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Schools taking the lead on climate action

Fifteen schools in Perth are currently finishing up a two-year Low Carbon Schools pilot program, demonstrating how easy it is to take action on climate change, given the right tools and support. A new ClimateClever program is being launched in 2018, and is seeking new schools to participate.

The Low Carbon Schools program was inspired by South Fremantle Senior High School (SFSHS), which in 2012 achieved a significant feat by becoming the first certified Carbon Neutral school in Australia.

My colleague Dr Samantha Hall and I had initially volunteered to assist the school with its carbon footprint and guide it through the certification process, while we were completing our PhD’s under the supervision of Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman. Professor Newman had been working with the school over a number of years and had originally proposed the idea of going carbon neutral.

After witnessing the abundant benefits that flowed from this considerable achievement, including significant carbon emissions savings, hundreds of thousands of dollars saved on utility bills, rich student and staff learning opportunities and the extraordinary potential for community engagement, we asked ourselves: “Why aren’t all schools pursuing this?”

Knowing that schools play a critical role in society by connecting people and communities, we saw this as a massive opportunity for schools to lead the way and influence communities on climate change and low carbon living. We therefore set out on a mission to determine how we could encourage more schools to take action.

low carbon schools

Image: Jean-Paul Horré

Getting started

After completing my PhD on decarbonising cities, I began applying for research funding to tackle this challenge. We needed to be able to scale what we did with SFSHS, and we needed a pilot to test how we could best do it.

In 2014, we secured some funding from the CRC for Low Carbon Living to conduct a scoping study to identify what programs, tools and initiatives were currently assisting schools across Australia to reduce their carbon footprint. While we identified many great broader sustainability programs covering many important areas including biodiversity, there were few that were directly tackling emissions and/or providing a systematic and data-driven approach to carbon reduction, nor any that provided consistency across the country.

We also found there were heaps of schools doing brilliant things around sustainability, but initiatives were often implemented in an ad hoc way. For example, schools seemed to go from having a worm farm to exploring LED lighting upgrades, not realising the many more affordable initiatives in between.

School buildings, like many existing buildings across the country, are aging and becoming increasingly inefficient. There is therefore abundant low hanging fruit available in schools, though schools rarely seem to be tackling this in a systematic way.

As part of the scoping study, we also ran two workshops with several schools to identify the barriers and challenges facing them regarding implementing low carbon initiatives.

The 2016/17 Low Carbon Schools Pilot

Using the information we gathered and the experience of Kathy Anketell, the carbon neutral officer at SFSHS (now the Low Carbon Schools program coordinator), we began to plan and develop the Low Carbon Schools pilot program.

In mid-2015, the City of Fremantle, who was already carbon neutral, approached us and suggested it could subsidise schools in the local area to participate in our program. Two more councils (City of Cockburn and City of Melville) then agreed to subsidise schools. We selected a further six schools from all over Perth (from higher and lower socio-economic areas) who paid the full fee. In total, we had 15 schools, 10 of which were primary schools and five were secondary. Almost all of the participating schools (14 of the 15) were public schools with one small private school. The schools ranged in size from 70 students up to 1400 students, with several schools growing significantly along the way.

Collaboration and collective action

We were blown away by the interest, enthusiasm and participation of the schools themselves, which attended five workshops and 15 monthly meet-ups over the two-year pilot. Recent feedback from the schools has demonstrated just how important these regular meet-ups have been in their success. It helped keep the schools accountable, built a sense of collaboration and community action, and allowed them to share and celebrate successes and brainstorm solutions to challenges and obstacles together.

We were also pleasantly surprised by the interest from the councils. It appeared the councils were interested in the program as we were able to provide an affordable way to help them meet their own climate and carbon reduction community targets and KPIs around sustainability and community engagement.

We also had support and interest from a variety of other industry stakeholders who either donated their time to give presentations or conduct audits at the schools, and provided venues or gifts to the schools. We collaborated with existing sustainability programs where possible to ensure we were not reinventing the wheel. There were some great synergies between the programs, many of which were more curriculum focused (such as the Waterwise, Wastewise and Travelsmart programs). Our program seemed to complement them well by being more data-driven and focused largely around measuring, monitoring, auditing, comparing and creating quantifiable, realistic and personalised action plans for each school.

Early results

Although we are still waiting on utility bills from 2017 to see the real impact of the program, we found great initial results from year one of the program.

The 15 schools identified more than 500 initiatives that were written into their action plans. We made the schools update their actions plans monthly and discussed progress at the meet-ups.

Some examples of initiatives include:

  • Switching off pilot lights on gas heating systems is saving one school $29.35 a day
  • After learning about “fixtures charges” on water bills from entering bill data into the carbon calculator provided, one primary school teacher grabbed his students to count the number of toilets and urinals in the school. Realising the school had been overcharged by eight fixtures for as long as staff could remember, the discrepancy was quickly rectified with the water company, saving $4600 a year
  • Another school identified a faulty urinal and several leaks wasting up to 10,000 litres of water a day after installing a data logger on the water mains
  • A large high school realised that their advanced and expensive Building Management System (BMS) was never actually fully installed or tuned. Fixing this is now saving $8000 on every electricity bill
  • After getting each of the schools to count their fridges, one school was shocked to find it had 45 staff fridges – one fridge per 2.4 staff. Worse, many of these were running empty and most were over 40 years old. The school is now in the process of reducing fridge numbers.
  • Many schools have now implemented comprehensive switch off campaigns before summer, saving thousands of dollars

These stories go on and on. There really is no limit to what can be achieved. There is just so much low hanging fruit.

Overall from the first year, we have seen savings of up to 82 tonnes of emissions from energy efficiency, more than $42,000 in utility savings (some school increased due to significant increases in student numbers in metropolitan growth areas) and an overall cost reduction of $10 in utility bills per student.

For a relatively modest cost to join the program, our schools have been able to make significant reductions in carbon emissions, utility bills and student expenses, as well as provide valuable teaching opportunities to students.

Community impact and leadership

As mentioned, a key focus of the Low Carbon Schools program has been on community impact. Our program aimed to not only develop a sense of community within the schools, but also to develop a sense of collective action within the broader community of schools. We were blown away by the individually motivated actions and leadership that emerged and went far beyond our expectations and the schools’ original commitment.

One of the best examples is where a community member from a participating school used the program’s carbon calculations to determine the number of trees that would be needed to offset the total baseline emissions of all 15 schools participating in the pilot. From this, he invited any school involved in the pilot to join in a tree planting project. Thirteen of the 15 schools agreed to participated, enabling him to successful apply for an Natural Resource Management grant. Together, the schools planted more than 50,000 trees in 2017, offsetting their 2015 emissions of 3800 tonnes of C02-e. Even better – most of the schools are committed to continuing this initiative into the future.

Research support

The team at ClimateClever are thrilled to have Curtin University PhD candidate Portia Odell, who is supported by the CRC for Low Carbon Living, undertaking research on the Low Carbon Schools program. Odell will be analysing and verifying the data and exploring key attributes to success and challenges encountered for schools attempting to decarbonise, as well as documenting if and how schools can influence, and/or create change in the community.

A final report with results on the initial 2016/17 pilot will be available in March 2018.

National Launch of the 2018 ClimateClever Initiative: new schools wanted

Based on the success and feedback from our current pilot and the growing interest from schools across the country, we are stoked to be launching a new and improved national pilot in 2018 – The ClimateClever Initiative.

The new program will be underpinned by a set of new innovative, data-driven online tools designed to help students measure, manage and reduce school carbon footprints. The three tools include a carbon calculator, a building audit tool, and an interactive personalised action plan. The carbon calculator tracks consumption, carbon and costs from electricity, gas, water and waste and enables participating schools across the country to compare with each other. The building audit tool enables students to count all the appliances and assets in the school and compares these to other schools. The data from this then feeds into the action plan, which provides suggestions for specific low carbon initiatives that are evidenced-based and affordable.

The 2018 program is designed to be entirely driven by students. Teachers can use the ClimateClever App in the classroom and ensure students drive the implementation of low carbon initiatives themselves. Curriculum resources have been developed to demonstrates how the apps and their data can be used in the classroom – essentially enabling schools to use their buildings and facilities as a living laboratory to learn about sustainability (one of the three national cross-curricula priorities) and develop STEM skills.

Community impact

We are excited to be developing a version of the ClimateClever App that can be used by students from participating schools in their homes. This will allow schools to easily track what impact they are having on their immediate community. This is also extremely valuable for councils who support schools to join the program, as they are able to directly measure the carbon reduction in their communities.

In 2018, we will also be exploring how we can assist our participating schools to install large solar PV systems to become local energy hubs for their communities. Exciting new developments around energy trading will be able to assist this.

Mainstreaming low-carbon, high-performance school buildings and classrooms

As part of the wider research around the program, Curtin University is currently conducting a survey, in collaboration with the CRC for Low Carbon Living, Barry Du Bois, SimplyCarbon and Co-Innovate, to collect people’s feedback on the performance of school buildings and classrooms. They want to know your thoughts in terms of school design, sustainability, operational performance and the overall impact the built environment can have on the health and wellness of children, including their ability to learn. They are also interested in perceptions around low carbon living and how this can be influenced through school education.

To share your feedback, please fill out this short survey: http://bit.ly/2zTwm5W. You can find more information about the research here: http://simplycarbon.com.au/participant-info-form/.

Participating in the survey will provide a $2/student discount on the 2018 pilot fee for those people/schools interested in the 2018 pilot.

We firmly believe that schools can, and in many cases are, leading the nation in addressing climate change. There is huge potential for carbon savings within their own buildings and facilities but an even bigger potential to create wide societal and intergenerational change around low carbon living.

Students should be empowered to lead the charge. It’s their future after all!

Those interested in joining the 2018 program can head to ClimateClever.

Vanessa Rauland is founder and managing director of ClimateClever, a profit-for-purpose edu-tech business that is launching a national climate program for schools. She is also a research fellow at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute.

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