News

Cool Campus Challenge crowns a winner

Cool Campus Challenge

Credit: Elena Zhukova

2015 Cool Campus Challenge final ranking

  1. UC Irvine
  2. UC Merced
  3. UCLA
  4. UC Santa Cruz
  5. UC Davis
  6. UC Santa Barbara
  7. UC Berkeley
  8. UC Riverside
  9. UC San Diego
  10. UC Office of the President
  11. UC San Francisco

Who gets to claim the title of the University of California’s coolest campus? After 10 weeks of competition in the first ever Cool Campus Challenge, UC Irvine emerged victorious after a tight race to the finish.

With the University of California’s ambitious goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2025 just 10 years away, the Cool Campus Challenge was designed to get the campus community informed and engaged in the process early on and kick-start a cultural change around sustainability.

“It will take the entire UC community – students, faculty and staff – coming together to realize this audacious goal,” said Wendell Brase, UC Irvine vice chancellor for administrative and business services and co-chair of UC President Janet Napolitano’s Global Climate Leadership Council. “Taking action individually and collectively is fundamental to achieving carbon neutrality, and this competition has helped start conversations and change habits across the UC system.”

Cool winnings

Over 19,000 participants took up the challenge to reduce their personal carbon footprints, including students, staff and faculty from all 10 UC campuses as well as the UC Office of the President. Even UC President Janet Napolitano got in on the challenge.

The challenge included 37 different pledges, targeting actions anyone can take on an everyday basis to reduce their energy and carbon footprint from lighting, computer use, purchasing, heating and cooling, and transportation. Using the online tool built by UC Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), participants made pledges that ranged from carpooling, to getting rid of mini-fridges, to unplugging chargers and other “energy vampires” that draw power even when not being used.

UC Irvine took the lead early on and managed to maintain the momentum all the way to the finish on December 10th, despite an impressive late surge from UC Merced that pushed them into second place in the final weeks, and the consistent performance of UCLA, who ended up in third place. UC Merced managed to get 33 percent of the campus population involved, far exceeding any other campus.

“As a student, it’s really easy to get caught up in studying and extracurricular activities,” said UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative student fellow Lindsey Agnew. “But the competition was a great motivator. And, even though it was a competition, it created a unique spirit of having one UC working toward a goal – something you don’t experience often as a student.”

Toward carbon neutrality

Irvine walked away with the top prize, but the big winner was the entire University of California.

The habits learned over the course of the challenge will help change attitudes and the way climate change is discussed on campuses, but they also will have a measurable impact on CO2 emissions. If the participants keep up their pledges through the year, it will reduce the university’s carbon emissions by 15.5 million pounds, equivalent to taking 1,900 cars off the road, saving 800,000 gallons gasoline.

“We hope the practices learned during the challenge keep going long after the challenge is over,” said Kira Stoll, UC Berkeley's sustainability manager who spearheaded the Cool Campus Challenge project. “Not only are they easy to do, but we hope that people can see how simple actions by individuals can make a real difference.”

Fighting climate change every day begins with understanding our own roles in the puzzle. The three most popular pledges in the challenge were all about filling in gaps in knowledge: taking the Cool Climate Calculator, reviewing the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative, and understanding your own energy use. While many participants already did things like turning off overhead lights and shutting windows, relatively few reported that they fully understood their own carbon footprint before the challenge.

“From the feedback we got from students, before the challenge they thought small things like taking the bus, or replacing lightbulbs with LEDs, really wouldn’t make much difference,” said Agnew. “But students really responded to the metrics we could show them during the challenge, and it inspired even more action.”   

The positive, action-oriented approach of the Cool Campus Challenge to get a large population engaged in combatting climate change attracted attention outside the university. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, publicly highlighted the Cool Campus Challenge and congratulated the UC system for inspiring faculty, staff and students to take action.

Keeping up the momentum

Local organizing, campus events and social media proved key to the success of the Cool Campus Challenge, and the level of participation blew away the organizers of the challenge.

Over 2500 nominations for campus heroes – people who are already shining examples of sustainable practices – were submitted over the course of the challenge. Participants formed over 450 teams to work together on pledges and drive the competitive spirit. Participants posted over 1600 times on social media to encourage participation and egg on the competition.

“The Cool Campus Challenge exceeded expectations in every way,” said Stoll. “Everyone involved is already thinking about what comes next, what we can do next time to go even broader, even deeper.”