University of California’s Cool Campus Challenge

University of California, Office of the President

Date Posted: May 20, 2019
Submitted by: Jewel Snavely
Content Type: Case Studies

Project Overview

In 2019 the University of California launched the Cool Campus Challenge, an online competition between all ten campuses to engage students, faculty, and staff in the UC Carbon Neutrality initiative. The challenge was designed to educate and motivate the University of California campus community to take simple energy-saving, waste reducing and sustainability-focused actions to lower their carbon footprint and help the UC system reach carbon neutrality by 2025.

Participants in the Challenge signed into an online tool where they took a carbon-footprint calculator, and completed actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at home and on campus. Participants earned points for pledging to take actions within the tool and for verifying the action. Bonus points were earned for sharing pictures of users completing the action. Over the 4-week competition, more than 22,000 participants signed up taking nearly 204,000 actions, which translates to a CO2e reduction of almost 10,500 metric tons. Systemwide awards were given for the top point earning campus, the Health System with most points, and the campus with the greatest percent of its population participating.

The Challenge was built around principles of community based social marketing, utilizing social networks and gamification to encourage participation. It was designed to engage the broader university community in achieving the University’s goal of being carbon neutral by 2025, and to generate lasting behavior shifts that create a culture of sustainability on our campuses.


In 2013, University of California President Janet Napolitano announced the Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI), which commits all UC campuses to emitting net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from campus operations by 2025. In support of this ambitious goal, President Napolitano formed the Global Climate Leadership Council (GCLC) to advise the UC system on achieving carbon neutrality while also providing guidance for furthering its other longstanding sustainability goals. Toward that end, in 2015 the GCLC approved funding for 15 research and engagement projects, including the first Cool Campus Challenge (CCC). That Challenge ran for 10-weeks, engaged 19,000 participants, and was largely considered to be successful in raising awareness of the university’s Carbon Neutrality goals and educating students, faculty, and staff about ways that their individual actions contributed to the university’s carbon footprint.

Based on the success of the first Challenge (which was one of the largest behavior-based climate change programs in the country) the second challenge was undertaken. For the second challenge we increased the social aspects of the competition, built in more campus-specific content to increase the relevance of the actions promoted, and reimagined the structure of the campaign to better adhere to the goals of being simple, fun, and social. Campus Sustainability Officers and students were involved in the redesign of the Challenge to ensure that the new program would support broad sustainability goals on each campus.

Participation in the second challenge increased 16% despite the fact that the length of the campaign decreased 60% (from 10 weeks to 4).


The primary goal of the Cool Campus Challenge was to provide opportunities for broad campus involvement in meeting the University of California’s 2025 carbon neutrality goals, raise awareness about the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, and empower students, staff and faculty to engage in behavior that reduces their individual carbon footprint. Specific objectives of the Challenge included: 1. Providing broad campus engagement in the 2025 carbon neutrality goal 2. Challenging the UC community to understand their carbon footprint 3. Raising awareness of personal and institutional carbon reduction strategies 4. Making energy conservation behaviors standard practice across University of California (UC) campuses, and 5. Building a culture of sustainability.


The Cool Campus Challenge was designed and implemented by a coordinating team that included representatives from the University of California Office of the President, the Cool Climate Network, the Center for Sustainable Energy, and UC Santa Barbara. Implementation of the program also involved the Sustainability Offices on each UC Campus and CNI student engagement fellows.

The team met weekly for a year to design and develop the online software, actions available to participants, marketing and outreach materials and collateral, and educational materials. The team developed the software and trained local campus staff and student fellows who promoted the challenge on their campuses. Leading up to and during the Challenge the team provided technical support, managed a systemwide outreach campaign (including emails, social media, videos, etc.), and trained the local staff and fellows in using the tools and resources that were available.


The development and implementation of the Cool Campus Challenge took one year of active work (plus time to find funding and put together the team, and additional time to analyze the results). Major milestones included: Signing MOU’s with the partners 06/08/2018 Scoping the updates to the Challenge 10/15/18 Software and program design completed 12/8/2018 Outreach Materials and Collateral Developed 2/01/2019 Trainings of campus staff completed 3/15/19 Software tool updated completed 03/15/2019 Competition Open 04/1/2019 Competition Closed 05/1/2019 Results Announced 05/8/2019 Final Report Submitted 06/12/2019


Print Material for Campuses (posters, door hangers, and stickers) - $5,500 Prizes (solar chargers, reusable bags, gift cards, shirts, etc) - $18,000 Funding to campuses for events - $25,000 Email Communications (Mailchimp fees) - $500 Design Services - $34,300 Prizes for winning campuses (trophies + Monetary Prizes) - $4,700 IT Support for Tool Development - $115,000 IT Services (website and tool hosting, security and beta testing) - $13,800 Other - $600

Additional staff time was provided from program partners to develop marketing materials, collateral, and conduct a program evaluation.


  1. Over 22,000 faculty, staff, and students participated in the challenge (7.6% of the entire system-wide population)
  2. 763 Climate Heroes highlighted
  3. Participants completed over 200,000 actions
  4. Participants reduced 10,220 metric tons CO2e in self-reported actions, equivalent to taking 2,170 cars off the road for a year

Lessons Learned

Some of the lessons learned through this Challenge include: 1. We would have benefited from reaching out to partners associated with, but independent from, campuses (e.g., health systems, national labs) earlier in the planning process to get their input and buy in. 2. We should have engaged communications partners and faculty experts earlier in the planning process 3. Campuses would have benefited from having outreach materials available a couple months before the competition starts 4. If we do the challenge again we would benefits from simplifying (and test) the sign-up process and increasing the numbers and types of awards and add additional recognition categories Software improvements needed. 1. Direct campus administrative access to manage posts and users 2. Improve user notifications and messaging 3. Improve access to data


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