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Five ways to reduce the K-12 carbon footprint

Taking action against climate change is more urgent than ever, and schools and districts can help now. Find out five ways to reduce the K-12 carbon footprint.
Five ways to reduce the K-12 carbon footprint
Five ways to reduce the K-12 carbon footprint

Imagine the environmental impact of over 50 million students attending close to 100,000 public K-12 schools set on 2 million acres of land. Schools are one of the top public sector energy consumers. Their resource demands run the gamut from energy, buildings and transportation to land, food and water. The K-12 carbon footprint is significant. Annually, schools in the United States release carbon emissions equivalent to 18 coal-fired power plants. 

Taking action to mitigate climate change is extremely urgent. Already unprecedented weather patterns less than halfway through the 2021-22 school year have disrupted classes for more than 1.1 million learners.

Education system leaders have the opportunity to influence a major shift towards sustainability. In addition to the positive impact of shrinking its own energy footprint, the sector is uniquely positioned to model and support public action around climate change. That’s due to its high-visibility to a significant cross-section of the population, especially youth. 

Comprehensive resources are available to help school leaders and policy makers enact climate change solutions in schools and surrounding communities. These include the 100% Clean Energy School Districts Organizing Toolkit and the  K12 Climate Action Plan from the bipartisan K12 Climate Action initiative.

Here are five ways for schools to reduce their K-12 carbon footprint.

1. Clean up transportation

Getting to and from school takes significant energy. School districts have one of the nation’s largest mass transportation fleets, totaling 480,000 school buses. Districts have a large influence on which way the scale tips on air quality and greenhouse gases. 

Diesel fuel moves 94 percent of the school buses in operation today. This not only adds to poor air quality and global warming but affects student health. There is a push to convert to electric by some districts. For example, earlier this year Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland made the largest municipal government order of buses. This is a promise to reduce the K-12 carbon footprint through cleaner air for students and communities. 

Once districts get over the initial investment hurdle, electric buses offer significantly lower operational costs. Each electric bus is estimated to save $2,000 on fuel and $4,400 on maintenance costs annually. That’s a lifetime savings reaching $170,000. Financing such as grants and public-private partnerships can help with upfront costs like the charging infrastructure and workforce training. The action plan specifies the importance of diesel bus decommissioning so they aren’t simply moved to other areas.

Eliminating the need for transportation entirely through virtual learning is another option. A study compared full-time campus courses to online courses at the post-secondary level. It found the latter reduced energy use by nearly 90% and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions. While grand-scale remote learning has social-emotional ramifications at the K-12 level, it is a viable consideration for some learner groups such as children who are bullied or must travel long distances.

2. Use energy smartly

After salaries, energy usage is the largest source of expenses for districts according to the action plan. When shrinking the K-12 carbon footprint, impact from the entire lifecycle associated with that energy, not just kilowatts consumed, must be measured. This includes extraction, production, transport and waste disposal costs. Therefore, school systems need to do their homework. They must ensure the lifecycle of the energy they use is both equitable and sustainable.

Wind and solar energy are solutions to help schools reduce their K-12 carbon footprints. Since 2019, solar energy has seen a 144% growth rate. 6,839 K-12 public schools, such as Batesville Public Schools, are using solar panels. While a significant improvement, it is still just 7% of schools nationwide. 

Renewable energy for schools with battery storage can also help create microgrid energy systems for communities. This helps them build their resilience to climate change ramifications.

Other possibilities for reducing fossil fuel reliance include LED lighting, geothermal heating and cooling and green roofs. Since many schools operate with limited budgets, the Energy Resource Center has encouraged schools to apply for energy efficiency incentives. It helps them create sustainable methods to not only reduce their K-12 carbon footprint but significantly lower operating costs.

3. Use print and digital resources responsibly

To reduce climate-related learning disruptions, the K-12 plan urges schools to ensure that virtual learning plans are effective and provide access for all students. One way to address energy use and accessibility issues is to give learners access to materials on multiple devices. They should be able to access assignments and digital textbooks, including OER, on devices they already use, like mobile phones. 

Forests reduce greenhouse gases by sequestering carbon. Using resources that promote healthy forests is an important way the school system can use its market influence. It can support sustainable industries and even increase the market for greener products. This means responsibly balancing digital and text-based learning. 

An average of one metric ton of virgin paper produces 4245.1 kilograms of carbon dioxide. On the other hand, carbon emission produced by one ton of 100 percent recycled paper is only 1791.1 kilograms. 

Schools can use digital options to help limit the printing of supplementary booklets and textbook purchasing. Printed texts can be used in cases where equity concerns make printed materials favorable. The paper and books they use should also come from recycled or sustainably-forested sources. Digital learning materials can also reduce the reliance on photocopying and associated energy and plastic use. 

Determining which option, digital or print, offers a smaller K-12 carbon footprint is difficult due to the number of variables involved. The weight and space textbooks occupy raises their carbon footprint in terms of transport, distribution and storage. 

Meanwhile, technology devices require energy to run, and manufacturing them involves mining. Using technology responsibly means purchasing smartly and maintaining devices so they last longer. District IT departments have an important role to play in sustainability. They must ensure clean disposal of equipment and track energy usage to keep districts on course for their goals.

4. Reduce lunchroom waste

During a typical year, schools serve over 7 billion meals. Not surprisingly, the whole process of buying, using and discarding food for school lunches contributes to schools’ environmental footprint. Along with an annual 53,000 tons of food waste, packaging, most often single-use plastic, frequently goes into landfills. Composting and recycling programs can address some of this waste. 

Plastics recycling is not a viable solution. Therefore, eliminating or significantly reducing non-essential plastic items is important. A recent report shows the contribution to climate change from plastic production is on track to exceed that of coal-fired power by 2030. 

The rapidly growing U.S. plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gas emissions per year. That’s similar to 116 average-sized (500-megawatt) coal-fired power plants. While most single-use plastics legislation was paused during the pandemic, states like New Jersey have now banned certain single-use plastics in all institutional food service settings. 

To address the food transportation footprint, 34 states have a policy for local procurement or farm-to-school programs to motivate schools to buy local produce. Purchasing whole foods grown locally is beneficial to children’s nutrition, the environment and the local economy. Schools able to cook from scratch versus serving pre-packaged food can more easily incorporate fresh local produce into meals and eliminate packaging.

In a two-year pilot program aimed to reduce the carbon and water footprint of school food, Oakland Unified School District reduced the carbon footprint of its entire food service by 14 percent. It translates to 600,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide saved each year. That is equivalent to driving 1.5 million miles less. The district also reduced embedded water use by almost six percent, equivalent to taking 2.3 million fewer showers.

5. Involve learners and bridge between school and communities

Getting the next generation onboard with sustainable practices is one of the most powerful actions schools can take. Involving learners, as OUSD did with school gardens, helps them understand the benefits of healthy eating and consuming more fruits and vegetables. Similar projects give learners valuable knowledge and skills while creating a bridge between schools and communities.

“It’s going to be up to everyone to figure out how to contribute, and the education sector has to come together to address climate change,” says K12 Climate Action founder, Laura Schifter, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute and Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer.

Learners won’t be the only ones who benefit from the transition to reducing the K-12 carbon footprint. Schifter notes that in the face of climate change, schools can potentially become centers of resilience and support for their local communities. This is particularly critical for communities of color and low-income areas disproportionately impacted by extreme weather.

To learn more about how Hāpara can help your school district reduce its carbon footprint, contact us for more information.

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