Brown launches sustainability strategic plan to confront urgent environmental challenges

A new strategic plan for sustainability outlines five key commitments to address Brown’s impact on the natural environment, while calling for an expansion of education and community engagement around sustainability issues.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Building on decades of work to alleviate the effects of campus operations on the natural environment and to create a more sustainable future through research, teaching and community engagement, Brown University has launched a new strategic plan for sustainability outlining aggressive actions the University will take to tackle urgent environmental challenges.

The plan identifies five areas of utmost environmental concern upon which the University can have substantial impacts locally, regionally and globally, and establishes commitments to address each. Chief among those is a pledge to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2040, with 75% of reductions happening by 2025, as part of efforts to confront the increasingly dire threat posed by climate change. The plan also outlines actions to support more sustainable campus operations, including reducing nutrient pollution, reducing water impacts, safeguarding human health and curbing biodiversity loss.

In addition, the plan calls for expanded education and research opportunities focused on sustaining life on Earth, and increased public engagement on environmental challenges at the local, national and international levels.

Image of Under the Laurentide by Maya Lin
Under the Laurentide, a sculpture by Maya Lin, graces a patio outside the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. It maps the contours a Narragansett Bay, a precious Ocean State resource. Credit: Nick Dentamaro

In a March 5 letter to the Brown community, President Christina H. Paxson said that unlike sustainability initiatives based on the notion that institutions simply must do better, Brown’s plan is built for a net-zero era. With a focus on the real impact the University can make on issues from greenhouse gas emissions to nutrient pollution to biodiversity loss, it also echoes themes outlined in Brown’s Building on Distinction strategic plan.

“In the coming decades, climate change and other environmental challenges will have profound impacts not only on the natural world, but on societies and economies around the globe,” Paxson said. “As an institution committed to research and education aimed at bettering our world, it’s incumbent upon us to lead by example, taking bold action to create a more sustainable campus community. This plan focuses our attention on those challenges that are the most critical, and establishes a set of ambitious yet achievable goals.”

The plan complements a growing array of Brown initiatives to confront the global climate crisis. A new Climate Solutions Initiative managed by University leaders in partnership with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society is focused on curbing climate inaction locally and globally through scholarship, learning and research-informed infrastructure changes. Brown’s Investment Office has taken a proactive approach to managing endowment investments in fossil fuels, selling and liquidating its entire exposure to companies that extract fossil fuels and applying Environmental, Social and Governance criteria in all of its investment decisions. Those are just two examples.

The commitments we make in this plan sit at the intersection of what science tells us are the most immediate environmental challenges, and the areas in which Brown as an institution is best positioned to take action.

– Stephen Porder, assistant provost for sustainability

Stephen Porder, assistant provost for sustainability and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said that in building upon existing initiatives at Brown, the new strategic plan for sustainability is distinctive in its approach. Rather than starting with existing campus operations and thinking of ways to make them greener, Brown’s plan starts by identifying areas of immediate environmental concern and focuses resources and effort on confronting those concerns directly.

Image of Stephen Porder
Stephen Porder, assistant provost for sustainability

“This plan acknowledges that we simply can’t try to do everything at once,” Porder said. “If we’re going to make meaningful change, we need to make deep and lasting commitments in critical areas. The commitments we make in this plan sit at the intersection of what science tells us are the most immediate environmental challenges, and the areas in which Brown as an institution is best positioned to take action.”

The final plan was developed over the course of a year by a committee of faculty, staff and students led by Porder, Director of the Office of Sustainability Jessica Berry, and Leah VanWey, a professor of environment and society and sociology who also serves as the dean of the School of Professional Studies. Input from the broader Brown community, contributed through campus presentations, public forums and an online feedback form, was critical in finalizing the plan, Porder said.

“Community discussions were important in informing the scope of the plan, particularly surrounding issues of engagement with Providence and the broader community,” he said, noting the significance locally of both existing and future work on sea-level rise, clean energy and stormwater runoff. “We’re appreciative of that valuable feedback.”

Five key commitments

Work toward the first commitment articulated in the plan — reducing greenhouse gas emissions — is already well underway, and represents the largest sustainability investment in Brown’s history. In 2019, Brown entered into two renewable energy agreements that will offset 100% of the University’s on-campus electricity use. A Texas-based wind farm, which began operating in Summer 2020, is expected to offset 30% of University energy use. In the next three to five years, the remaining 70% will be offset by a partnership to create a 50-megawatt (DC) solar facility in a former gravel pit in North Kingstown, R.I., a project for which site preparation has begun.

Those projects, along with a thermal efficiency project in progress since 2017, will cut campus greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 27,000 metric tons per year by the early 2020s — the equivalent of taking 5,800 cars off the road. The eventual conversion of Brown’s central heating plant to renewable energy along with the purchase of offsets for buildings not served by the central plant will put net-zero emissions within reach.

An image of Brown's central heating plant
A conversion of Brown's central heating plant from steam to hot water is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The scientific consensus is that the only way to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change is for the world to reduce emissions to zero by mid-century, and hopefully faster,” Porder said. “By developing a clear path to net-zero, Brown is leading by example in showing that large, complex institutions can achieve this ambitious goal.”

In addition to the net-zero initiatives, the plan adds four commitments addressing key sustainability issues.

  • Reduce Nutrient Pollution: Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are essential for life, but an overabundance creates algae-choked waterways, carcinogenic drinking water, unhealthy air and acid rain. Brown has committed to reducing its nitrogen and phosphorus footprint by 15% by 2025 and 25% by 2030. Much of these reductions will be achieved by reducing red meat consumption in campus dining halls and by supporting agricultural practices that minimize nutrient pollution.
  • Preserve Biodiversity: The diversity of life on Earth is under unprecedented threats from human activities, and left unchecked, those threats will ultimately undermine human well-being. Through the sustainability strategic plan, Brown has committed to protecting biodiversity by adopting the principles underpinning the International Convention on Biodiversity, which has been adopted by 195 countries and the European Union. Efforts will include sourcing materials used in campus construction and other activities with the preservation of biodiversity in mind, limiting the amounts of materials purchased whenever possible and using sustainably sourced food options.
  • Reduce Water Impacts: Freshwater resources are increasingly threatened by overuse and pollution. Before it is consumed, fresh water must be purified or chemically treated — processes that are highly energy- and materials-intensive. Downstream from Brown, wastewater requires treatment before being released into Narragansett Bay. As urban settings are increasingly paved over, the increased stormwater runoff — which contains pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants — adds to the burden on treatment plants. Brown is committed to reducing its impact on water quality by lowering consumption and managing stormwater runoff to reduce pollution from pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Safeguard Human Health: By fiscal year 2024, Brown aims to reduce or eliminate the use of many potentially toxic chemicals, and decrease noise and air pollution on campus, and by fiscal year 2025 determine the extent that climate change could impact the health of Brown students, faculty and staff.
    An image of the rooftop garden at Brown Granoff center
    A green roof on the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts helps to reduce energy costs and regulate stormwater runoff.

A newly convened Sustainability Steering Committee will oversee the progress toward these commitments and the setting of new targets, with Brown’s Office of Sustainability playing a key role.

“What’s exciting to me is that this plan provides a well-defined framework for the University to take on truly critical environmental challenges,” said Jessica Berry, director of the Office of Sustainability. “These are strategic and carefully calculated priorities that will focus our work and increase its impact.”

Education and engagement

In addition to these environmental commitments, the plan also lays the groundwork for an expansion of sustainability education both inside and outside the classroom. Currently, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society offers two environmental studies concentrations, and departments across Brown offer programs and classes that address sustainability issues. The plan calls for a committee that will explore ways to increase these educational opportunities. In addition, Porder is in the process of developing a new course on climate solutions geared toward all incoming students.

“As an educational institution, one of the most important impacts we can have is in teaching people how the decisions they make affect the wider world,” Porder said. “The food we choose to eat, the transportation options we choose, the way we dispose of waste — these are individual decisions that have a huge impact in the aggregate. So it’s critical that we as an institution help members of our community to make informed decisions.”

An image of the greenhouse atop the IBES building
The Plant Environmental Center, a suite of six greenhouses atop the IBES building, is one of many facilities at Brown where researchers study the rich diversity of life on Earth.

The University will explore educational initiatives for all Brown community members addressing energy consumption, food choices and waste generation. These efforts will include information on the carbon cost of different meal choices in dining halls and methods academic departments can use to reduce consumption.

The plan also prioritizes the deepening of engagement in sustainability issues with partners beyond campus, including in Providence. Current and ongoing efforts of this kind include:

  • working with city and state leaders on renewable energy guidelines;
  • providing input on state and federal legislation;
  • developing stakeholder engagement around resilience in the face of sea-level rise in Rhode Island;
  • remediation of hazardous sites and identification of emerging contaminants; and
  • exploring heating/cooling systems for the Jewelry District in downtown Providence that are less energy intensive.

In recent years, for example, the University provided support for student and faculty efforts to push for a state-wide climate-resiliency plan, which led to passage of the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act. In 2018, Timmons Roberts, a professor of environment and society and sociology at Brown, led a group of students in partnership with local advocates to introduce carbon pricing legislation to promote clean energy in the state. And in 2019, Brown became a founding partner of the Providence Resilience Partnership, which is developing strategies to buffer residents and businesses from the effects of sea-level rise.

The plan notes that additional engagement will come through initiatives such as the Climate Solutions Lab, which harnesses Brown’s faculty expertise on energy, trade, finance and other areas to create public-facing policy analyses and to develop new courses to train the next generation of climate action leaders. Separately, the Climate Social Science Network is a global network of researchers studying political conflict around climate change. Housed at IBES, the group looks at the role of organizations that obstruct climate action, fossil fuel companies’ influence on politics and how misinformation campaigns affect public perception of climate.

An image of the Providence skyline
Brown's sustainability commitments extend to the City of Providence and beyond.

To build on those efforts, Porder will convene a committee tasked with exploring ways to expand community engagement on issues related to climate change and sustainability. Separately, the Sustainability Steering Committee will begin work to coordinate the implementation of this plan. Porder said he’s excited to see this plan put into action and expects it to evolve as action steps are put into place.

“This is not envisioned as a static document,” Porder said. “It’s designed to establish our most immediate priorities, determine concrete actions to work towards well-articulated goals, and move quickly and decisively toward them.  As we reach the goals outlined here, we can begin shifting resources to other important areas as we continue to expand our sustainability efforts.”