School Improvement Episode 32: Zero cost initiatives for reducing carbon emissions in schools

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Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Dominique Russell.

In this episode in our School Improvement series, I’m joined by Vanessa Rauland, Portia Odell and Karen Murcia, who have recently published an examination of a two-year pilot study which encouraged schools to actively try to reduce their carbon emissions. Their study, and resulting report titled Schools: An Untapped Opportunity for a Carbon Neutral Future assessed which actions proved to be most effective, considering both the cost involved and the outcome achieved.

The study came about after Vanessa Rauland and her colleagues conducted the two-year pilot program, the Low Carbon School’s Pilot Program, between 2015 and 2017. Fifteen schools were involved in this, and then PhD candidate Portia Odell, decided to investigate further as part of her PhD research. Thirteen of the original 15 schools jumped on board for this further examination, and it’s the examination of these schools which we’ll discuss today. Alongside Vanessa and Portia, we’re joined by Karen who was the supervisor for this research of Portia’s.

As we’ll discuss in the episode, their report reveals that 60 per cent of the actions employed by schools involved no cost at all. Some of these actions included things like using less paper, improving recycling habits, obtaining quotes for solar panels and many other initiatives. The schools worked as a network throughout the pilot, meaning they could access each other’s energy consumption data, which proved to be particularly useful. All of this work led to the development of ClimateClever, Vanessa Rauland’s organisation, and specifically their app, which helps schools, businesses and homes reduce their carbon emissions.

Let’s kick off the conversation by hearing from Vanessa, Portia and Karen who will explain a little about themselves and their involvement in this study.

Vanessa Rauland: So my name’s Vanessa Rauland and I’m the CEO and Founder of ClimateClever. ClimateClever is a platform that helps schools, households and businesses to reduce their carbon footprint and save money on utility bills. And I’m also an Adjunct Researcher at Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute. … The genesis of the whole research project actually came from myself and my colleagues helping to certify the first carbon neutral school in Australia back in 2012 and that was really the inspiration behind this project. And I’ll let my colleagues talk more about the research side.

Portia Odell: My name is Portia Odell. I’m actually currently the Director at the Cities Power partnership which is Australia’s largest climate action network for local governments, but this study was actually part of my PhD research project and I looked at the barriers, enablers and strategies that schools use to reduce their carbon footprint and how students could influence their families around low carbon living.

Karen Murcia: I’m actually currently an Associate Professor in STEM Education, Research and Teaching at Curtin University and also a chief investigator on the National Centre for Excellence for the Digital Child. So for me being a part of this project has been an amazing opportunity, both to be a mentor and a coach as a supervisor through a PhD process, but also through my own personal passion for sustainability. I think sustainability and educating for sustainability is about where we’re going to start with transformation.

DR: This report looks over the pilot study that was undertaken between 2015 and 2017. It involved 13 schools in Western Australia and here, Portia shares what kinds of schools were involved in the pilot and how these schools were selected to participate.

PO: Yes, so the schools were selected, we basically invited all schools that were involved in the Low Carbon Schools Pilot Program to participate in the research. There were 15 schools in total that participated in the program, we invited all of them to participate in the research and 13 agreed which was great.

We had schools from six different council areas. All schools except one primary school were government funded. We had four secondary and nine primary and the size of school was quite varied. So we had, for example we had one small primary school with just 93 students, all the way up to a primary school in the outer suburbs that had over 600 students and was growing so rapidly they had over 14 transportable classrooms on site during the time we were working with them.

And our secondary schools also varied a lot in size with the smallest high school having around 850 students, but also we had a very large outer suburb secondary school with over 1700 students and growing, also had well over a dozen transportables. So we had quite a variety of different schools that were on board from different locations, sizes and carbon footprint which made the study really interesting and varied.

DR: Perhaps most excitingly, the research team found that of the actions these schools implemented throughout the pilot, 60 per cent of them involved zero cost, and a further 10 per cent of initiatives were classified as low-cost, which means they cost around $1500 or less. Here, Portia and Vanessa share some of the most popular and the most successful actions that the schools employed at zero cost.

PO: So one of the most successful actions that schools did that involved no cost was actually a switch off protocol for the end of school day, weekends and over the school holidays. So when we looked at the school’s energy consumption during the school holiday periods, both before and after they implemented the switch off protocol – which basically just meant someone was in charge of making sure all the lights and computers were off and nothing was running – the schools who implemented the protocol (which was 10 of the schools we were working with) reduced their energy use by an average of 12 per cent. And the financial savings that were associated with that varied because some of the schools actually had rising energy costs and others had just a bit of a different context.

But that’s a good example of the type of initiative. That was definitely the most successful initiative in terms of carbon emissions and a reduction in costs and in consumption. Which is great, because it was actually quite a simple thing to do, as long as someone was taking charge and leading the way.

VR: Following on from the research we were just featured on Fight for Planet A – our climate clever program and one of our more recent schools did a similar switch off protocol as Portia just mentioned and they actually ended up saving 30 per cent on their utility bills in four months, so it was sort of around November/December to February when they went back to school and that 30 per cent was equated to a $5000 savings for that school, and again, all no cost actions that they did and that was a significant saving. So that school I think had 200 students, so that was, probably funded their whole library budget for the year.

… A few other things that we looked at were counting various appliances. And we had, we set out challenges every month to say ‘everyone, go and count how many fridges, for example, you have in your school’. And one of the schools came back the following day and said: ‘oh my gosh, we’ve got one fridge per 2.4 staff members, is that a lot of fridges?’

Which, you know, we didn’t quite know ourselves because we didn’t have the data on it, but we did have a colleague who was like, ‘that sounds like a lot of fridges. Why do you have so many?’ And that prompted the further investigation into looking at why they did and it turned out a whole bunch had been donated by the community so they were old, inefficient fridges, and that led the school to start getting rid of these clunky old energy guzzlers. And that’s just another example of no-cost actions that they took which helped to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint.

But there were so many other things like that, that didn’t involve any cost at all, just really a review of what’s going on in the school.

KM: The schools working together as a network I think was part of the success for the program because it enabled them to compare their costs and their consumption around the utilities and the utility bills. And so that highlighted for one of the schools that they actually had pipe leakage, water loss, gas leakage, and that enabled them to repair the leak and reduce their consumption of those utilities.

DR: While not feasible for all schools across Australia, some of the low-cost initiatives employed by the schools in the pilot could be a worthwhile exercise for some communities. Here, Portia and Vanessa explain some of the ways money was invested to reduce emissions in schools.

PO: A lot of schools started to investigate the flow restrictors to install in their faucet taps in bathrooms. And that’s a relatively low-cost initiative that under a couple grand easily can do, depending on how many faucets you have. One school decided to replace, not all, but most of their faucets and they saw a 75 per cent reduction in their energy usage, which is pretty remarkable.

And some of the other things that schools started to do was obviously to changing to LEDs. Upfront costs, if you tried to do across the entire school is quite a costly expense, but a lot of schools started do that over time so they looked at implementing a plan of how they can start to transition to LEDs as they blow or as they need to be replaced, so that was another example.

We did encourage schools to focus on changing their external flood lights in their parking lots because those are very energy intensive and they do cost a couple hundred dollars to replace but the energy savings associated with that are quite large. And in addition some schools also did an energy or water audit and these were provided at a subsidised cost from some of the program partners that partnered with the low carbon schools program.

VR: And as Karen mentioned as well sometimes just looking at the data is incentive enough to find some of these leaks. So some schools also invested in more time of use data loggers for electricity and water, and even gas. This is actually another low-cost initiative, but some schools found that their gas pilot lights were actually being lit a couple months before they needed to use the gas heaters, for example. Just even the pilot lights were consuming so much gas that I think it ended up being about $30 a day that they saved from not switching those gas pilot lights on so early.

PO: There’s just another example of I guess the benefit of investigating your bills because, you know, the way that the water consumption in Western Australian works – and I know it’s different for each state – is that they are charged a fee per kilolitre of water, but also they’re charged a fee for each fixture they have in their school, so that includes urinals and toilets. And just by investigating and looking at their bill, one school saw that they were being charged for too many toilets than they actually had on campus. So changing that and amending that with the water corporation, for example, saved them $2000 a year just alone. And all that took was just looking at their bill and querying, you know, making sure that the data was right and just asking questions.

DR: Throughout the pilot study, the research team were measuring the emission reductions recorded by each school as a result of the actions that they’d taken. Importantly, it was decided that the most appropriate method for this would be to measure emission reduction on a per student basis. So, if you’re an educator or school leader listening to this podcast and you’re wanting to measure the success of sustainability actions you’re taking in your own school context, is measuring on a per student basis the best way forward? Portia explains here why it provides the most insight.

PO: Yeah, so measuring on a per student basis can provide some really useful insights because when you’re looking at comparing schools, schools can be so vastly different. One school could be very large, have very few students, another school could be quite small in terms of total square metres that have two or three times more students.

And so because a lot of schools, you know, schools receive their funding on a per student basis, calculating emissions and utility costs and utility consumption on a per student basis can provide just that level of comparison that both just levels the playing field for allowing you to compare yourself with other schools, but also provides I guess a bit more context of how you can interpret what that means for your school.

If you receive your funding on a per student basis then I think measuring those emissions on a per student basis also aligns nicely. And what we found by doing this analysis was the data would tell us very different things. If we compared schools purely on total carbon emissions or purely on total electricity consumption, that told a very different story than if we looked at it on a per student basis. And it allowed you to uncover more complexity within the data and get a deeper understanding.

VR: In that first pilot we saw that one of the schools more than doubled in size, more than doubled in student size over that two year period and therefore had all these demountables or all of these transportable buildings plonked on site so, of course, we saw energy consumption rise in that school. But looking at it on that per student basis that’s where you can start to see, okay, actually their carbon emissions are coming down on a per student basis, but of course they’re going up in an overall capacity, or in an overall sense.

DR: We know that many young people are passionate about sustainability. So aside from the outstanding results for emission reduction and decline in utility bills that this study has had for the participating schools, what has been the impact on these initiatives on students? Here, Karen describes how this study has provided an opportunity for students to build on their 21st Century skills, and Vanessa reflects on the intergenerational influence that’s been observed.

KM: Well we surveyed 294 parents who were in these schools and one third of those actually reported that they noticed a change in their child’s attitude and behaviours around low-carbon living within the first 12 months of the program. So half these parents actually attributed this change in their children’s attitude to what was happening in the school.

There were some parents who said this was consistent with their family’s values and what they were doing but we were seeing a significant shift in behaviours from what was happening and because of what was happening in the school. So 30 per cent of the parents actually said their child had influenced their household practices, that they as parents and a family unit were changing the way they were living, they were taking on board more low-carbon living practices. So, yeah, the children were actually influencing the practices in the home.

Then in terms of the impact on students, we also saw that there was this real building of their 21st Century learning skills, which is of increasing importance and awareness amongst teachers in schools these days. We were seeing the students questioning, they were thinking creatively, about how they could problem solve; solve some of the challenges that were being presented around the sustainability issues. So there was a lot of collaboration, teamwork, and they were developing really good interpersonal communication skills as well.

So they were using these skills to influence other people to act more sustainably, so influencing their family members, influencing their peers within the school, by talking about the sorts of things they were learning. So they were speaking out and having an impact on others at home, but also in the school itself. And they were using a whole range of strategies for communicating.

One of the students actually said that in her talking to family members, she was telling her siblings not to be wasteful. Monitoring their use of light switches (switching off), not running water taps and so on. But one of the students actually went as far as creating a PowerPoint and did a presentation to her family about what she had been learning around low-carbon living and the initiatives that could be taken.

So we saw this intergenerational influence was being supported by the use of technologies as well and that digital literacy that was an added component of the learning experiences that the students were having. So the students were being creative with their technologies and also they were being supported in their practices and their thinking by the ClimateClever app and their use of the app.

VR: That was certainly one of the key reasons for this overall research right from the beginning, was to document and see how that intergenerational change can play out in the school because we have heard so much anecdotal evidence over the years that kids do influence parents, but this was a particularly, I guess, around marketing and pester power for chocolates and toys and stuff, so this was a really nice way to see how it could work in a, well, more positive aspect around sustainability and climate change.

And I think the other really exciting thing that happened around the same time as our pilot program were the student strikes for climate action. They really started to pop up and emerge around 2017/2018, towards the end of our pilot and then as we’ve progressed into the ClimateClever program, it’s been really important I think to empower the students to realise that they can take action themselves. You know, it’s very important that they can go out there and demand action from our leaders, our politicians and adults, but I think it’s also equally as important to be able to say, ‘but hey, you can do something in your school and in your home as well.’

DR: The steps taken by the schools at the very beginning of the study to decide how they were going to reduce their emissions was an important part of their overall success. In the report, the authors write about how the development of SMART goals, and therefore the development of really specific targets, was a particularly useful activity.

VR: So certainly having SMART goals is really important. I think where this study led us to was the fact that there aren’t that many resources available to help schools to really measure, monitor and reduce. Hence why we ended up creating the ClimateClever program from this research to enable schools to really easily plug that data in somewhere so that they can start to understand – there’s a mantra in this field, ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’, so you have to have that sort of baseline data. So what we used in that initial pilot was Excel spread sheets. So we provided them to all the schools and they entered all their data into that Excel spread sheets and that was how we got that data together – and Google Docs to provide them with ideas for actions – that’s now all been translated into our app and this is what we’re now providing to schools across the country.

And I think it’s also worth mentioning that up until today there hasn’t been a national program for collecting all of this data and enabling these schools to compare and work together. So yeah, I guess the first step is to pull together your bills and that data to understand what you’re consuming as a school and then, well, what we’ve done with our ClimateClever platform is we’ve learned from this study and this pilot – so that counting of fridges and the counting of toilets as Portia said – we thought well that’s actually really interesting data as well, so let’s actually collect that. So the ClimateClever app now enables the students to go around with an iPad for example and count all those different types appliances and count how many lights there are in the school to start to identify where they could start to reduce or do retrofits and upgrades.

And then of course putting actions in place. And again we always want to encourage schools to look at those and really explore those no-cost actions. Because I think one of the inspirations behind this was to provide schools with a strategic approach to reduce their carbon footprint. And I’d often get asked, you know, by schools that have a worm farm, you know, what should they do next, should they do an LED lighting upgrade?

And I think as Portia mentioned as well, you know, lighting upgrades can be quite expensive if you do it across the whole school. So while the worm farm might be $150, the LED lighting upgrade might be $150 000. So being able to look and explore and find and implement those no-cost actions first which can save you some money and then you can use those savings to invest in further retrofits.

And we found through that pilot that quite a few of the principals were actually willing to silo those savings out and use a new green or sustainability fund to fund some of those upgrades which obviously then creates more savings and further financial opportunities for the school.

KM: Have an action plan in place where you identify what your goal is. Set yourself some targets and then celebrate those small achievements along the way.

And I think there’s opportunity here as you are planning and being intentional with what you’re doing is to seek out and make connections. So find those partners in the community that might actually be able to support the actions and initiatives in the school. So that might actually be the P&C, it might be some business owners within your local community who can help the schools with expertise, perhaps resources, or even actually getting quite hands on and getting involved in the programs.

And within that action, how can we then connect these programs into the curriculum within the school? So how do we actually get ClimateClever and sustainability actions and programs as a core component of curriculum where the science and the maths and the technology learning is actually integrated meaningfully into these amazing sustainability actions.

VR: And on that note, so we have, again, followed on from the research, we did ask all of our 15 schools what they would like to see if this program continued, and certainly curriculum resources was one of the key things that they all asked about. So we have developed curriculum resources for the ClimateClever program as well and Karen and I are actually also now supervising another Masters student who’s now looking at working with and integrating those curriculum resources in three schools in Perth as well. So it’s sort of following on from Portia’s research but with a bit more of a curriculum focus now.

DR: And finally, here, Karen discusses the implications of this study for school communities across the country, and in particular, what principals should be taking away from their research findings.

KM: I think the first major takeaway for school principals is just how doable it is to take action at a whole school level to actually make a difference around sustainability. And as we know, and principals would be very much aware, that sustainability is actually a cross-curricular priority. So it is something that is relevant to every member of the school community and it’s very much cross-curricular, everybody’s business.

So I think too, to take away from this, a learning from this project, is it could require some thinking differently. You know, approaching the pedagogy and the teaching practices a little bit differently. So this can be sometimes a bit of a challenge but there’s an opportunity here to support and coach students to take action for themselves; teachers to think differently about their approach to their planning and their classroom actions.

So supporting students to be problem solvers, to actually be the action taker or even the champion of the initiatives in the schools.

I think one of the other major takeaways for me and that I think has relevance to the school leader is that these sort of changes don’t happen automatically. It requires intention and taking action. And it can take a little bit of time and it can even take some resources. But as the examples that have out of this, spending a little bit of money can actually mean that you save money in the longer term and so the project becomes self-sustaining in that it can pay for itself with the savings with the utility bills and so on.

Another important takeaway I think from this study is the importance of having someone who champions the project and who champions the initiatives. So that may be a school principal, but it may not be. It may be a distribution of that leadership and that responsibility to teachers in schools. It’s really about identifying where is the passion for the movement? And who’s going to champion and drive that and keep the momentum in the actions?

So sustainability and carbon reduction projects can actually create opportunities for collaboration and peer support and peer learning for educator’s professional learning. So thinking differently about the approaches that we take, empowering others, and really being focused on taking that first step – creating action that will bring about a difference.

VR: What we’re finding now with our program as well is exactly as Karen said, there’s always a different champion in the schools. And for some of our current schools we have the business manager, for example, really taking the lead and loving all the numbers that are coming out of our app and the program. But yeah, other times you have a passionate teacher or a principal that’s really creating that top down approach just engaging the whole school along the way. So it is fascinating seeing where that excitement and engagement and passion comes from.

The other thing that I would say that would have an implication on the study for school leaders, particularly for teachers, is being able to use the real life data that comes from the program and looking at all the consumption data, that provides so many maths opportunities, science opportunities and it means that kids are learning with that tangible data in front of them instead of just an example in the text book that doesn’t feel like it’s that relevant. So I think there’s a huge opportunity there for schools.

KM: Vanessa’s raised a good point there about the cross-curricular nature about the learning that can go on. So the ClimateClever practice and app itself and the learning programs that came from that – they really are STEM-based learning experiences. So it’s a real-life problem, it’s something that students care about and are passionate about and they have it there in front of them. And in that context they’re learning their science, they’re learning their maths, and they can even create those technology-type solutions to the problem. So it’s real-life learning for the students and STEM in practice.

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Odell, P., Rauland, V., & Murcia, K. Schools: An Untapped Opportunity for a Carbon Neutral Future. Sustainability 2021, 13 (1), 46.

Schools involved in this pilot study who implemented a ‘switch off’ policy reduced their energy use by an average of 12 per cent.

Do you make sure to turn off your computer and any lights you have been using when you leave school for the day? Is a switch off policy something you could consider for your school community? How could you empower students to champion a policy like this?