Challenging the Carbon Conundrum

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Illustration by Kelsey Hill

The University of California wants to be carbon neutral by 2025 and it needs students, faculty and staff on board to do it.

On Oct. 6 the UC launched the Cool Campus Challenge, a social media-friendly carbon reduction competition between campuses, devised as part of UC President Janet Napolitano’s 10-year carbon neutrality road map announced in 2013. The challenge aims to help the UC reach carbon neutrality by chipping away at the university system’s yearly carbon emissions.

“It’s a pretty ambitious goal,” said UC Santa Cruz Carbon Neutrality Initiative fellow Jordi Vasquez. “Many universities, including UCSC, have already taken steps to reduce our carbon footprint, but with 10 years to go I think it’s still very much possible.”

Private universities like Harvard and Cornell committed to carbon neutrality, but the 10-campus UC is one of the first public multi-university systems to announce a carbon neutrality goal. The UC’s sister system, the 23-campus California State University (CSU), doesn’t have a carbon neutrality initiative or any plan for one, said CSU public affairs director Toni Molle in an email.

To reduce emissions, the Cool Campus Challenge urges students, staff and faculty to pledge to participate in any number of the 50 energy conservation challenges that include turning down computer screen brightness, switching off lights and not eating meat.

“Unplugging unused electrical devices, or taking a bus more often — just simple things like that,” Vasquez said. “If you can get into a habit of doing simple things like that it really adds up over time and you can save thousands upon thousands of pounds of CO2.”

When UC participants take carbon reduction pledges they earn points for themselves and their school. However, challengers can only get all the points from their pledge after they submit a brief write-up of their experience. On Dec. 10, the university with the most points will be named the “Coolest UC Campus.”

Vasquez said he thinks many UC students who aren’t aware of the challenge already regularly do one or more of the simple carbon reduction actions.

“You need students to help promote the [Cool Campus Challenge] within the undergraduate student body,” Vasquez said. “We are the future generations to deal with these issues.”

Along with earning environmental pride, participants can also win prizes like iTunes gift cards, solar smartphone chargers. The winning campus will receive a free party up to a $2,000 value, said Sustainability Programs Manager Shauna Casey in an email.

UCSC currently ranks fifth in the challenge with its 1,160 participants — 5 percent of the school’s student and staff population, according to the Cool Campus Challenge scoreboard that updates on Fridays. UCLA tops the list with 2,181 participants.

The Cool Campus Challenge estimates that the UCSC students who participated already prevented 2,269,512 pounds of CO2 emissions, Vasquez said in an email. That equals to an average of nearly 1,956 pounds of CO2 saved per person. If 50 percent of UCSC’s student and staff population, or 10,925 people, participated in the challenge, over 20 million pounds of CO2 could be saved.

“[Students] are the reason we have a sustainability policy in place,” said UC Sustainability Specialist Janika McFeely. “They advocated and activated around sustainability issues early on and brought it to the forefront — brought it to the regents.”

An almost equal amount of university staff and faculty are participating in the challenge throughout the UC system. As of Nov. 2, 6,733 students, 598 faculty and 5,558 staff — roughly 3 percent of each group among the entire UC — pledged to take the Cool Campus Challenge, McFeely said in an email. As of January 2015, the UC had 198,300 staff and faculty and 238,700 students, according to the “UC at a Glance” report.

“It’s important we keep getting the word out,” McFeely said. “Lots of students, staff and faculty don’t even know this initiative exists.”

Regardless of the relatively low participation so far, McFeely is hopeful that the Cool Campus Challenge will meet or exceed its modest 5 percent participation goal.

“We are at the midpoint of the campaign so there has definitely been a slowdown in participation,” McFeely said. “But we are going to make another push because there is still another month left. UCLA could be dropped off the top spot pretty quickly if another campus started getting excited.”

For complete UC rankings, visit pledge.coolcampuschallenge.org/scoreboard