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Chapter 2. The University as a Living Laboratory for Climate Solutions


Matthew St. Clair ,

Energy and Sustainability, University of California Office of the President, US
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Lifang Chiang

Research and Graduate Studies, University of California Office of the President, US
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The story of the University of California’s institutional goal of de-carbonization by 2025, already years in the making, was a key feature of a systemwide Summit on carbon neutrality and climate mitigation in the Fall of 2015. This report, commissioned by the Summit, represents a unique multi-campus, interdisciplinary collaboration, an attempt by one university system to harness its diverse intellectual resources to address the crisis of global climate disruption. This chapter puts the Bending the Curve report into the context of the University of California’s (UC) carbon neutrality and sustainability initiatives and offers one example of how a large organization can become a “living laboratory”— a research, teaching and learning, and innovation testbed—for climate solutions.

How to Cite: St. Clair, M., & Chiang, L. (2016). Chapter 2. The University as a Living Laboratory for Climate Solutions. Collabra, 2(1), 16. DOI:
  Published on 12 Dec 2016
 Accepted on 19 Oct 2016            Submitted on 19 Oct 2016

Energy efficiency serves as the core of climate strategy for the University, with over 1,000 energy efficiency projects launched since 2004, resulting in annual utility costs that are approximately $28 million per year lower because of its energy efficiency investments. Deep energy efficiency efforts have yielded substantial savings totaling over $150 M in savings over the past decade. The University also continues to scale up its establishment of renewable energy sources, with 64 megawatts of on-campus renewable generation established or under development. Foremost among institutions of higher education, the University has acquired over 200 LEED certifications spanning 18 million square feet of building area. The biggest challenge, which has no easy solutions, is how to deal with the two-thirds of the institution’s carbon footprint which comes from consuming natural gas to produce electricity, heating, and cooling for its campuses and hospitals. Meanwhile, the University is completing its efforts to generate all of its electricity from intermittent and firm renewable sources.

The UC initiative to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 serves as a model that can be adapted and replicated at other institutions of higher education, large municipalities, subnational and national jurisdictions, and corporations. Much as we have been inspired by the leadership of other universities1, cities2, and companies3, similarly we hope that our challenges and successes can inform and inspire other organizations to seriously consider how their particular mission can lead them to make their own unique contributions to combatting climate disruption.

The quest to achieve carbon neutrality ultimately requires the collective imagination and commitment from all quarters of the globe. After all, we are all in this together.

Introduction: Context for the University’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative

Over the course of two days in the Fall of 2015, in an auditorium on craggy desert terrain above an expansive ocean front, two hundred people representing an eclectic assortment of academicians, university students, appointed and elected officials, civic and corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, and public citizens gathered with a singular and urgent common focus: to discuss top discoveries and solutions, spanning local to global, towards achievement of massive, societal clean energy transformation.

With the historic Paris Climate Summit (COP 21) over five thousand miles and a month’s time away, the gathering spotlighted the aspirations and commitment of one institution, a ten-campus university system, towards its pledge of achieving carbon neutrality in ten years’ time. Opening remarks by the chancellor of the hosting campus and the mayor of the host city addressed the de-carbonization aspirations and progress of their respective jurisdictions. In pairs, the lead authors of the Summit’s commissioned report rose to the podium to share the contributions derived from teams of academic colleagues in assessing and identifying pathways to climate solutions from a portfolio of multi-disciplinary perspectives. With ten solutions in hand, UC’s Climate Solutions Group members articulated the scientific, technological and societal interventions needed towards climate mitigation. Between lectures, fleets of net zero energy buses shuttled attendees to selected research testbed sites at the summit-hosting campus.

The University President lauded the accomplishments of the research collaborative, underscoring the moral imperative of action. She was followed by the Governor, who challenged the audience with blunt keynote remarks on the dire planetary warming and the steps needed to avert the present course of climate disruption. Afternoon panel discussions included corporate executives who shared details of their institutions’ progress on commitment to carbon neutrality, and entrepreneurs who described the process of incubation, deployment and societal impact of discoveries and inventions spun from university labs. The chancellors of four of the ten university campuses engaged in a fireside chat about the progress, and challenges, towards de-carbonization at each of their respective institutions.

The gathering concluded with a spotlight on the Voices of the Future, featuring undergraduate and graduate students from a range of disciplines, and reflecting the excellence and diversity of youth drawn from throughout the State’s communities. The student participants communicated with rigor, curiosity and passion the carbon neutrality solutions for which each was earlier selected and recognized as a carbon neutrality student fellow.

The flow of ideas and discussions at the Summit are archived and delivered via the University’s online and television cable network Climate Solutions Channel, created as a result of this Summit and accessed each month thereafter by a worldwide web audience, rapidly totaling millions of web hits and views. Such keen interest is indicative of a groundswell of citizens worldwide, themselves seeking climate solutions, and eager to join in the collective quest to create and build the societal clean energy transformation necessary to avert global climate disruption.

The University of California was founded in 1868 as the research arm of the state4. Today, California is the most populous state in the United States with a population of 39 million5 and a gross state product of $2.4 trillion6. As a country, California would be the eighth largest economy in the world.7 California is renowned as a center of technological and policy innovation, and the actions taken in California are watched and emulated around the world. As a result, California’s climate actions have a significant impact (Bending the Curve Solution #2; Chapter #4).

California’s research university system is commensurate with the scale of the state itself. UC has 235,000 students and 180,000 employees across ten campuses, five medical centers, and an extensive agricultural and natural resources division. UC owns over 5,900 buildings, enclosing approximately 132.6 million gross square feet on 30,000 acres of land.8 The UC’s annual operational budget of $28.5 billion9 is larger than the budgets of 27 out of 50 U.S. states10 and is larger than the gross domestic product of more than 90 countries.11

The UC’s carbon footprint is correspondingly large at 1.15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, or 1.6 million metric tons when including transportation-related emissions (see Figure 1).12 Tackling the challenge of reducing that quantity of emissions to net zero while operating 30 energy-intensive hospitals and thousands of other buildings that include energy intensive scientific research laboratories is indeed a daunting one. This chapter shares what the University has learned about the biggest challenges—and potential strategies to overcome those challenges—in order to achieve carbon neutrality at this scale.

Figure 1 

UC 2014 GHG Emissions by Campus. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

UC’s carbon neutrality efforts are situated in the context of California’s physical, political, and cultural climate and, as a result, will not be perfectly replicable by universities, cities, or companies in other locations. Nonetheless, through its leadership in multidimensional climate solutions, the University of California serves as a positive exemplar for other individuals and organizations taking steps towards the rapid clean energy transition necessary for climate stabilization.

Climate commitment as part of broader sustainability commitment

“For a long time, UC students learned about issues like resource scarcity and global warming inside the laboratory and classroom, but the University was doing business as if these problems didn’t exist. That sends a mixed signal. Now we’re practicing what we teach. By embracing sustainability and transforming our business practices, UC can have a positive environmental impact today and save the university money through increased efficiencies. In leading by example, UC can also influence generations of students who will tackle environmental problems in the years to come.”

  —Nathan Brostrom, Chief Operating Officer (former), University of California (2008).

All organizations have to be responsive to their customers’ needs and demands in order to succeed, so climate action should align with their customers’ values and priorities. In the case of universities, students are a primary customer. Research universities also serve research funding agencies, and public universities serve the taxpayers in their states. In the case of UC and many other universities, students have been among the primary drivers for climate action leadership on their university campuses.

Student movements have historically played an essential role in pushing public policies to keep up with societal concerns when those policies lag behind public values. Climate action, clean energy, and broader sustainability are issues where government policy has lagged far behind public values and current technological possibilities. As a result, students in the United States formed a movement in the mid-2000s to demand climate and sustainability action.13 Those students thought globally and acted locally, demanding action first from their own universities that had been teaching them about climate disruption and related sustainability problems.

The UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI), established in 2013, builds on a foundation of sustainability commitments that trace their roots back to a student campaign demand during the 2002–2003 academic year that “UC Go Solar!”14 The CNI was thus preceded by a decade of commitments to sustainable business operations (see Table 1), including a commitment in 2007 to achieve carbon neutrality as soon as possible. When she joined the University in November 2013, UC President Janet Napolitano announced a commitment that UC would achieve the carbon neutrality goal in 2025—the earliest year to which any other large university had committed.

Table 1

Progress on The University’s Sustainability Commitment.

Year One – 2004 Green Building
Green Energy
Year Three – 2006 Climate Protection
Sustainable Transportation
Year Four – 2007 Sustainable Operations
Recycling & Waste Management
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing
Year Six – 2009 Sustainable Food Service
Year Ten – 2009 Sustainable Water Systems

Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

The University’s sustainability commitment started with goals for green building and clean energy and expanded over time into a comprehensive Sustainable Practices Policy that addresses all major environmental impacts of operating the University, as follows.

Many of UC’s sustainability policy commitments mirror and parallel similar goals set by the state of California in laws like California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB32)15 and executive orders issued by Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger16 and Jerry Brown17 that sought to make state government a model of climate and sustainability leadership. In this way, the state and its research university system have pushed each other to set aggressive climate and sustainability goals.

Scope of Carbon Neutrality Commitment

Announced by UC President Napolitano with the support of all ten UC campus chancellors, the CNI commits the entire system to emitting zero net greenhouse gas emissions from its buildings and vehicles by 2025.18 While emissions from commuting to and from campus and from university-funded air travel comprise about 25 percent of total emissions, the UC excluded those sources from the 2025 goal because the University has much less direct control over, for example, what kind of cars employees drive and where they live. UC is focusing first on lowering the emissions that can be directly control. However, the University still tracks and reports transportation-related emissions, organizes multiple programs to reduce those emissions, and has established a policy goal of achieving carbon neutrality for all emissions by 2050.19

Responsive to what UC climate scientists and scientists across the globe tell us about human impacts on our climate system, the University’s carbon neutrality goal is necessarily ambitious in its scope and time horizons. UC’s high level of level of commitment is evident when compared to other corporate, city and subnational models (Table 2).

Table 2

Carbon Neutrality Goals across Different Sectors.

University System Model (UC)20 Corporate model (Microsoft)21 City Model (City of LA)22 Subnational Model (California)23

2014 Emissions: 1,105,302 mega tons of CO2 emissions (MTCO2e) 2015 Emissions: 1,921,827 MTCO2e 1990 Emissions: 36,200,000 MTCO2e 1990 Emissions:431,000,000 MTCO2e
2013 Emissions (20% below 1990): 29,000,000 MTCO2e 2014 Emissions: 441,500,000 MTCO2e
Achieve institutional carbon neutrality across ten campuses by 2025 for all buildings and university-owned vehicles.
Achieved carbon neutrality for the corporation’s data centers, offices, software development labs, and air travel (2012) and manufacturing centers (2015). Goal now to establish carbon reduction targets in subsidiaries via an internal carbon fee.
2013 Emissions (20% below 1990): 29,000,000 MTCO2e
Establishment of overall GHG reduction goal of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% 2050; specific goals by sector include 50% renewable electricity by 2030
Establishment of overall GHG reduction goal of 45% reduction from 1990 levels by 2025

Setting the bar high: how much change can happen in 10 years?

Setting policy direction is only the beginning. Realizing those ambitious goals takes sustained commitment, accountability, and prioritization of resources. We have learned a lot in the process of attempting to implement sustainability goals over the past decade, and have learned more in just the first three years of implementing the Carbon Neutrality Initiative. The commitment to achieve carbon neutrality is built on a record of achieving aspirational goals that seemed impossible to many at the time that they were adopted. This speaks to the value of organizations setting aspirational goals and challenging all members of their organization to creatively overcome barriers to achieving those goals.

The following figure (Figure 2) offers a few examples of the transformation achieved since the adoption of the University’s sustainability policy in 2004, both in terms of quantitative metrics and in qualitative measures of institutional change.

Figure 2 

Progress on University’s Sustainability Policy. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

Before the policy commitment, the University could boast only two small solar photovoltaic installations, neither of which was funded by the University itself (students funded one and a donor funded the other). The initial policy committed the university to develop 10 megawatts of on-campus renewable energy generation by 2014. At the time, that goal was viewed by many as infeasible for financial and other reasons. Fortunately, the students that proposed the goal succeeded in convincing the University to adopt the goal and, by 2015, the University more than tripled the original goal. The students and their faculty and staff allies correctly predicted that government policies and technological innovation would drive the cost of solar down.

Structure of the Carbon Neutrality Initiative

Most of the University’s progress in moving toward sustainable business operations before 2013 came through bottom-up efforts, in many cases led by students demanding that the University practice what it teaches (and researches). The University’s new president in 2013 sought to scale up past sustainability efforts and accelerate the infrastructural and organizational change required to achieve carbon neutrality by making it a formal initiative of the University. The section below describes the organization of the initiative, which is designed to combine top-down with bottom-up approaches and to connect the operational goal of carbon neutrality with the University’s core mission of teaching, research, and public service.

Universities can contribute to climate solutions by tapping the expertise of their professors, the passion, idealism, and creativity of their students, and the technical know-how of their staff. The Carbon Neutrality Initiative relies heavily on the unique resources across ten campuses, five medical centers, three U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories, and throughout the population of 235,000 students and 180,000 employees. The Initiative provided the motivation to bring together representatives of the most important leadership groups from the multitude of stakeholders within the University. President Napolitano appointed a Global Climate Leadership Council (“the Council”) to advise the University on achieving the carbon neutrality goal by 2025 and to connect that operational goal to the University’s core academic mission24.

The following figure (Figure 3) and accompanying table (Table 3) show the groups that each have a unique role to play in helping the University achieve its potential in achieving its carbon neutrality goal and serving as a living laboratory of climate solutions.

Figure 3 

GCLC Pillars. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

Table 3

GCLC Pillars: Stakeholders, Purpose and Roles.

Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

Stakeholder Group Purpose/Role

Energy Services Implement plan for achieving carbon neutrality by 2025.
Applied Research Provide forums to identify and support applied research underway and currently available technologies that could help to accelerate, attain, and sustain UC’s 2025 carbon-neutral goal.
Climate Action Planning and Employee Engagement Engage the entire campus community in developing, implementing, and reporting progress on campus-level plans for achieving carbon neutrality by 2025.
University Policy Ensure that all aspects of UC Sustainability Policy support the 2025 carbon neutrality goal and assure sustainability leadership across all areas of sustainable practices.
Faculty Engagement and Education Develop broad faculty support and participation in UC’s 2025 carbon neutral goal. Advance UC leadership in climate change and sustainability education.
Student Engagement Develop broad student support for and engagement in the 2025 carbon neutrality goal. Advance UC leadership in climate change and sustainability co-curricular education.
Health Sciences and Services Engage the Medical Centers as full participants in UC’s commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2025.
Financial Resources Form strategies to enable carbon-abatement of UC power at a manageable, predictable cost.
Communications and Political Advocacy Build recognition and support for UC’s state and national leadership status for climate and environmental stewardship
California Environmental Leadership (External Advisors) Identify and advise on how to close gaps between UC’s climate action plans and the expectations of California’s citizens, environmental leaders, and the University’s stakeholders.

Progress to Date

This section highlights shares lessons learned from activities both to connect carbon neutrality to the core mission of the University and to achieve the operational goal itself.

Research, Education, and Engagement

Applied Research

The Applied Research Working Group of the Carbon Neutrality Initiative seeks to integrate and unite the UC system’s carbon neutrality research efforts to maximize both individual campus and system-wide impact. To further the understanding and exploration of campus-based living laboratory demonstrations, the workgroup began its collaborative investigation by inventorying existing University intellectual resources in the form of clean energy research investment activity and living laboratory demonstrations.

Research investment activity

Carbon neutrality-related research25 from all applicable funding sources—federal government, state government, foundations, and private donors—constitutes a relatively small portion (two percent) of the University’s total research funding. Within the total of approximately $429 million in identified carbon neutrality-related research from 2009–2014 (Figure 4), the ratio of basic to applied research is approximately 60:40. While this is indicative of the University’s strengths in basic research,26 the data reflect the University’s complementary attention to applied research.

Figure 4 

UC Research Awards on Climate Solutions by Subject Area and Campus (~$429M for Q3 2009-Q4 2014).27Source: UC Research and Graduate Studies.

Fostering collaboration and coordination among faculty researchers when those faculty compete for limited research funding is a challenge. For example, an analysis of carbon neutrality-related research found that less than 3 percent of the total number of relevant research awards involved principal investigators from more than one UC campus.28 Increased multi-campus research collaboration thus presents an opportunity to further leverage the University’s research contributions to climate solutions given the interdisciplinary, complex nature of the problem and associated solutions.

Through its size and influence, the UC system can highlight the lack of coordination among federal research agencies and how this presents a barrier to performing the type of multidisciplinary research required to develop effective climate solutions.

This report and its fifty contributing authors from multiple campuses and disciplines is an example of the power of such collaboration that the University’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative seeks to unleash. The graph above shows the potential benefits of collaborating across multiple campuses that have different research strengths when each are needed to contribute to climate solutions.

Living laboratory demonstrations

What is a living laboratory? In a living laboratory, research and innovation are integrated into the physical and cultural fabric of the place. Experimentation, co-creation, and evaluation are part of the everyday business of a living laboratory. A living laboratory is an opportunity to try new technologies and strategies, to improve upon them, and to model real-world solutions that can be realistically scaled to the world at large.29,30

For a university system pursuing carbon neutrality, this means that the physical operations of each campus can be a test-bed for clean energy, efficiency, and sustainability technologies. The campus itself is used for student study, research projects, and experiential learning.31 The campus community, including students, staff, faculty and post-doctoral researchers are all engaged in the ongoing experiments. Examples of carbon neutrality test beds are provided from each campus in Table 4.

Table 4

UC Campus Living Laboratory Research Demonstration.

UC Berkeley: Demand-Response Technology Testbed [Energy Efficiency]
  • Housing the headquarters of the Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), Sutardja Dai Hall is outfitted as a demand-response technology testbed.
  • A software suite is available for building occupants to control the temperature in their office. The software then uses feedback to help save energy and money by knowing when, where and what temperatures are preferred.
  • The building’s energy efficiency goal is to develop intelligent control of its electricity load, and reduce peak demand by 30%+.
UC Davis: West Village [Energy Efficiency & Renewable Power]
  • Opened in 2011, West Village is a planned, zero-net energy community adjacent to the Davis campus which explores how zero net energy design works in practice.
  • Housing nearly 2,000 residents, mostly students, and several energy and transportation research centers and the Honda Smart Home, the community hosts 4.1 MW of solar panels and is 82% of its way towards reaching net zero energy.
  • Continual improvements in energy efficiency and education have been undertaken to improve energy improvement.
UC Irvine: Campus Fuel Cell Bus Demonstration [Renewable Power]
  • A hydrogen fuel cell bus was added in 2015 to the UCI Microgrid living laboratory platform through a comprehensive research partnership with public and private entities.
  • Fuel cell electric buses have no tailpipe emission of carbon, better fuel economy than diesel or natural gas buses; and a quiet and “smoother” riding experience, a significantly longer range than battery-only electric buses.
  • Hydrogen can be produced from natural gas, renewable electricity, sewage without dependence on foreign oil.
UCLA: Electric Vehicle Smart Grid [Renewable Power]
  • A smart, grid-friendly, garage-friendly and user-friendly research platform being developed at UCLA that allows plug-in devices to perform remote monitoring and control of EV charging through a smart communications network which collect critical data including energy consumption and upload the data to a centralized database controlled by a database server.
  • A Research Network monitors the charging, schedules optimized charging sequences, and executes the schedule via the control network, incorporating market and demand considerations.
UC Merced: UC Solar Initiative [Renewable Power]
  • UC Solar is a systemwide initative with participants from 9 campuses, and headquartered at UCM. ~54 technologies from these 9 campuses are currently available for licensing.
  • UCM Campus installed a 1-megawatt solar array in fall 2009 and UC Solar-affiliated campus researchers are utilizing non-imaging optics to design thermal and photovoltaic solar concentrators.
  • In partnership with a Merced Youth Center, UC Solar is bringing science education to youth and the local community.
UC Riverside: Sustainable Integrated Grid Initiative [Renewable Power & Transportation]
  • The Sustainable Integrated Grid Initiative (SIGI) couples solar energy generation, storage, smart grid protocols, and electric transportation.
  • Industry, government and university partners are collaborating to integrate key project components using the UCR campus as a living laboratory.
  • Photovoltaic panels (4Mwh), battery storage (2Mwh), and 27 electric vehicle charging stations are featured throughout the City.
  • This initiative was developed specifically to research and implement systems that demonstrate the successful integration of intermittent renewable energy, energy storage, and all types of electric and hybrid electric vehicles.
UC San Diego: Campus Microgrid [Renewable Power & Storage]
  • Considered one of the world’s most advanced, UCSD’s generates approximately 92 percent of the electricity used on campus annually. Power generation is produced from several key sources: solar, a fuel cell and a cogeneration plant and integrated with energy storage and the sophisticated software that controls it all.
  • The system is also extremely cost-effective, saving the university $8 million a year in power costs.
UC Santa Barbara: Solid State Lighting [Energy Efficiency]
  • UCSB has served as a living laboratory for energy efficiency, serving as early pilot demonstrations for new LED products and the cumulative development of over 100+ patents.
  • New semi-conductor based technologies for energy efficient lighting and displays, power electronics, and solar energy conversion are being developed.
  • Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center Co-Director Shuji Nakamura was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014 “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.”
UC Santa Cruz: Solar Greenhouses [Renewable Power]
  • The application of transparent solar panels to greenhouses came about through UCSC research on luminescent solar concentrators, which use a fluorescent dye to absorb light and make solar panels significantly more efficient.
  • A greenhouse of solar panel windows been built at the UCSC Arboretum, involving many fewer solar panels, thus avoiding use of rare earth metals and threatening of plant habitats.
  • Future plans will deploy the technology in native desert habitats to test their impact on biodiversity and ecosystem processes.

We inevitably learn from our surroundings, and after spending four years living and working on a carbon-neutral, zero-waste campus, the University’s graduates will hopefully experience a productive cognitive dissonance when they move on to other cities and companies that don’t yet demonstrate sustainability best practices. Those graduates will hopefully feel empowered to demand the changes that they know are possible because they saw those climate solutions in action during their time at the University. Some of the graduates will have undoubtedly been involved in research projects that used the physical campus as a laboratory for learning within their coursework. In addition, an increasing number of graduate students are conducting research in sustainable practices with the completion of theses at the master’s level, dissertations at the doctoral level, and publications to (1) inform the global population of engineers, scientists, policy makers and citizens as well as (2) prepare for entry into the work force.

The University’s inventory of campus living laboratory demonstration projects includes multiple solar photovoltaic arrays on every campus, an experimental anaerobic digester that is using food waste to produce bio-methane; a large fuel cell that generates 2.8 megawatts of electricity from a municipal wastewater treatment facility; a hydrogen station to fuel the next-generation of fuel cell electric automobiles and buses; and smart lighting and smart building systems that dramatically reduce energy consumption. Selected University research-focused living laboratory demonstrations are spotlighted from each of the nine general campuses as follows:

Tapping into the core mission: accessing the University’s research expertise

Any organization should draw from its mission to determine how it can contribute to climate change solutions. As a research university, UC’s Carbon Neutrality Applied Research Working Group convened research experts from each UC campus and UC-affiliated national energy laboratory to prioritize the most important areas of research questions surrounding UC’s carbon neutrality goal. The working group established the following three objectives:

  • Map pathways for deploying University research to achieve the university’s carbon neutrality goals and inform the parallel efforts by California, the nation and the world;
  • Provide advice and guidance on the development of a set of “research grand challenges” to stimulate activity in critical areas;
  • Leverage the University investment in carbon neutrality collaborations to take advantage of and promote specific state, federal, industry and philanthropic opportunities.

and four key areas for research grand challenges:

  1. Accelerated research in biomethane as an alternative to natural gas, and electrification of heating and cooling systems via advanced heat pumps;
  2. Renewable power and systems integration research related to campus-level smart microgrids, particularly the development of on-site storage technologies;
  3. Deep energy efficiency, such as advanced lighting systems and smart buildings management;
  4. Policy and economics case studies related to State and Federal regulatory issues that pose impediments to carbon neutrality, such as the limitations on direct access to wholesale electricity markets; as well as research into behavioral dimensions of climate mitigation and adaptation.
  5. A number of carbon neutrality climate mitigation research collaborations and focused research workshops have resulted from the efforts of the working group, including (1) the convening of a larger group of UC research experts at the fall 2015 Carbon Neutrality Research Summit to collaborate on the identified research grand challenges (this “Bending the Curve” report32 is a product of that Summit); (2) a pair of research projects on renewable alternatives to natural gas funded by a private foundation;33 (3) a battery research workshop featuring UC researchers and industry representatives, as well as (4) a water-energy nexus workshop bringing together UC researchers with representatives of water and energy utilities, co-sponsored by the US Department of Energy34.

Faculty Engagement and Education

“It is critical that we translate science into action…. The complexity and sheer magnitude of climate change can leave people feeling helpless, and scientists are not immune to this…. It derives in large part from focusing on the severity of environmental problems without offering viable and actionable solutions. I hope to change that trend in my teaching and outreach activities by providing a modicum of hope and a roadmap for critically exploring and changing behavior. I hope to motivate others to explore ways in which they can contribute to climate change mitigation.”35

  —– Whendee Silver, Professor of Environmental Science and Faculty Climate Action Champion, UC Berkeley.

In addition to research, the other part of the University’s core mission is teaching. Educating its 235,000 students represents another unique opportunity for the University to contribute to climate solutions. The professors that educate those students are also a core internal constituency that must be engaged for an ambitious Carbon Neutrality Initiative to succeed.

To that end, the CNI’s Faculty Engagement and Education Working Group seeks to develop broad faculty support and participation in UC’s 2025 carbon neutrality goal and to advance UC leadership in climate change and sustainability education. The group adopted the following goals in order to fulfill that purpose:

  • By summer 2017, a broad base of UC faculty members are engaged in and advocates for UC’s 2025 carbon neutrality goal.
  • By 2020, sustainability and climate neutrality are part of the curricular and/or other educational experience of all UC students.

The carbon neutrality goal necessitates deep and lasting, fundamental changes in the behavior, culture, and systems of our university. For these transformations to take hold in a way that will get us to carbon neutrality within ten years, broad faculty support and participation are necessary to fuel campus administrative commitment over time. Likewise, action-oriented education of all UC students on the goal in the context of their lives and studies is equally vital to enabling the behavioral and social change we seek.

The CNI provides seed funding for projects that scale up best practices in climate and sustainability education, including a “Faculty Climate Action Champion” program based on UC Santa Barbara’s best practice and a series of climate change and sustainability curriculum skill-sharing workshops and networking events based on a best practice from UCLA.

Designating Faculty Climate Action Champions

Each campus selected one professor for the Faculty Climate Action Champion (“Champion”) award based on their proposal to work with students on projects aimed at building community engagement and awareness.36 The inaugural group of champions included physicists, engineers, biologists, atmospheric scientists and others who have exhibited outstanding teaching, research and public service related to climate change. All of the champions were devoted to working towards solutions to climate change, but they approached the issue from diverse angles.

The Champion recognition came with a monetary award of $25,000 that the Champion used for a project during the academic year. The program was designed to inspire other faculty members to get involved in the Carbon Neutrality Initiative through engaged research and education.

Integrating Sustainability across the Curriculum

“If we can mobilize our students to start working toward solutions, they can be a source of innovative ideas for how to meet those goals.”37

  —– Sue Carter, Professor of Physics and Faculty Climate Champion, UC Santa Cruz.

In the absence of mandatory curriculum—and such mandates are politically very challenging to achieve, for good reason—how can a university effectively assure that all of its students graduate with some basic level of climate change and sustainability literacy? Learning from the approach piloted at Emory University and Northern Arizona University,38 and disseminated through trainings offered by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education,39 the Carbon Neutrality Initiative funded a program to support integration of sustainability and carbon neutrality concepts across the curriculum.

Postulating that UC campuses already provide a robust education for students who choose to focus on climate change and sustainability through majors and minors in those topics, this new program aimed to reach beyond the students for whom sustainability is already a focus and a passion. Best practices from campuses, such as UCLA’s implementation of sustainability curriculum integration workshops have shown that, while faculty are interested in infusing disciplinary courses with relevant sustainability and climate change content, the most successful way to transform that interest into action is through offering a workshop organized by peer facilitators. The workshops are coupled with small monetary incentives to attend the workshop and also at the end of the process to incentivize faculty to complete the development of the new teaching materials. UCLA’s best practice also found it valuable for faculty to briefly present their revised course concepts at a faculty networking event that was open to all other interested faculty, in order to leverage inspiration and interest in the endeavor. At UCLA, the Academic Senate (the faculty governing body) jointly sponsored the faculty networking event where faculty presented how they had incorporated sustainability into their courses.40

The new systemwide program funds these workshops and events on each UC campus in order to engage, inspire and support faculty members across disciplines who are interested in voluntarily infusing relevant climate change and/or sustainability concepts into their courses. Faculty from disciplines as varied as gender studies, microbiology, Japanese history, and Swahili attended the workshops and developed inspiring pedagogical ideas for using sustainability concepts to enhance the curriculum in their courses. Faculty in charge of developing the core curriculum for students at UC San Francisco’s four professional schools used the workshop to discuss the best ways of assuring that all medical, nursing, dentistry, and pharmacy students understand that climate change is a public health issue.

To facilitate and accelerate the adoption of curricular innovations in teaching about climate change and sustainability, and to capture the results of the more than 220 courses that newly incorporated those subjects during the 2016–2017 academic year, the Carbon Neutrality Initiative funded the design and implementation of an online climate and sustainability education media library by and for UC faculty members to share academic and teaching resources. The new materials coming out of the curriculum workshops will be part of the media library, where they will ideally join other syllabi, slide decks, and teaching modules that other UC faculty share. Any UC faculty member will be able to use the media library as a resource as they endeavor to accelerate the incorporation of climate and sustainability into a wider range of courses across disciplines.

Student Engagement

Students have often acted as society’s conscience on social issues, and climate change and sustainability is no exception. The University’s entire sustainability policy and program resulted from organized student advocacy, and the same is true for many other universities around the country. The University’s students currently demonstrate their commitment to climate and sustainability solutions through involvement in more than 200 student sustainability groups across the ten campuses and by voting to tax themselves to create green funds at eight of the nine undergraduate campuses. Generated from student fees that students voted for, those funds have enabled several millions of dollars’ worth of sustainability project implementation since the first funds were adopted at the Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz campuses more than a decade ago.

As a way of empowering and elevating student activity, the University provides funding for CNI Student Fellows at each campus. The program is open to both undergraduate and graduate students, and administered at each location to ensure that student efforts align with local needs.

The student fellowship program provides a connection with the University’s other sustainability-related Presidential initiative, the Global Food Initiative. Both initiatives fund student fellowships and the fellows participate in a joint orientation, combined leadership training retreats, and a joint symposium at the end of their fellowship where they present the results of their projects and provide student insights for the ongoing work of each initiative. In the fellowship program’s first two years, student projects addressed topics as varied as climate action plans, carbon offset studies, building efficiency data systems, community gardens, food pantries, urban agriculture and food waste.

Campus-Wide Engagement

Can a top-down approach support a bottom-up movement?

In a large, decentralized organization with over 235,000 students and 180,000 employees, this is no simple feat, especially when those students, by definition and by design, graduate and new students arrive every year.

The University’s climate action planning and staff engagement working group has turned to a tool developed by a research team in the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the UC Berkeley campus. That team had created an online carbon reduction pledge platform for cities, basing it on the RAEL’s personal carbon footprint calculator. The University decided to adapt the Cool California Challenge city-based campaign41 to create a competition between its ten campuses in the fall of 2015.

The Cool Campus Challenge (“Challenge”) has provided an online learning experience and competition between the University’s campuses running for ten weeks. The competition was designed to motivate and reward staff, faculty and students who pledged to take steps to reduce their carbon footprints and help the UC system reach Carbon Neutrality by 2025.42 Participants built online profiles, invited friends, and formed teams within campuses. The Challenge drew on behavior change research and used the principals of community-based social marketing. Participants received more points if they posted a photo and/or written comment on how they took the carbon-reducing action.

Competition and community-based social marketing worked wonders: the four-person organizing team and their relatively small budget managed to recruit more than 19,000 students, staff and faculty to participate in the Challenge. Together, those participants pledged to take steps that will save over 20 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually, equivalent to each taking nearly 2,000 cars off the road for a year.

However, while the Challenge managed to scale up awareness and involvement in the Carbon Neutrality Initiative from a few dozen core staff, students, and faculty to 19,000 people, that still only represents about four percent of the University’s total population of 415,000 people. One could argue that the Challenge only succeeded in reaching the choir of UC employees and students who are most passionate about climate action. The next challenge is to scale up this engagement campaign to reach the other 96 percent of the University’s population.

Carbon Footprint from Investments

Every individual and every organization can make unique contributions to solving the climate crisis. For UC, its size and scale means that it can set a positive example with its investment decisions for the $91 billion investment pool it manages.43 The University’s climate leadership thus extends beyond business practices, research, and education, to also include its “environmental, social and governance” investment framework.44

In 2015, the second full year of the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, the University made a series of commitments to investing sustainably, including a pledge to profitably invest at least $1 billion over the next five years in solutions to climate change.45 UC also became the first university in the world to sign the Montreal Carbon Pledge, committing to measure and disclose the carbon footprint of its investment portfolio on an annual basis.46 Additionally, UC became a signatory of the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment, an international network of investors with some $45 trillion in assets under management.47

The University subsequently divested from its direct holdings in coal mining and oil sand companies. It did so not as a moral action but on the basis of the same financial and risk analysis applied to all investments in its portfolio. While the University has not adopted a formal divestment policy, officials said that environmental concerns were a factor in the decision.48

Just as students were drivers of the University’s sustainability policy commitments, students also brought attention and focus to the University’s potential leadership role and responsibilities regarding sustainable investment issues.49

Progress toward Carbon Neutral Operations

The section above described some of the strategies the University employs to make itself a living laboratory for climate solutions as part of its core mission of research and education. The University’s physical campuses also serve as living laboratories for climate solutions. The goal of the Carbon Neutrality Initiative is to offer real-world proof that greenhouse gas emissions can be eliminated on the urgent timescale that scientists at UC and elsewhere have called for. The University has already taken several major steps towards achieving carbon neutrality, but it also has a long way to go still. The following section provides examples of some strategies that have worked in the particular context of UC, while also highlighting the challenges that still need to be overcome.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is always the first step to deep de-carbonization in any organization because it saves money and has less environmental impact than even renewable electricity. As such, energy efficiency has always been the core of the University’s climate action efforts. In order to scale up the energy efficiency activity that individual campuses had been pursuing to the best of their ability for years, UC formed a partnership in 2004 with the California State University System and its 23 campuses, along with the four large investor-owned utility companies in California. The partnership allows all UC and CSU campuses to use the same process to access incentive payments to bring down the cost of energy efficiency investments.

To remove another significant barrier to scaling up energy efficiency investments, UC began offering internal financing in 2009 so that capital-poor campuses were no longer scrambling to find internal funding sources for energy efficiency investments. The campuses pledge to use the savings generated by the energy efficiency projects to repay the financing. Since the program’s launch in 2004, UC has implemented over 1,000 projects and even after paying debt service on the financing, the University had saved approximately $166 million by the end of 2015 (Figure 6). The University’s annual utility costs are approximately $28 million per year lower because of these energy efficiency investments.

Figure 5 

Carbon Neutrality and Global Food Student Fellows gather to share project results at the end of the 2014–2015 academic year. Source: UCOP Energy & Sustainability.

Figure 6 

Scaling Up Energy Efficiency. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

The University has also pioneered “Deep Energy Efficiency” measures to dramatically reduce the existing and projected load demands of each campus, reduce proportionally the daily emission of carbon, and assure transparency to the customer (the students, faculty, and staff) the provision of reliable energy resources to meet the research, education, and public service obligations of the institution. An example for one campus is shown in Figure 7 where the annual campus energy demand has been reduced by over 50% from the projected demand under normal business practice.

Figure 7 

Deep Energy Efficiency Gains. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

Renewable Electricity

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the University more than tripled its original goal for installing at least 10 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy on its campuses. By the end of 2015, the University’s campuses had installed a total of 36 MW of on-campus renewable generation and had an additional 28 MW worth of projects in development (Figure 8).

Figure 8 

Scaling Up On-Campus Renewable Energy. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

Green Building

As the University continues to grow, achieving carbon neutrality will require any and all new or retrofitted building space to meet the highest levels of energy efficiency possible. The University’s track record for delivering green buildings is strong, indicated by the growth in cumulative LEED certifications for the entire university system (Figure 9), a combination of new construction projects, renovation projects, faculty housing, and building operations and maintenance projects.

Figure 9 

Scaling Up LEED Green Building Certifications. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

By the end of 2015, the University had earned 225 LEED certifications for its buildings, equaling over 18 million square feet of building area, more than any other university in the United States. While LEED certification assures a minimum level of energy efficient design, the University’s policy has always also required that new buildings go beyond that minimum and exceed California’s stringent energy efficient building code by at least 20 percent.


Natural Gas

For the University of California, carbon neutrality is essentially a natural gas problem. Deep energy efficiency is complex and requires a lot of up front capital, but there are practical solutions to those challenges. Installing solar photovoltaics on campuses and procuring renewable energy from the electricity grid takes effort and can in some cases add cost, but those challenges are manageable as well. The biggest challenge, which has no easy solutions for UC, is how to deal with the two-thirds of its carbon footprint that comes from consuming natural gas to produce electricity, heating and cooling for its campuses and hospitals (Figure 10). That proportion is going to approach 100 percent as the University completes its efforts to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources within the next few years. Once electricity is solved, that just leaves natural gas.

Figure 10 

UC GHG Emissions by Source. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

There is currently no affordable, carbon-neutral fuel that can take the place of natural gas. Five of the University’s 10 campuses and one of its five medical centers operate large combined heat and power (CHP) plants, which use natural gas to produce electricity and efficiently, use the excess heat to supply campus heating and cooling.

For the past five years, the University has been pursuing bio-methane from landfills, sewage treatment plants, or food processing and agricultural operations as a carbon neutral alternative to natural gas. However, there is not sufficient bio-methane supply for that to be a global, national or even state solution to substitute for all natural gas consumption. Even if the bio-methane supply was at the appropriate scale, which it may be in certain regions for certain applications, the cost is unaffordably high compared to the current low price of natural gas. The University is procuring some bio-methane where it can negotiate agreements that make it close to being economical, but at this point it is expected that bio-methane will only be part of the solution to the natural gas question for the UC.

The other two strategies for dealing with the natural gas problem are: (1) to employ fuel switching to use electricity instead of natural gas; or, (2) to buy carbon offsets to offset all remaining natural gas consumption. In the long-run, studies by faculty at UC and other universities all assume that electrification is necessary to achieve carbon neutrality or even deep de-carbonization. Offsets are also a controversial strategy, with some research suggesting that offsets often do not result in real, additional emissions reductions.50

As a result, the University faces a major challenge to identify and implement viable, cost-effective short-term and long-term solutions to the natural gas problem. To that end, the University recently secured a donation from a private foundation to fund two working groups of experts from throughout the University’s campuses and national energy labs to examine this problem and proposed solutions.51 While buying offsets is controversial, it is clear that some level of offset purchases will be necessary while engaging in the longer-term transition from natural gas toward carbon neutral electricity. The University has thus initiated a process to develop criteria that assure any offset purchases are consistent with the University’s values and provide a credible climate mitigation strategy.

Regulatory Barriers to Renewable Electricity

Decarbonizing electricity consumption is relatively much easier than decarbonizing natural gas consumption, but there are still challenges. The biggest challenge is that the University has regulatory authority to directly procure only one-thirds of its electricity (Figure 11). For the one-third of its electricity demand that can be purchased directly on the market, the University has registered as an official electricity service provider. For the one-third of its need, the University can thus directly procure 100 percent renewable electricity and use the University’s scale to drive down the cost of decarbonizing the electricity portion of its carbon footprint. The University used this internal capacity to sign an agreement for the largest solar purchase by any university in the United States. By early 2017, two solar farms will be producing 80 MW of electricity exclusively for UC campuses.

Figure 11 

Sources of UC Electricity. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

In order to decarbonize the other two-thirds of its electricity consumption, the University is considering efforts to change the regulations that currently prohibit it from procuring electricity for the rest of its campuses. However, these actions may not prove necessary if UC can work out other direct or indirect means to properly account for the development of additional off-campus renewable energy supplies. For example, UC might be able to work directly with the serving utilities to have them procure more renewable energy and report low-carbon power supplies for the UC campuses. All of these solutions may ultimately be needed to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from UC’s electricity use.

Financing and Staffing Deep Energy Efficiency

To put the $28 million in annual energy efficiency savings figure previously cited into context, the University spends approximately $300 million annually on energy. Based on best practices at campuses like UC Irvine who have demonstrated that “deep energy efficiency” strategies can reduce building energy consumption by 50 percent or more (Figure 5), the University estimates that it should invest $1 billion in energy efficiency projects by 2025. That level of investment in cost effective energy efficiency projects would lead to the lowest cost path to achieving the 2025 carbon neutrality goal. By contrast, the University invested approximately $300 million in energy efficiency projects from 2004–2015.

The challenge lies in securing capital funding at that scale, especially when some of the University’s campuses have encountered debt capacity ceilings and are limited in how much more money they can borrow. Even if the financial barriers can be overcome, campus administrators at some campuses have articulated that limited staffing and other priorities make it difficult to implement energy efficiency projects even at the current scale, let alone scaling up to meet the deep energy efficiency potential.

Energy efficiency investments must be placed into the context that they may be time consuming, displace other priorities even if they ultimately save money, and do not necessarily translate into cash for the campus. Current budgetary structures can obscure any savings that might result from using less energy. In particular, campus units are rarely charged directly for their energy use and do not control the building systems that use the energy. As a result, employees and students have little economic incentive to reduce energy use or costs.

Medical Centers (Hospitals)

The University’s five medical centers emit approximately 20 percent of its total carbon footprint, but they have taken relatively few actions to date to reduce those emissions. Their scale and complexity are daunting. Together, the medical centers comprise the nation’s largest health sciences instructional program with more than 14,000 students52, while forming a $9.7 billion enterprise53 providing broad access to world-class, specialized care.54

There are three main reasons why it is particularly challenging for hospitals and other healthcare facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. First, those facilities are heavily regulated because of the life-safety nature of their work. Also because of the nature of that work, healthcare facilities are extremely energy intensive. Adequate ventilation and powering equipment like MRI machines consumes considerable amounts of energy. Patient safety and concerns like infection control are paramount in a patient care environment. That regulatory oversight and related patient safety concerns make energy efficiency improvement significantly more expensive to implement in healthcare facilities.

Second, unlike the University’s main campuses where students have driven the prioritization of climate action and other sustainable business practices, hospital patients generally do not organize protests demanding that the hospital install solar panels. The lack of pressure from internal stakeholders helps to explain the lower priority assigned to investments in climate action.

Finally, even when there is a constituency to implement energy efficiency or renewable energy projects and the regulatory barriers are successfully navigated, the University’s medical centers currently have to use all available debt capacity and other capital funding sources to seismically retrofit existing hospitals and to build planned new hospitals. There is little to no financing left for lower priority investments like energy efficiency and renewable energy.

All that said, some of the University’s medical centers are finding ways to implement energy efficiency and renewable energy projects and there are thus best practices that the Carbon Neutrality Initiative can provide support to scale up. Through an offer of matching funding, the Initiative succeeded in encouraging each medical center to hire a dedicated energy manager for the first time in 2016.


Thriving enterprises change and often grow over time, and that’s certainly been true for UC over its nearly 150 year history. To continue to support UC’s mission, nearly all of its campuses will grow significantly over the next decade. Without careful planning, the increased emissions associated with campus growth might surpass the reductions achieved by making existing buildings more efficient.

Building UC’s low-carbon future requires changes in the way new facilities are designed and constructed. What’s the sweet spot for investments in energy efficiency in new buildings? Should new facilities be all electric since it is easier to supply carbon-free electricity than to supply carbon-neutral natural gas? When is on-site generation of renewable energy preferable over larger-scale off-site renewable energy? UC is currently evaluating all of these questions to establish our optimal growth strategies.

All of these issues come into play when considering “zero net” design standards. For example, it might be possible to have new facilities be entirely zero net energy, meaning they would generate as much energy as they use each year. Such designs could be cost effective over the long run, but this approach typically requires more up-front capital to offset the future operational expenses. In practice, today’s constraints on capital costs tend to trump tomorrows’ operational savings. The playing field for these decisions is not even because construction costs are easily computed while future energy and carbon costs are uncertain.

Comprehensive life-cycle planning for new construction, considering a range of future energy and carbon costs, will drive these decisions for UC in the future. A consistent approach with a focus on the future will help shape UC’s growth plans.

Future plans: How to get there from here

Prioritizing Solutions

Enough organizations have developed climate action plans that there is some consensus around the potential solution set for achieving carbon neutrality, and even for a hierarchy of solutions. The University uses the graphic below that is featured in many other climate action plans (Figure 12). It suggests a hierarchy where the most transformative and lasting emissions reductions come from avoiding emissions in the first place through growth management strategies, and energy efficiency requirements for new buildings which the University has long had in place but will explore making even more stringent. After assuring that new buildings contribute as little as possible to GHG emissions, the inverted pyramid suggests that the next step should be to reduce emissions from existing buildings through the energy efficiency investments discussed previously in this chapter. After reducing energy use as much as possible, the remaining energy needs should be supplied by carbon-free sources like solar power or bio-methane. Finally, to the extent that there are financial or other limits to decarbonizing the energy supply, the remaining emissions can be offset by purchasing credible carbon offsets.

Figure 12 

Solutions Hierarchy. Source: UCOP Energy and Sustainability.

More than one path to the goal

The University is currently modeling and analyzing various scenarios for achieving carbon neutrality by 2025 that employ different mixes of the basic strategies outlined above. At one extreme, the University could minimize the cost of achieving carbon neutrality by purchasing the cheapest carbon offsets in an amount that would offset its entire current emissions, plus any emissions growth anticipated by 2025. At the other extreme, a total electrification scenario would phase out all natural gas consumption by 2025 through fuel switching to electricity. The cost of shutting down CHP plants that have mortgages which campuses must pay off, combined with the cost of replacing the entire campus natural gas energy infrastructure, make this scenario cost prohibitive in the near term.

The most likely scenario for achieving carbon neutrality will employ a combination of zero-carbon new buildings, deep energy efficiency, 100 percent intermittent and firm renewable electricity supply, some bio-methane, thermal and electric storage, electrification of campuses that do not have CHP plants, and a portfolio of offset purchases for the remaining emissions. The relative combination of those different strategies will vary by campus based on their local constraints and opportunities.


On a fall morning in 2025, a steady flow of bicyclists navigate a familiar bend in a designated lane towards their daily commute destination. In the next lane, battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric-buses pass by, comprising a fleet which is entirely charged by solar panels which cover the few remaining parking structures. The journey of the bicyclists, buses and pedestrians takes them through several commercial blocks with establishments serving a tempting smorgasbord of food offerings, many sourced from nearby farms.

Streaming into their final destination, the commuters descend upon a collection of buildings and grounds in which solar panels and energy storage are seamlessly part of the landscape. The buildings themselves are all-electric and models of energy efficiency, using lighting, heating and cooling systems controlled by advanced sensors.

This is a university campus, much like a small-to mid-sized city unto itself, with its own transportation system, a hospital, multiple restaurants and cafes, and a combination of commercial, industrial and residential building types. The university joined forces with sister campuses to develop a large, shared “solar farm,” which powers even the most energy intensive buildings – the hospitals and the laboratories – which use more electricity than can be produced on campus. Food waste is used as fuel, and converted into electricity that helps to power the campus. The campus recently completed its transition to being fossil free, conquering the final frontier by replacing natural gas with carbon-free renewable electricity.

Online dashboards, visible at strategic campus locations, display the real-time monitoring of campus energy use and emissions. Transforming the campus’ energy systems to be carbon neutral was no small feat. It required both top-down leadership and a bottom-up groundswell of collective action from faculty, students, and staff over the course of more than a decade. Now, faculty and staff are drawn to the university because of its status as a recognized living laboratory for carbon neutrality and sustainability solutions. And importantly, the University’s students—the next generation of leaders, problem-solvers, and engaged citizens—want to make their mark on society’s greatest challenges. They each see this university as one of the best places in the world in which to do so.

This is our vision for the University of California campus of the future—a model of carbon neutral living and learning for the twenty-first century. The University committed to the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025 despite a financial climate in which state funding has drastically declined, although the cuts for UC have eased slightly in the three years since the University’s President announced the Carbon Neutrality Initiative. Fiscal realities contribute to the understandable tendency to emphasize the short-term financial situation, rather than to prioritize the longer-term thinking and investments that are necessary to achieve the 2025 carbon neutrality goal.

But public universities are not-for-profit entities and as such, they can make decisions and set priorities on the basis of supporting their core mission and not merely on cost considerations.55 For example, financial aid is a net cost for the University, but the University offers student aid to support educational opportunities for students from lower income families. By taking a visionary and proactive role in adopting an aggressive carbon neutrality goal, the University hopes to position itself to benefit in several ways. The University will reduce financial risk by controlling its future energy costs. It will enhance its reputation as a leader by serving the public interest through contributing new knowledge and solutions to society’s most intractable problems.

By staking out such a leadership position, the University will hopefully attract more funding and continue to recruit the best and the brightest faculty, students, and staff to join its ranks.

As stated at the outset of this chapter, we hope that our challenges and successes can inform and inspire other organizations to make their own unique contributions to combatting climate disruption. The complexity and global nature of this multidimensional problem means that any organization or government entity at any scale cannot solve this problem alone. But that also means that we can only solve it by all contributing in every way that we can.

The University of California has marshalled all available resources to contribute to climate solutions. We hope to continue to find inspiration from other universities, cities, companies, and governments that are doing likewise.


1 Special Note: All data and other information on UC’s carbon neutrality and sustainability programs, where references are not otherwise cited, are based on firsthand knowledge of the authors. 

1American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment: 

2Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance: 

6Gross domestic product by state (2015), US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis 

14 Disclosure: one of the authors of this chapter was one of the founders of the California Student Sustainability Coalition and one of the leaders of the UC Go Solar! Campaign. 


22Sustainable City pLAn 

23Governor Brown Establishes Most Ambitious Greenhouse Gas Reduction Target in North America. 

25Data from UC Office of the President’s contracts and grants database, utilizing keyword terminologies associated with four key energy sectors: a) alternative energy production; b) energy storage; c) energy management (smart grid); d) pollution management. Methodology adapted from US National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 Arlington, VA (NSB 14-01) | February 2014, 

26Auston, D. and S. Brown (December 2015): Final Report of the UC Carbon Neutrality Research Workshop, Submitted to University of California Office of the President (unpublished), pages 3–4. 

27Data analysis from Appendix A, page 15,in Auston and Brown (Dec. 2015) in Appendix A, by UCOP Research Portfolio/Strategy Manager Emily Rader, from University of California Contracts and Grants database. 

28Graphic courtesy of Emily Rader, UCOP. 

31See the Living Laboratory section on page 13 of the 2015 UC Annual Report on Sustainable Practices ( and corresponding sections of previous annual UC sustainability reports for additional examples of these types of living laboratory projects. 

36The selected Champions and their projects are profiled at 

38Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change (2004). Peggy Barlett and Geoff Chase, editors. MIT Press. 

43 The Office of the Chief Investment Officer of the Regents currently manages $91 billion, which includes retirement, endowment, and cash assets. 

55Email correspondence with UC Global Climate Leadership Council appointed member Dr. David Auston, March 2016. 

Additional Files

The additional files for this article can be found as follows:


The authors are indebted to V. Ram Ramanathan and Scott Samuelsen for guidance and helpful comments on an earlier version of this chapter. Additionally, we gratefully acknowledge the review comments provided by Andy Murdock, Aurora Winslade, David Phillips, Emily Rader, Janika McFeely, Nurit Katz and Sara McKinstry.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

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