Politics & society, Research, Science & environment

Davis takes 'CoolCalifornia' prize as cities rally to cut carbon emissions

By Robert Sanders


The City of Davis today (Thursday, June 27) was officially named the “Coolest California City,” outscoring seven other cities who lowered their greenhouse gas emissions in a statewide competition run by the University of California, Berkeley, for the California Air Resources Board.

boy with reusable shopping bag

Cities competing in the CoolCalifornia Challenge spread the word at community meetings and fairs, such as this one in Sacramento, where this young energy-saver picked up a reusable shopping bag with the competition’s logo.

But UC Berkeley researchers say there were no losers in the first CoolCalifornia Challenge. Davis earned the most points in the decathlon-type competition, but all eight finalist cities energized their residents to save energy, helped the state achieve its carbon reduction goals and created more sustainable and vibrant communities. Two runners up, Chula Vista and Tracy, were also named “Cool California Cities.”

“Californians are again ready to create a new set of tools and a spirit of change — one that is needed for the challenges ahead with rising greenhouse gases and climate change,” said project principal investigator and UC Berkeley Distinguished Professor of Energy Dan Kammen. Kammen is the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) and a professor in the Energy and Resources Group, the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Department of Nuclear Engineering.

The winner and two runners up were honored today for their innovations and carbon-cutting measures at the monthly meeting of the Air Resources Board in Sacramento.

“UC Berkeley research shows that California will not meet its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions without significant behavior change,” said Chris Jones, a doctoral student with the RAEL lab’s CoolClimate Network. “The project serves as a living laboratory to help researchers and practitioners learn how to encourage sustainable behavior.”

The year-long competition was launched in April 2012 by the Air Resources Board, which contracted with RAEL to design and run the program to encourage cities to work with residents to reduce their household energy use and cut back on driving. Eight cities stepped up to the challenge and were given funds to use as incentives for residents to change their energy consumption. The seed money came from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Carbon calculator

To assist the residents, UC Berkeley researchers built sophisticated online calculators on the coolcalifornia.org web portal to help households determine their carbon footprints and learn how to reduce carbon emissions. Participants tracked driving and home energy use with easy-to-use online software.

The UC Berkeley team, including staff, faculty and a cadre of student volunteers, managed communication with participants and consulted biweekly with each city to offer advice and keep them on track toward the goal of reducing emissions.

Among the eight cities, 2,670 people participated, and together they reduced the state’s emissions by 215 metric tons of CO 2 , the equivalent of taking 90 California homes off the electrical grid for a year, Jones said. The four other participating cities were San Jose, Pleasanton, Citrus Heights and Pittsburg.

Davis logo

In the CoolCalifornia Challenge, cities compete to motivate residents to reduce their household energy use and driving to lower their carbon footprints.

Last August, the four best-performing cities – Chula Vista, Tracy, Sacramento and Davis – were selected as finalists and shared an additional $30,000 to further explore how to motivate their citizens to conserve.

“We already have a pretty engaged community, and the city is working on specific activities to get people to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the CoolCalifornia Challenge helped us add to what we are already doing,” said Chris Granger, director of the non-profit, all-volunteer group Cool Davis Initiative, which worked with city staff to mobilize Davis volunteers. “Household behavior change and community connection is essential to this transformation. We really need to be connected, to talk to each other, give each other ideas. And we have to highlight real examples of real people’s lives and real people’s houses to demonstrate those kinds of changes.”

Expressing enthusiasm for her city’s close second-place finish, Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox noted, “the City of Chula Vista is proud of its residents’ accomplishments in the CoolCalifornia Challenge. I applaud the proactive approach Chula Vista is taking to address our future energy needs, while lowering our impact on the environment.”

Using community events to engage residents

Cities worked to engage residents through events including farmers’ markets, festivals, holiday lighting exchanges where old, inefficient lights were traded for newer LED versions, free screenings of sustainability-themed movies, and city-sponsored solar and energy efficiency rebates.

Households responded by pledging further reductions and reducing their emissions from transportation and household energy use through activities such as biking instead of driving, or hanging up laundry instead of using the dryer.

woman pledging to install solar panels

Residents earned points for their cities by pledging to use less energy or switch to sustainable sources.

“All participating cities got creative to engage residents and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, from forming city teams to providing individual household action checklists,” said Air Resources Board chair Mary D. Nichols. “Efforts like these are not only to be applauded, but they are essential in order for California to achieve its long-term climate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.”

The goal now, said Jones, is to sustain these efforts and spread them to other cities in the state.

“You can get people to change their behavior once, but how do you keep them engaged?” asked Jones. “We are using this pilot program to test how best to engage communities. We think that by working through community groups, churches, friends and neighbors, we’ll give people the sense that we are all in this together and empower them to keep working towards the goal of sustainability.”

“Ultimately, this competition and the coolclimate.berkeley.edu calculator project in RAEL are aimed at facilitating what is increasingly being seen as the neglected element of sound strategy for climate protection and economic innovation: the behavioral component,” Kammen said. “In the language of software engineering, this program is ‘crowd-sourcing innovation’ and is designed to be an ‘open access’ platform for shared learning.”

Applications from cities for the second round of competition are due Aug. 15. Participating cities will be announced at a kick-off in early September for the competition running from Sept. 1, 2013 to May 31, 2014.