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Sustainability Community at UCI Questions Impact of Cool Campus Challenge Victory

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UC Irvine won the first Cool Campus Challenge (CCC) late last month, concluding the UC-wide ten-week online competition designed to promote sustainability practices throughout University of California campuses. However, despite the challenge’s success in raising environmental awareness, it remains unclear whether it had any lasting impact in regards to campus sustainability, according to members of the sustainability community at UC Irvine.

The CCC was the result of a partnership between the University of California and the UC Berkeley Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL). The competition was created in accordance with the Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI), a plan by UC President Janet Napolitano that commits the UC to emitting net zero greenhouse gases from its buildings and vehicles by 2025. If achieved, the UC will be the first major university system to have ever achieved net zero emissions.

The CCC, an online competition, began on Oct. 6 of last year, and ran through Dec. 10. Students and faculty members from each UC campus could create online profiles and win points for their campus teams by pledging to undertake different sustainable practices.

The system, for instance, assigned users points based upon real-life actions such as “closing doors and windows” and “taking public transportation,” but also for actions like creating a profile and uploading a profile picture to the site. The CCC operated on an honor system wherein participants self-reported the actions they took toward sustainability and won points for their campus.

UC Irvine incentivized participation through sponsored drawings for items such as a free bike and solar powered phone charger, and even drawings for cash prizes once users passed a point threshold.

On Dec. 10, UCI won the competition with both the highest participation numbers, at 3,969 individuals, and the most total points, at 8.58 million.

Abigail Reyes, Director of the UC Irvine Sustainability Initiative,  expressed her optimism towards the challenge and its effects on environmental awareness.

“From my vantage, it seems like people on our campus interact with the Cool Campus Challenge in lots of different ways—for some it is motivating, for some it just barely scratches the surface of how they would like to be engaged—or to see others engaged,” said Reyes. “For some it is building community in unexpected ways, opening up conversations about UC’s 2025 Carbon Neutrality goal that wouldn’t otherwise be happening.”

However, Kimberly Duong, a Climate Fellow for the Carbon Neutrality Initiative at UCI, argued that UCI’s win of the Cool Campus Challenge was hollow, and that the campus could make more substantial progress towards its environmental goals.

“Honestly, I don’t think the CCC had any lasting impact,” said Duong. “The campaign was effective in exposing UC campuses to the daily technological and behavioral choices that make up their carbon footprint. However, there is no guarantee that students and staff will modify their lifestyle permanently after participating in the CCC.”

UCI has remained at the forefront of sustainability among University of California campuses; over the past decade, UCI has been twice ranked number one on Sierra Magazine’s annual “Coolest Schools” list, for advances in environmental research and sustainable infrastructure.

In Nov. 2014, UCI began installation of solar photovoltaic canopies on parking structures.  The solar panels “quadrupled the amount of green power [UC Irvine] generates on-site,” according to UCI’s sustainability program.

UCI Transportation debuted hydrogen fuel cell Anteater Express buses in 2015 as part of the Park West route. The buses are zero-emission; as part of the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative, all UCI Transportation vehicles would be similarly zero-emission by 2025.

Despite UC Irvine administration’s push to make infrastructure more sustainable, Duong argues that the campus must find new ways to motivate members of the UCI community to integrate actual sustainable practices into their daily lives.

“We need to continually emphasize that sustainability is an important value at UC Irvine, not only because we experience a high turnover rate in the student population, but also because it’s our moral responsibility,” Duong says.