Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Climate Solutions Lab

Students’ Five-Step Climate Playbook Explains Energy-Efficient Measures

May 3, 2021

Students enrolled in Professor Jeff Colgan’s course “Geopolitics of Oil and Energy” debated and wrestled with ideas to tackle climate change’s myriad challenges. Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Jeff Colgan, who is director of the Climate Solutions Lab and director of Security Studies, introduced the seminar during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Fiona Campbell ’22, Parker Johnson ’21, Arianne Motte ’21 (December), and Nicolas Novelli 21 comprised one of five groups who created policy videos demonstrating their findings. Their capstone project, Climate at Brown, identified what Brown is doing toward its 2040 Net Zero goal (Brown’s 2019 pledge to become an institution emitting no greenhouse gasses by 2040) and developed a Climate Playbook that identifies five steps academic institutions can take: 

• Encourage energy-saving practices,

• Upgrade and renovate efficiently,

• Compost,

• Join a consortium to share resources and expertise, and

• Purchase renewables

We talked with these students about their specific research focus and how they hope other academic institutions, especially those lacking Brown University’s rich array of resources, can benefit from the video.

What surprised you – or what did you learn – in your research for the Campus Playbook video presentation?

Fiona: The thermal efficiency project, which updates the campus’ 1950-era central heating system to eventually become all-electric, was one of Brown’s first steps toward achieving its 2040 Net Zero goal. I was surprised by how important these updates are and now much a university or institution can save by merely updating what they normally do, but doing so efficiently. For example, National Grid heavily subsidizes efficiency upgrades; this has saved Brown University upwards of $1M, with more savings in the long-term.

Parker: I focused on the upstream and downstream emissions of food production and food waste in the United States. Agricultural waste and food production, which contribute to 20-30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, also contribute to some portion of Brown’s emissions. Not every school has the resources to buy locally or sustainably, but they do have control over how they deal with waste. Composting food waste is net neutral for emissions when done properly, and a great way to deal with food that can’t be donated. Yet, some food waste still ends up in landfills, which emit greenhouse gasses before they are completely capped. So, reducing upstream intake of food before it becomes waste is the best option.

Arianne: I looked at what some other colleges are doing to reduce their greenhouse gasses and compared them to Brown’s actions. While Bowdoin College is focused on weatherization and insulation – the biggest energy factor in Maine’s frigid climate – schools in hotter climates may not focus on thermal efficiency. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), in which Brown plays a big leadership role, shares what member institutions have learned with others.

Nicolas: In focusing on the nature of the 2040 Net Zero goal, I was surprised to learn how many “hiccups” and challenges there were in getting the planned solar park in North Kingstown built. Even though there was full support for the project that Brown plans to build on what is now a gravel pit, I didn’t expect how so much bureaucratic red tape can delay construction. 

How do you anticipate sharing the wisdom contained in the video and its Campus Playbook guidance with other universities and college? 

Fiona: When we were talking to Al Dahlberg [Assistant Vice President, Government & Community Relations Albert Dahlberg, at Brown], we recognized that so many schools are at very different places in their efforts to become more green. Brown is in the forefront of these issues, especially in Rhode Island, but getting other schools to look at these resources is a critical step.  Schools focusing on net zero initiatives can spread the word to encourage other schools to take some actions [to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions] and to push their communities [to also act responsibly]. Having the Watson Institute publish the video gives it more gravity and exposure.

Parker: Step 4 of our Campus Playbook includes reaching out to other schools to build consortiums and drawing on interconnectedness to enact change on an issue that affects everyone. Brown can use its position to share the video with other institutions… to facilitate climate action.

Nicolas: It’s so important to highlight the value of sharing resources. It’s about collaboration and sharing resources; some schools may have one person [working on these issues] while Brown has 10 people. It’s more about cooperation and collaboration, not about competition.

What messages do you have for those who may be overwhelmed by either inertia or the complexity of the climate crisis? 

Fiona:  So many people feel that previous generations have left us with a lot of problems.  Brown could share that perspective; having more discussions about what you can do, what you can encourage others to do…that can balloon into something more significant.

Parker: The Campus Playbook makes [making changes] approachable, with all its options… such as switching from beef to turkey or changing traditional lightbulbs for LED bulbs. These don’t require massive changes, but they have massive results; they get people thinking and builds sustainability momentum. 

Arianne: When we were looking at ways colleges could reduce generally their energy use and emissions, we realized it requires behavioral changes. Community buy-in is essential and there is more traction on climate change with the Biden administration. Many colleges don’t have what we do at Brown. Through the Climate Solutions Lab, Professor Colgan asks his fellow faculty members to share their course syllabi, as he does, with colleagues around the country.

Nicolas: Pairing education with action helps get the ball rolling; it’s classes and projects like these that make you more informed. I didn’t think I’d be making a playbook [about actions to combat climate change] for other schools in my academic career. 

-- Nancy Kirsch