How US Schools Have Become Climate Action Rock Stars

Washington (GGM) Analysis | August 24, 2022, by Noreen Wise, Founder & CEO of Gallant Gold Media, and author ; Photo credit AdobeStock

Schools are quickly becoming climate action role models. Their success is rooted in the power and effectiveness of collective action in achieving targeted results. Using a lens focused on the top 10 most critical climate actions, which are in essence the basic requirements for reducing carbon emissions, boosting biodiversity, and drawing down legacy load carbon, US schools have become the bright beacon on top of the torturous greenhouse gas reduction hill. Additionally, schools are climate action accelerators that transmit vigorous energy through a very powerful national network.

“It’s simple. Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us? Or will we condemn future generations to suffer.”

President Joe Biden, COP26

Quick climate action improves the well-being of our children, most importantly their health. It also provides significant financial benefits that enable school districts to have budget surpluses and offer teacher raises. This is topped off with rewarding interactive hands-on science learning opportunities for students.

Did you know that our schools collectively are the largest landowners in the US?

The following list of 10 key climate actions pertain to K12 public schools, which have the most public data available. Private K12 schools are likely moving forward at the same quick pace. Colleges and universities with their larger campuses and sustainability departments are likely doing as much, if not more, than K12. The critical benefit of K12 schools, though, is that parents can learn from their children and establish the same habits at home.

  1. EV buses

School districts have begun switching to EV buses at a faster rate than the general public is transitioning to EV cars. According to the World Resources Institute, in a report released in August 2021, data shows that 258 school districts out of 13,500 have committed to one or more EV buses. Fourteen of these districts have procured 10 or more, and 5 of these 14 are the largest school districts in the country.

In December 2021, SEA Electric announced that it reached a deal with Midwest Transit Equipment to convert 10,000 diesel school buses to EV over the next 5 years. According the Live Green, districts save 80% on maintenance and 72% on fuel costs when they switch to EV. Montgomery County, Maryland has made the largest investment so far, committing to a procurement of 326 electric buses over the next 4 years. Fairfax County, Virginia rolled out its first 8 EV buses in October 2021.

  1. Solar Panels

Installing solar panels on school roofs, as well as open fields have become a priority for superintendents. These savvy “just do it” community leaders are motivated by the substantial financial benefits that clean energy provides. Seven thousand schools across the US have solar power, and nearly 200 schools operate using wind energy. An Arkansas High School was able to install solar panels on their open field and within three years their budget surplus grew so large they rewarded all teachers with raises between $3,000 – $15,000. Arlington County, Virginia public schools are ranked number 4 on a list of the top 30 school districts with highest green power usage.

  1. White Roofs

Painting school roofs white lowers the heat inside schools by 10ºF, which cuts carbon emissions by as much as 29% and decreases electricity bills significantly. The Chelsea school district north of Boston, a sweltering heat island across from Logan Airport, painted the middle school roofs white during the summer of 2021. Superintendent Almi Abeyta was looking forward to the lower electricity bills and the various ways that the much needed extra money could be used.

Back in 2009, Nobel laureate and President Obama’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, announced at a global conference, “If you take all the buildings and make their roofs white, and if you make the pavement more of a concrete type of color rather than a black type of color, and you do this uniformly…it’s the equivalent of reducing the carbon emissions of all the cars on the road for 11 years.”

  1. High albedo parking lots

Large stretches of black asphalt become a danger as well as a health risk in high heat. Black asphalt is 40-60ºF warmer than the air temperature which can become a major safety risk for children playing at recess. Light concrete or asphalt painted with a high albedo color such as white or light grey, not only lowers the heat bringing it closer to the air temperature, but also reflects more of the sun’s energy just like the shrinking icecaps, which helps cool the entire planet.

  1. Composting

In many cities and communities, the town waste management facility partners with schools to incorporate waste management into the curriculum. Most provide lesson plans. Composting is a big part of this educational opportunity. Schools that have vegetable beds, pollinator gardens and tree planting programs, likely have their own compost pile outside near the gardens. Every school produces hundreds of pounds of organic waste each day. Schools now know not to throw food scraps away. They’ve created efficient composting systems. Students are quickly becoming the composting experts in our communities.

  1. Recycling & Upcycling

Many school districts consider their students citizens of the earth and stewards of the environment. Recycling is part of the daily routine. Teachers are quite resourceful, taking students on field trips to the landfill and town recycling center. Teachers also host fun activities such as upcycle night where students transform newspaper into pencil holders, a juice box into a wallet, jars into piggy banks, etc. Recycling and upcycling develop critical thinking skills, inspire innovation and are now a part of most STEM learning programs.

  1. Food Program

Our flawed food system emits 9 billion tons of carbon per year. In order to stay below 1.5ºC, we have to cut 7 billion tons of carbon per year, beginning immediately. As John Doerr pointed out recently, “humans have never been able to cut any carbon in the history of our planet, so this is a tall order.” But schools are moving quickly on the food front as well, much faster than any other mass population. 

One hundred large school districts and counting, including Los Angeles Unified School District and New York City Public Schools, have adopted the Meatless Monday campaign. According to FoodPrint, between these two large school districts alone, 1.5 million meat-free meals are served each Monday. Additionally plant-based meat alternative companies (ie Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods) have begun connecting with schools through the K12 marketplace, hoping to inspire school districts to switch to plant-forward recipes.

  1. Pollinator Gardens

Our overall pollinator populations around the globe have shrunk significantly in recent decades and scientists worry that our food supply is at risk. Thankfully, teachers are coming to the rescue. Pollinator gardens are popping up on school grounds from coast to coast. These vast displays of native flowers not only provide food and shelter for our life-saving pollinators, but they also boost campus biodiversity, create biodiversity corridors within our communities, beautify campuses, brighten moods, and store more carbon above ground in the plants themselves, as well as in the soil. Schools across the United States and Mexico are embracing pollinator gardens as a STEM teaching tool and are all in on planting lots of milkweeds in the mix.

  1. Tree planting

Schools are major property owners, and the vast majority of our schools are eagerly taking ownership in increasing the tree canopy in our communities. Trees beautify the school campus, increase carbon storage, stabilize the soil, purify the air and the water, lower the heat, reduce noise pollution, and increase privacy. Tree planting is also a STEM tool for teachers.

  1. Vegetable beds

Vegetable beds are an ideal learning environment that inspire students to eat more fruits and vegetables. Vegetable beds promote the scientific method through inquiry, observation and experimentation. Movement is also a big part of the outdoor gardening experience which improves dexterity. The USDA promotes Farm to School programs and provides much guidance. Home grown produce is also that much more nutritious, containing higher vitamin content.

If climate action is this beneficial, quick, easy and fun for schools, why is it so hard for everyone else? 

Just imagine how quickly we’d be able to cut carbon emissions if every household, business, organization and community implemented these same 10 climate actions in 2022/2023. We’d have no problem staying below 1.5ºC. 

Let’s do this!

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