that the University was using offsets that are verifiable and would not have occurred without the University’s purchase.
“We expect that once the central heat plant is converted to electric-based technology and sourced from renewables, we will no longer need offsets,” she wrote.
Students push for more
Fox-Kemper stressed that much of the University’s action on climate change stems from student activism.
“It was student activism and the student petitioning of the faculty that really had a lot to do with the debate and the excitement” around the University’s 2019 climate pledge, he said. “Students can always bring a moral clarity to these issues.”
Caitlyn Carpenter ’26, a member of the recently revived Sunrise Movement hub on campus, said that she was “disappointed” by the University’s current progress on its pledges. The University should “embody the values” of its student body and take climate change seriously, she said.
Beyond its pledge to divest from fossil fuels in 2020, she called for the University to “reject all financial ties” to fossil-fuel industries.
Ethan Drake ’24, a co-leader of the Sunrise hub, said the group plans to work on Green New Deal education and encourage the University to provide an academic sustainability certificate along with other “fossil-free” research opportunities.
Carpenter additionally noted that Princeton committed to full fossil-fuel dissociation — not just divesting, but “reevaluating purchases or gifts, partnerships and facilitating employer recruitment activities” — a step Brown has not taken.
Fox-Kemper argued that “activism shouldn’t stop at the edge of campus,” noting that Rhode Island has far more carbon emissions than the University and that the United States is still the largest carbon emitter per capita.
Recently, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which Fox-Kemper called “the most important climate change legislation that’s ever been passed in the United States.” The act includes a host of tax credits and monetary incentives for renewable energy usage. The Sustainability Office and the Office of Government & Community Relations have begun discussing potential impacts of the law, Berry said.
The University is likely to benefit from the act, Fox-Kemper said. “It may not make us get (to net-zero) any faster, but it may make it more affordable.”