University News

Brown's Path to Net-Zero
Past steps and current approaches allow Brown to shoulder responsibility for the future

By Christina Paxson / May/June 2019
May 15th, 2019

Transitioning a major research university to net- zero carbon emissions is a complex undertaking. It entails rigorous analytical work to examine the feasibility of generating electricity from renewable sources. It requires re-engineering infrastructure. It involves investment in new technologies. And it reflects strategic operational planning around a principled commitment to sustainability.

Brown’s pledge in February to cut campus greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2025 and achieve net-zero by 2040 considered the implications of all of these steps. And it signaled that the University is prepared to be a higher education leader on climate change, the defining challenge of our time.

Without question, the path to sustainability will not be easy. But it is the right path. The best available science tells us that the world needs to cut emissions dramatically by mid-century or sooner to avert the most catastrophic, and likely irreversible, effects of climate change.

There is no precise date when Brown first committed to take bold action on reducing its carbon footprint. But groundwork was laid more than two decades ago. In 1990, President Vartan Gregorian launched Brown is Green, an environmental education and advocacy initiative. In 2008, President Ruth Simmons and the Brown University Corporation set ambitious goals for greenhouse gas reductions by 42 percent from 2007 levels by the year 2020.

In 2014, an Environmental Change Task Force advised Brown to infuse an ethic of environmental sustainability into its culture and curriculum “through teaching, research, service, and campus life initiatives that promote knowledge and action on climate change mitigation and adaptation.” The Institute at Brown for Environment and Society was founded that same year.

In 2015, Brown joined 317 other colleges and universities in support of the American Campuses Act on Climate Change, a higher education pledge committing us to doing our part in “accelerating the global transition to low-carbon energy while enhancing sustainable and resilient practices on our campuses.” And Brown students in the Climate and Development Lab traveled to Paris to attend the historic United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference.

In 2017, after the United States withdrew from the Paris climate accord, we began to develop aggressive plans to reach net-zero emissions. These plans—which center on developing renewable energy agreements with solar and wind power providers, and converting campus heating systems from fossil fuels to renewable electricity—deepen Brown’s leadership role on climate change by modeling institutional sustainability.

These actions are consistent with our mission of teaching, research, and advancing knowledge for the benefit of human welfare. Brown’s strategic plan, Building on Distinction, highlights “Sustaining Life on Earth” as a central area of scholarship. Several academic and co-curricular programs that integrate education on environment and sustainability have been introduced. And they are helping prepare the next generation of leaders in the fight against climate change and other issues.

 In mid-March of this year, the United Nations issued the sixth Global Environmental Outlook report. Among its dire conclusions is that “the ecological foundations of society are in peril.” This stark language reminds us that we are all stakeholders in this global challenge—nations, communities, civil society organizations, ordinary citizens, and higher education institutions. Universities can no longer be ivory towers, disengaged from the world around them.

At Brown, we expect to shoulder responsibility for the future. So we will continue to generate the data and evidence that supports environmental policy change. We will continue to produce the innovative research and discovery needed to transform energy systems, reduce emissions, conserve fragile ecosystems, strengthen biodiversity, and improve human health and wellbeing. And we will continue to recalibrate our operational culture to ensure that, as an institutional stakeholder, we’re doing our share.

If universities and colleges do not lead in taking on this responsibility, we will miss this epochal opportunity to serve the planetary interest.

Christina Paxson


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May/June 2019