Cut carbon, cut costs

Schools across the UK are signing up to become zero carbon within a decade. So how can cutting your carbon footprint save you money? Alex Green, schools manager of climate solutions charity Ashden, explains

To prevent the devastating impact of global warming, it’s vital that we see big reductions in carbon emissions in the next ten years. The good news is that taking action to combat climate change brings huge benefits to schools – from slashing energy and waste bills to creating cleaner air at the school gates.

Let's Go Zero is a ten-year campaign to help schools cut carbon in seven key areas: energy, food, procurement, waste, water use, travel and school grounds. From car-free school runs to plant-based canteens, many schools are already inspiring communities to act differently, and pupils are often at the forefront of driving change.

However, schools often feel they are working alone, with stretched resources. Let's Go Zero provides a route for schools to share best practice on going green, and unites them in calling for greater funding to work towards government targets for carbon reduction. The campaign is backed by a coalition of partners, including Ashden, the Carbon Trust, WWF, Eco-Schools, Sustrans (School Streets), Soil Association (Food for Life), Fairtrade Schools, and Global Action Plan. While government funding is needed for major changes to infrastructure, small changes can also have a significant impact.

Energy efficiency

English schools spend a total of £600million a year on energy – the second largest cost after salaries. School 'switch-off' campaigns are a quick (and free) way to involve staff and pupils in saving money and energy. You can use assembly briefings and reminder notices to encourage everyone to turn off power-hungry devices and close doors and windows left open in empty rooms. Schools can also be more selective about when heating is switched on or off (many turn it on in October and off in April, while heating is often on during weekends and holidays). In fact, 60% of the energy used by schools is outside of teaching hours. Understanding how your boiler works will help you use it more efficiently too.

Installing energy-efficient boilers and LED lighting, as well as improving wall and roof insulation, will lower energy use and generate long-term savings. You could also consider on-site energy generation through solar panels – there are grants and support available from a range of sources, including Salix Finance, and you can sell excess energy back to the grid (find out more).

Cut waste, buy local

Schools can help lower water bills by installing water butts and harvesting grey water on site for watering and use in toilets. Investing in waterless urinals and push-button or sensor taps will also create savings.

Measuring the amount of food thrown away each day can send a powerful message to pupils and staff. Composting food on site reduces waste disposal costs and supports school gardens. You can also encourage pupils to use refillable water bottles and cut down on packaging – particularly plastics.

Thinking local when it comes to procurement can reduce mileage and delivery costs. You can also look at the sustainability of any materials you purchase – everything from paper to food, to furniture. 

The next step

It is estimated that it will cost an enormous £23.37billion for all education buildings in England to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by 2030. However, signing up to Let's Go Zero is the first step. The Transform Our World initiative is also a great source of inspiration and advice.

'Our rainwater harvesting system saves eight litres of drinking water with every flush'

'Our school was designed to be low carbon, with passive ventilation, solar blinds to shade the building from heat, and a ground source pump that heats the buildings for next to nothing. We generate 100% of our summer electricity needs through on-site solar panels. A rainwater harvesting system saves eight litres of drinking water every time a toilet is flushed. The school also recycles 110 tonnes of raw material a month – from cardboard to vegetable oil.'

Stephen Green, environmental coordinator, King's Academy, Ringmer, East Sussex

'We saved £8,000 a year by changing behaviour around energy use'

'St Francis Xavier School in North Yorkshire saved an incredible £8,000 in a single year. We shared the school's energy data with staff and students in a drive to reduce usage by switching off lights, PCs and projectors at the end of the school day. Selling energy back to the grid from 48 on-site solar panels banks a further £1,500 a year. The school has also taken action on food waste, after throwing away a staggering five tonnes of food waste in the first year of measuring. In the second year, we reduced it to four tonnes and saved £500.

The student eco team has almost eradicated single-use plastic from the school and promoted recycling of cans and plastics. The team presented its sustainability vision to the local community, challenging the council and community groups.'

Margaret Land, former business manager at St Francis Xavier and now sustainability lead at the St Margaret Clitherow Catholic Academy Trust, which oversees St Francis Xavier and 16 other schools

'We've pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030'

'We began lift-sharing (pre-Covid) and also encourage pupils to walk or cycle to school. We generate some electricity from solar panels and have timers on our taps, as well as water butts for rainwater harvesting. Our canteen has adopted a "no beef" menu and uses Vegware food containers. We're also creating wild spaces in the school grounds.'

Jenny Chapman, biology teacher, North London Collegiate School

'We've been able to connect food with nature'

'With an allotment and a large "hotbox" composter, we have zero food waste and even incorporate our chickens' eggs into the curriculum. We also have some solar panels and would like to install more.'

Tom Parkin, headteacher, South Molton Primary School, North Devon

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