Environment + Climate

Q&A with Mark Gold: How a new UCLA research plan will create a sustainable Los Angeles

UCLA will lead by example and serve as a living laboratory, Gold says

Solar water heating installation atop UCLA’s residence halls.
Nurit Katz/UCLA
Solar water heating installation atop UCLA’s residence halls.

In 2050, experts anticipate that Los Angeles County will be 4 to 5 degrees hotter and need to support an additional 1.5 million people. UCLA researchers say we can’t simply conserve our way to a livable city. But with more than 100 vital research projects outlined in a new UCLA plan, we can conserve, invent and incentivize our way there.

The research-based, sci-fi utopia of 2050 envisioned in the new Five-Year Work Plan is the most detailed proposal yet for how the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge will transform the region and ensure that a hotter, more crowded Los Angeles can actually improve our quality of life. Sustainable LA aims to shift the county to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent local water and enhanced ecosystem health by midcentury.

Mark Gold, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability who oversees Sustainable LA, talked about transforming Los Angeles, the importance of breakthroughs, and his new role at UCLA.

The ambitious goals of the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge would dramatically transform Los Angeles, and there are still a lot of questions about the best ways to make those changes. How much research is needed?
Over a year, our faculty committee came up with more than 100 research projects. It’s daunting, but achievable. The list is as inclusive as possible, covering all the areas critical to informing the development of an Implementation Plan in 2020. We’re looking at water, energy, transportation, ecosystem health, environmental health, social equity and more.

While this Five-Year Work Plan announces the comprehensive list of research needed, we’ve already begun the work. Faculty all over campus are already engaged in environmental and sustainability research. We’ve also started working closely with local, regional and state agencies to develop ways to implement Sustainable LA. We cannot be successful without partnering with government, industry, community and environmental groups and leaders, and other academic institutions — collaboration is essential.

Why is it important to produce a public plan?
On a practical level, it helps with things like obtaining funding, setting research priorities, solidifying outside partnerships and developing the Implementation Plan. But it also makes the Grand Challenge feel more real to everyone when they can see the context and thinking about how we will achieve the goals of Sustainable LA.

► News release about the Sustainable LA Five-Year Work Plan.

A major part of achieving those goals relies on the invention of new technologies for things like cleaner energy or recycled water. Is it feasible to base a plan on tech that doesn’t exist yet?
Most of the new creations will expand on existing technologies. We could achieve our goals with existing technology, but it wouldn’t be cost-effective or efficient. We can’t conserve our way to success. It’s absolutely critical to have breakthroughs. UCLA is the birthplace of reverse osmosis, and the home of groundbreaking research into solar energy collection and storage. I have no doubt that our researchers will continue to turn dreams into reality.

Mark Gold
Mark Gold

Some of these new technologies, like the next generation of water filtration and treatment, are already being tested at UCLA. As UCLA creates the technology of 2050, will the campus continue to act as a demonstration ground and become more sustainable as well?
Absolutely. UCLA will lead by example and serve as a living laboratory. One thing I’d like to see when it comes to water is UCLA putting in a recycled-water facility on site or working with the city on an off-site facility that exceeds all drinking water standards, with the potential of using that water for all campus needs. That’s the kind of discussion I’m having on a regular basis with the city, that UCLA would be willing to model that kind of technology.

UC has adopted very ambitious goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 and reducing per capita potable water use 36 percent by 2025. We’d love to involve UCLA in using new technology to get there. We can’t conserve our way to meeting these carbon or water-use goals. We need new inventions, new policies, and really strong collaborative relationships, such as with the city of Los Angeles.

The new plan also calls for developing an education plan and a communications plan. Why are those included in the work plan, which is primarily about research?
It’s not enough to do the research. We’ve got to communicate the various recommendations derived from the research, and as an institution of higher learning we must educate people who can make a difference. We have to get this to every state legislator, every city council member, every county supervisor and all 88 mayors in the county.

Historically, for projects I’ve worked on at Heal the Bay or UCLA, if the story gets told by a credible source that people care about, the decision makers are far more likely to make these environmental issues a priority.

Before you became the associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability last year, you served as interim director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Has your new role meant big or small changes in your work?
Big changes. The most obvious one is the Grand Challenge, and I’m putting a lot more time and effort into it. I’m also better able to look at the university as a whole, without the same boundaries. There are large research priorities that need to get done, and from my perspective it’s good no matter who at UCLA is doing the work.

I’m also learning a lot more about what the different parts of campus are doing in sustainability, and how the campus fares in being sustainable. Part of my job is working as an integrator and working across disciplines. You can’t solve environmental problems without interdisciplinary research. We need to work across departmental lines, and I’m not just talking about the faculty. The same silos exist at UCLA in communications, fundraising and most other levels. Part of the Grand Challenge is breaking down those barriers for more effective collaboration, too.

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