Podcast: The ‘Big Idea’ that’s leading the push to make UC carbon-neutral

In 2004, Scott Zimmermann had a big idea. He had just quit the oil and gas industry — he’d been working in it for eight years, trying to reduce the impacts of fossil fuels — and enrolled at UC Berkeley as a dual-degree law student and master’s student in the Energy and Resources Group.

He knew he wanted to do something about climate change. But instead of lobbying for the state or the federal government to adopt carbon cap laws, as a lot of environmentalists were doing at the time, he decided to start right where he was — with the campus.

Berkeley had already been thinking about climate change. In fact, that’s what attracted Zimmermann to the campus to begin with.

“Berkeley was way ahead of the world in that regard. But no one was really saying, ‘Well, let’s look at our own household here, let’s look at where we live and let’s do it here first,'” says Zimmermann. “So this was the first coordinated effort to be responsible for our own carbon emissions.”

So, Zimmermann, along with other Berkeley students, started the Cal Climate Action Partnership, known as CalCAP. Today, a decade later, it’s still going strong — it’s grown to be a coalition of students, faculty and staff who are spearheading the UC system’s huge goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2025.

But when it first started in 2004, CalCAP was just a group of students who wanted to make the world better.

“That says a lot. The fact that students were driving this, really driving it really from the beginning…”

Ziimmermann says they had faculty and staff supporters on the campus, too, but the fact that it was student-driven gave them the political power they needed to pursue the project.

“It shows that especially at a public university like University of California, how powerful that can be. Students really can change things.”

Also behind this effort was Tom Kelly, founder of the Berkeley nonprofit Kyoto USA, which was advocating for carbon caps within local organizations. Zimmermann says the nonprofit’s mission fit perfectly with Berkeley’s goals and politics.

LED lights

The campus is now switching out fluorescent lights with more efficient LED lights in many buildings. (Photo by Kira Stoll)

“We sat together and really thought about how do we engage this massive university and establishment… People were starting to make a connection between climate change and energy, but it really wasn’t mainstream yet.”

The first and biggest hurdle was getting the campus on board — convincing all the different constituencies to commit to delivering the education and research in a way that was sustainable for the planet.

“We always knew that carbon neutrality is ultimately where we need to go. Yeah, it maybe costs a little bit more, it’s a little bit harder to be carbon neutral, but at the end of the day, just making it a fundamental principle and showing that if you put your mind to it you actually can make it work if you make it a priority.”

In 2007, the team won the Big Ideas@Berkeley contest and received $5,000 — enough to pay a student group to measure the campus’s carbon footprint and continue to recruit allies to join the effort. The project grew, with dozens of people — administrators, faculty and staff — joining the collaboration.

After 18 months, CalCAP completed its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The goal was a lofty one. They aimed to reduce the campus’s emissions to the levels they were in 1990 by the year 2014.

Solar panels on the roof of MLK student Center

By the end of 2015, the campus will have solar panels at five sites. (Photo by Capital Projects)

They brought the plan to then-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who signed it and officially adopted the policy.

In 2008, CalCAP became part of Berkeley’s Office of Sustainability and Energy, and has led hundreds of projects on energy efficiency, transportation, procurement, water and travel — all working to lighten the campus’s carbon footprint.

One of the biggest efforts has focused on buildings, which account for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. Campus buildings are now switching out fluorescent lights with more efficient LED lights — and by the end of 2015, the campus will have solar panels at five sites.

Berkeley reached its greenhouse goal two years ahead of schedule. Shortly following, UC President Janet Napolitano announced a new goal: The entire UC system will aim for carbon neutrality by 2025.

It’s a goal Zimmermann says is ambitious, but achievable. “It’s really amazing that we have this kind of leadership. And also just to know that that goal wouldn’t have been made if it wasn’t possible.”

There’s a lot of work to be done, but Zimmermann, who now works as a lawyer in San Francisco, knows CalCAP is up for the challenge. Big goals, he knows, begin with big ideas.

To learn more about the Cal Climate Action Partnership’s work, visit the group’s website.

Big Ideas@Berkeley supports innovative student projects. Learn more about the program at bigideas.berkeley.edu.