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Rice commits to becoming carbon-neutral by 2030

Gazi Fuad / Thresher

By Emily London     2/22/22 11:52pm

Rice will commit to becoming carbon-neutral by 2030, according to an email sent out on Feb. 11 by President David Leebron and incoming President Reginald DesRoches. This change comes after Rice announced that they would go carbon-neutral by 2038 in 2013. According to DesRoches, current provost, Rice felt compelled to speed up their timeline due to the rapid advancement of climate change.

“The urgency of climate change has led us to reevaluate the timing of our commitment to become carbon-neutral as a university by a specified year,” DesRoches said. “Recognizing the need for more rapid global action, we are committing that Rice will become carbon-neutral by 2030.”

Leebron said Rice will focus on three main strategies to reach this goal: energy efficiency, cleaner sources of energy and carbon sequestration, or the process of storing carbon in the ground. 

“The largest components of our carbon footprint come from the energy that we consume as a campus,” Leebron said. “Our pathway to become carbon neutral will include these three primary strategies.”

According to Richard Johnson, the executive director of sustainability, there will be some new infrastructure projects that will increase energy efficiency on campus.

“The announcement concerning elevating our green building commitment to the level of LEED-Gold will help to enhance the efficiency of future buildings and major renovations,” Johnson said. “A project at the Rice Village Apartments will replace the existing roof with a ‘cool roof’ – which will save energy in the building – combined with the installation of a large solar array along the south-face of the roof. Finally, the new wing of Hanszen College that is currently under construction represents an innovative lower-carbon material selection through the use of mass timber elements.”

DesRoches said that these projects aim to make Rice’s campus an example for how sustainability can be practically implemented across the country.

“We will actively use our physical campus and its operations as a living laboratory to study sustainability and resilience challenges, spur and assess ideas, and pilot solutions,” DesRoches said.

According to DesRoches, one method of moving Rice towards a more sustainable future is to engage students and faculty.  The university is planning on sponsoring more environment-focused research projects, and will introduce a sustainability fund for students to take on unpaid internships in environmental and sustainability-focused fields in 2023.

“Students already are involved in several projects aimed at helping Rice move toward carbon neutrality and environmental sustainability,” DesRoches said. “There will be many more exciting opportunities for them in the near future.”

Ashley Fitzpatrick, current Sustainability Program Manager, said that this student involvement follows prior student advocacy for a more sustainable campus. 

“I am really excited to see Rice accelerate its carbon neutrality goal,” Fitzpatrick, a senior at Martel College, said. “This is something that we’ve really advocated for. The Sustainability Office has been working on plans to ensure that this goal is met, and I am confident in our abilities to succeed. Many student-led efforts such as composting or renewable energy transitions align with an accelerated carbon neutrality goal.”  

The university’s endowment will not be divesting from fossil fuels as a means of reaching its carbon goal, the email wrote. DesRoches said that the Rice Management Company will focus on investing more in sustainable companies and engaging with fund managers to make environmentalism a priority instead. 

“As an endowment tasked with the responsibility of providing perpetual resources for the university, our timeline is ‘forever,’” DesRoches said. “We believe our investments ought to reflect that same level of conscientious foresight.”

Leebron said that this decision has been in the works since 2019, though the process to make the university more sustainable has been happening since 2004. 

“The decision to move forward on an endowment policy began last year, and that served as a catalyst for bringing all of these elements together into a single multi-faceted announcement to campus,” Leebron said. “In short, this announcement reflects a very broad community engagement and conversation.”

Then-Student Association President Grace Wickerson and Johnson proposed a set of sustainability suggestions focusing on student leadership and campus operations in 2019 and 2020 which formed the foundations for Rice’s current sustainability plans. Later, a group of faculty members created the EnviroFac group and articulated faculty interest in expanding environmental research. 

Fitzpatrick said that, with the climate rapidly changing, it was necessary that Rice emphasize sustainability in its vision for the future.

“We live in a state of climate emergency, and we cannot afford to ignore this,” Fitzpatrick said. “Our location in Houston requires us to consider the growing risks of flooding, urban heat and industrial pollution.”

Fitzpatrick said that she’s glad that Rice is making sustainable changes, but she believes they could have been made sooner. 

“Rice is far behind our peer institutions in terms of setting sustainable goals and implementing sustainability-focused projects on campus … We were one of the last top tier institutions to adopt a composting program, and most prestigious universities have campus sustainability plans and environmental institutes on campus,” Fitzpatrick said. “The recent sustainability announcement from President Leebron is long overdue, but I am grateful to finally see the commitment to sustainability in writing after over three years of intense advocacy.”

Leebron said that the conversation around how to make Rice more sustainable will not end with this announcement. Still, he believes that moving towards carbon neutrality is an important first step.

“This is of course just the beginning,” Leebron said. “But it’s an important beginning that will be amplified in the coming years.”

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