Putting It in Neutral

UC Davis’ road to carbon neutrality includes a variety of solutions that will help meet the 2025 goal.

Photos: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

The time for the global community to slash greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid dangerous levels of climate warming was years ago. Yet climate scientists indicate we can still avoid the worst impacts of climate change if the world acts swiftly to cut emissions and fossil fuel use. But how? 

UC Davis is starting at home.

In 2013, the University of California launched the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, committing all 10 campuses to making their buildings and vehicle fleets climate neutral by 2025. Being carbon neutral means reducing campus emissions and offsetting any residual emissions so the campus is responsible for zero net emissions being released to the atmosphere. As the deadline draws near, the ambitious commitment is spurring scalable solutions to help the world bend the curve on climate change. 

UC Davis is no stranger to environmental commitments. Ranked No. 1 in the nation and fifth in the world for sustainability by UI GreenMetric, UC Davis has already reduced its operational emissions by 40 percent since it began measuring them in 2005. Even so, the CNI commitment challenged the university to strengthen its efforts.

solar panels in rows

UC Davis’ solar power plant is the nation’s largest such installation on a university campus, capable of producing 16.3 megawatts of electricity.

Dashing to zero

To get to zero, one first needs to know how far it is to the finish line. 

Staff from UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara created a Carbon Neutrality Dashboard (cnidashboard.ucop.edu) to track UC’s progress. Searchable by campus, the dashboard allows users to explore emissions-reduction strategies from 2009 through 2025. It was inspired by the UC Davis Campus Energy Education Dashboard, which depicts real-time energy use of campus buildings. 

“Being aware, seeing progress and defining actions can help motivate you,” said Angela Sanguinetti, a UC Davis environmental psychologist who helped create both dashboards. “Dashboards help in all three of those areas. Showing what’s being done helps people see what can work and how they can contribute.” 

UC Davis is the largest campus by area in the UC system, with 5,300 acres and more than 1,000 buildings in Davis and Sacramento. UC Davis is projected to emit 141,964 metric tons of CO₂ in 2022. That’s roughly the same as its 1990 estimates, despite the university’s growth. The dashboard shows campus net emissions further dwindling to zero by 2025.

How will it lose the extra “weight” in such a short amount of time? Our carbon-diet strategies include a mixture of increased renewable energy, energy efficiency and a portion of carbon offsets. Biogas and additional carbon offsets kick in around 2024 to reach net zero by 2025. 

Want to dive even deeper into the UC Davis details? Visit sustainability.ucdavis.edu/goals/climate. 

A ‘Big Shift’

Recent visitors to UC Davis have likely seen or stepped over a key strategy UC Davis is taking to literally lay the groundwork to reduce its energy, water use and reliance on fossil fuels. The “Big Shift” is a major construction project designed to replace the campus’s natural-gas powered steam system with a renewable energy-powered hot water system for the campus’s heating and cooling needs.

open construction trench with metal pipes laid inside

Much of the construction around campus is due to “The Big Shift,” which is designed to replace the natural-gas powered steam system with a renewable energy-powered hot water system.

The shift from natural gas to an electricity-powered system takes advantage of renewable energy sources, including UC Davis’ solar power plant — the nation’s largest solar installation on a university campus. 

Other efforts to cut emissions include electrifying the Unitrans bus fleet, continuing to invest in green buildings, such as our LEED Platinum buildings, and investing more in renewable energy and electrification on and off campus. 

The offset challenge

Most global plans to reach net zero rely on carbon offsets, at least for now. UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative is no exception.

Carbon offsets are a market-based strategy that involve activities that reduce emissions or remove carbon enough to “offset” the buyer’s continued emissions. Such activities range from planting trees to landfill-gas capture and renewable energy projects. Each offset credit is equivalent to one ton of CO₂ reduced or removed from the environment. 

But aren’t carbon offsets just kicking the can down the road — or to somewhere else on the planet? UC sustainability leaders had similar questions. 

“Carbon offsets are not the end game,” said Camille Kirk, director of UC Davis Sustainability and campus sustainability planner. “When we realized we would need offsets, we knew we needed to address their shortcomings. We are working hard to find offsets that align with our values.”

Going to zero 

UC Davis plans to fully offset emissions by 2025 with a mix of renewable and zero-carbon energy sources, efficiency savings and carbon offsets. 

Net carbon emissions and reductions

Barbara Haya, a UC Berkeley research fellow and frequent critic of carbon offsets, was selected to develop offset strategy recommendations for the UC system that 1) meet climate neutrality goals, 2) are effective and enforceable, and 3) reflect UC’s commitment to environmental and social justice. 

“Offsets are allowing UC to take on this very ambitious goal of being carbon neutral by 2025,” Haya said. “But there is a wide variety of quality out there. The challenge is making sure we continue to reduce our emissions toward zero in a way that balances the costs and meets our obligation to stop burning fossil fuels.”

Homegrown carbon offsets 

Haya, Kirk and other sustainability officers, students and faculty across UC developed a two-pronged approach that seeks out high-quality offsets available on the current market while also developing homegrown, UC-initiated offset projects. 

Twelve UC projects were awarded seed grants for offset projects in 2019, including three at UC Davis. Those include research projects that supplement livestock feed with red seaweed to reduce methane, that increase soil carbon and crop benefits by applying soil amendments to croplands, and that drain flooded rice fields mid-season, to reduce methane emissions. 

Henry Perry, a horticulture and agronomy graduate student in Professor Bruce Linquist’s lab in the Department of Plant Sciences, is conducting the rice field research. Preliminary results show that methane emissions can be reduced up to 77 percent by draining rice fields mid-season, without impacting yields.

 “The seed grant was really helpful in getting the initial phases of the project off the ground,” Perry said. “The people at UCOP and with the Carbon Neutrality Initiative have been very supportive regarding the other aspect of the project, too, which involves learning about the carbon offset market. This could be an effective roadmap for generating credits, incentivizing rice farmers, and respectfully encouraging widespread changes in their practices. These changes will promote more sustainable rice farming by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

Exploring fossil-free

Recently, Chancellor Gary S. May also tasked the newly formed Campus Advisory Committee on Sustainability to chart a roadmap to eliminating fossil fuels from campus operations. The committee, co-chaired by Kirk and Jim Carroll, associate vice chancellor of UC Davis’ Design and Construction Management, plans to develop the roadmap by December 2022. 

“We have done a lot to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” Kirk said. “We are well on our way to meeting the UC-wide Carbon Neutrality Initiative, and we have a lot more to do.”