How can we supercharge climate action? Get schools involved

Jun 5, 2024 | News

Schools are an untapped resource for slashing the UK’s emissions, reckon those behind a fun new climate event

“We can’t wait for little Freddie in year six to be the CEO of a company and make a better policy decision. It has to start now.”

Alex Green is head of Let’s Go Zero, a national campaign with a clear aim: to engage students in positive climate action and get all of the UK’s 32,000 schools to go zero carbon by 2030.

Green, who leads the campaign for the climate solutions charity Ashden, recognises the goal is ambitious – far more ambitious than the government’s target of achieving net zero by 2050. But it is, she believes, achievable with government support.

How to supercharge climate action? Get schools involved

Let’s Go Zero puts children at the heart of the climate conversation

To secure that support, Let’s Go Zero is working to get more schools, teachers and students involved in climate action than ever before. “Schools are the heart of our communities,” says Green. “One in six of our population goes into a school every day.”

Children – present as they are in 43% of UK households – have an unmatched ability to influence behaviour through “nagging power”, as Green puts it. And they help spread ideas far beyond the school gates.

One easy way for schools to get involved is by participating in Let’s Go Zero’s Climate Action Countdown. Kicking off on 7 June, the month-long event has a “pick and mix” calendar of actions and activities for each day of the challenge. It comes with a free resources pack of assembly presentations, manifestos, colouring sheets and more.

How to supercharge climate action? Get schools involved

Alex Green, head Let’s Go Zero

It’s not just for schools: home educators, scout groups and even individual students can all sign up. “It’s a nice way to engage schools and to address climate anxiety in young people,” says Green. “There are things young people can do over this month to feel really empowered.”

Let’s Go Zero wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for young people. It launched in 2020 after the school climate strikes initiated by Greta Thunberg. The campaign is also a response to rising demand from school leaders, who want to show their students that they are not just listening but acting.

By galvanising this desire for climate action, Let’s Go Zero hopes to demonstrate to the government that more support, strategies and policy changes are needed. So far, more than 3,000 schools, colleges and nurseries have signed up.

How to supercharge climate action? Get schools involved

Let’s Go Zero and the Running out of Time relay team – one of the partners for the Climate Action Countdown

None of the UK’s schools are currently zero carbon. Achieving the goal is a daunting prospect. Which is where Let’s Go Zero’s crack team of independent ‘climate action advisors’ come in. They dispense advice to schools, free of charge, on everything related to decarbonising school life – from travel to procurement and from energy to the curriculum – and help them secure the funds to support the transition.

Sam Luker, chief operating officer of Trinitas Multi Academy Trust in south-east London – which looks after seven primary, secondary and special schools – has seen immediate results.

“The support from the team has been nothing short of amazing. We were quickly allocated a climate adviser and formed a group of interested staff from each school who have been meeting to plan our way forward to net zero,” he says.

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“The advisers have supported trust leaders to draft our climate action plan and conduct site audits. This free support has been invaluable to the trust, and I don’t know how we would have got to this point without their help.”

For school leaders, who typically have neither time nor money to spare, putting climate action to the top of today’s to-do list is a challenge. But it pays off. Let’s Go Zero’s data suggests that up to 60% of a school’s energy use occurs when there are no children in the building – at weekends, in the evenings, during school holidays.

Schools on average use about 10% of their energy during term-time weekends: that’s £260m in bills and more than 300,000 tonnes of CO2. Solar panels, LED lights and building management systems can see savings of around 30-40%, while basic behaviour changes (such as switching off lights and electronics; adjusting thermostats) can reap an immediate 5-7% saving.

So far, more than 3,000 schools, colleges and nurseries have signed up to Climate Action Countdown

At the Bellevue Place Education Trust, a multi-academy trust with 11 primary schools across London and Berkshire, upgrading lighting to LEDs reduced energy use on lighting by 61%. They’ve since installed solar panels and smart meters to stay apprised of energy usage.

The biggest investment and the biggest challenge is retrofitting the UK’s old school buildings. Let’s Go Zero puts the cost at £18bn. Campaign leaders have been working with the government and talking to opposition parties about putting changes in place.

There are things young people can do over this month to feel really empowered

“There’s an enormous amount that can be done to improve the mechanisms for existing funding, and to enable better access to private finance,” says Green. “Schools can’t take loans currently with the system, but if there were exceptions made for retrofit works it could unlock an enormous amount of capital really quickly.”

In the meantime, schools do what they can, whether it’s rewilding land, holding ‘no electricity days’, running a Fairtrade tuck shop, or going plastic-free in the school canteen, as they did at Trinitas Multi-Academy Trust.

“It’s easy for this stuff to get swept aside when it’s SATs week or whatever,” says Luker. “But it’s important.”

Main image: iStock

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