Rice President David Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches sent the following message to the university community Feb. 11:
A half-century ago this year, the first picture taken by a human of the entire illuminated Earth was shot from the Apollo 17 mission. That picture has become one of the most powerful reminders that in many ways all of us on Earth are a single community sharing a common planet. And in recent decades, evidence has continued to mount that a range of human activity is contributing to a warming of the planet that, if unabated, will be catastrophic for human, animal and plant life.
Given the commitment of Rice faculty to research and scholarship that supports human knowledge and progress, it is unsurprising that this issue has been addressed from many disciplinary perspectives. Over the last two years, for example, over 100 faculty from many schools and disciplines have coalesced through the Envirofac group to exchange ideas and formulate new ones that allow Rice to play an increased role in addressing a variety of sustainability challenges. Our faculty, students and staff have a strong desire to contribute to solutions and to see their university as an active participant in the global effort to address climate change and other pressing environmental issues. Contributions range from devising new solutions through science, engineering and architecture, to developing an understanding of what the cultural, economic, political and social obstacles to needed change are.
Houston has also recently more forcefully responded to climate change issues by recognizing that if we are to continue to be the leading center of energy innovation and management, we must be at the forefront of developing, implementing and transitioning to clean technologies. Rice is playing, and must continue to play, a significant role in supporting that change. The success of both Rice and Houston are closely intertwined, not only with respect to our future competitiveness but also in our shared vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on the Gulf Coast.
With this message, we are establishing our commitment to sustainability as an overarching policy that spans all facets of the university’s actions. Today we would like to focus specifically on a series of announcements related to how we manage our endowment, to our operational environmental commitment on campus, to supporting environmental research, and finally to fostering student leadership. By making these commitments we are placing investments in the environment as one of the university’s highest funding priorities. Many of the actions we describe below will require significant financial investment and we will need to determine how best to secure necessary resources and prioritize them among other university endeavors. Moreover, funding research and education initiatives in sustainability and climate change will be a significant part of our ongoing “Be Bold” capital campaign.
At the December 2021 Rice Management Co. Board of Directors meeting, members approved the following sustainability statement to guide the alignment of financial sustainability and environmental sustainability in its oversight of the endowment:
Through its investment program, Rice Management Co. (RMC) commits to upholding values that are aligned with the concept of sustainability. As an endowment tasked with the responsibility of providing perpetual resources for the university, our timeline is “forever,” and we believe our investments ought to reflect that same level of conscientious foresight. In recognition of the increasing alignment between financial sustainability and environmental sustainability, RMC has taken the following actions:
- Developed a sustainable investment statement and integrated assessment tools into the investment process.
- Established collaborative partnerships with sustainable investing thought leaders, industry working groups and organizations focused on financial and environmental sustainability and measurement.
- Committed to use the power of the endowment to drive solutions to major environmental problems — including climate change — through increased investment and dialogue with fund managers and partners about taking meaningful steps to lower climate risk and reduce emissions.
- Committed to take a leadership role in reducing emissions related to fossil fuel and other investments through engagement as opposed to divestment. Additionally, we plan for the endowment’s energy portfolio to be carbon neutral by 2030, in line with the university’s goals of achieving carbon neutrality.
Rice Management Co. and Rice University have also received board approval to become a signatory to the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). PRI is the world’s leading proponent of responsible investments and seeks to achieve a sustainable global financial system by encouraging adoption of the principles and collaboration on their implementation; by fostering good governance, integrity and accountability; and by addressing obstacles to a sustainable financial system that lie within market practices, structures and regulation.
We seek to exemplify environmental stewardship by establishing Rice as a leader in campus sustainability practices. To further advance the connection between teaching, research and campus sustainability and to visibly demonstrate our commitment, we will actively use our physical campus and its operations as a living laboratory to study sustainability and resilience challenges, incubate ideas and pilot solutions.
Today we are announcing the following steps as part of this commitment:
- 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, which was set at 2038 back in 2013. Recognizing the need for more rapid global action, we are committing that Rice will become carbon neutral by 2030. Our sustainability, facilities and finance teams will partner with the Rice Management Co. to identify viable emissions reduction opportunities, while also pursing steps to “harden” Rice’s utility infrastructure to withstand the rising risk of interruption that comes with a changing climate.
- To bolster the efficient use of utilities and to lessen the environmental impact of facilities expansion, renovation and operation, we are elevating our commitment to green building for new construction and major renovations by setting our expected certification level in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating program to gold. Rice already is home to over a dozen buildings certified through the LEED program at the silver or gold levels, and the new wing of Hanszen College now under construction will feature an innovative mass timber structure — an engineered wood product that largely replaces concrete and steel elements, which generate considerably more greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing process than mass timber.
- A changing climate brings a higher likelihood of both flooding and drought. We will invest in a series of water efficiency and conservation projects to reduce our overall consumption of potable water while also leveraging alternative water sources such as captured rainwater to meet campus needs where appropriate.
- To deepen engagement across departments we will be asking administrative units across the university to identify and pursue meaningful opportunities for environmental improvement within their area, recognizing the ideas and excellence within individual departments to scope and pursue their own initiatives.
A large number of our faculty are engaged in large scale, externally funded projects that ultimately are likely to have a major impact on climate change, sustainability and a fairer distribution of environmental costs. In late 2021, the Office of Research launched a “Sustainable Futures” seed fund through the Creative Ventures Fund program to support interdisciplinary research on the broad range of environmental challenges for which Rice could be a leader. This fund promotes the development of new research or academic partnerships that extend across multiple schools to engage faculty in new and creative scholarship. The new projects begun through the Sustainable Futures investment will join and expand our current family of high impact environmental research activities that seek to improve our environment such as the NEWT Center and the Carbon Hub. While the university cannot provide the ultimate funding needed for major research endeavors, we can provide significant seed funding for promising projects, and the Sustainable Futures Fund takes the essential first step in identifying outstanding faculty research that can be the subject of future strategic investments by the university.
The Office of Research received 23 proposals in response to its initial call for proposals. The breadth of ideas and scholarship represent nearly every corner of our university. Ideas range from improving storm resiliency in underserved urban communities to groundbreaking research that uses advanced concepts in machine learning to develop tropical wildlife conservation plans. With so many viable proposals received, funding will be increased to support more of them and we will make this an annual funding opportunity for at least the next five years. The Office of Research will announce its second call for proposals later this year.
We hope that this funding will draw new faculty members into work on climate change issues and seed new interdisciplinary partnerships. The Envirofac group has also recommended an overarching research structure in this area, and we will explore implementation of this proposal once the new leadership, including the provost and vice presidents for research and innovation, is in place.
Our students have demonstrated interest, commitment and talent in contributing to sustainability efforts. We must enable them to contribute while they are at Rice and prepare them to be effective leaders and innovators after graduation. On campus, one recent example is the implementation of food waste composting in the residential colleges, where students working with Rice staff developed a program that since November 2020 has diverted over 175,000 pounds of food waste from landfill to composting. Further, Rice students are assisting Houston-area institutions and nonprofits on a diverse set of environmental topics, ranging from helping the Houston Zoo develop a concrete plan to reach carbon neutrality, to working with watershed protection nonprofits to educate the community on the Clean Water Act, to helping Rice’s BCarbon voluntary carbon market expand. These kinds of experiences prepare our students to help create a better, more sustainable world when they graduate. As such, we are announcing a student sustainability engagement fund in fiscal year 2023 that will make resources available to enable such participation through internship grants, and to build partnerships between Rice and Houston-area organizations.
The actions we collectively take or fail to take as a society this decade will directly impact the well-being and prosperity of future generations as well as ourselves. As a university committed to the discovery, transmission and application of knowledge, we must assure that we are contributing to addressing the most fundamental challenges of our time. Today we build on the work our faculty, students and staff are already taking, and make it a central part of our university’s goals and practices. We will seek new ways to support them, and assure that Rice in its own actions contributes to environmental goals, and produces the new knowledge and teaching that will help enable broader progress.
The great universities of the world generate both the ideas and the technologies that change our future. There is indeed no more urgent challenge now than moving toward a sustainable future. Achieving sustainability is a long-term challenge that will require bold interdisciplinary thinking over the next several decades. Universities are uniquely suited to being catalysts for the conversations, scholarship and technological advances that will be required for our transition to sustainable policies and practices. Rice University and Houston have a unique role to play in building that future and we intend to be significant participants and leaders in this ambitious undertaking.