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Influencing change through a low carbon schools community program

Sustainable building design and construction Energy efficiency Green building Western Australia

In January 2016, a two-year Low Carbon School Pilot Program (LCSPP) was developed and launched in Perth, Western Australia. A total of 15 schools participated in the pilot - 10 primary schools and five high schools from around seven different local government areas.

The aim of the LCSPP was to enable, empower and facilitate schools to reduce their school’s greenhouse gas emissions and utility costs while educating and upskilling the next generation to be more efficient with resources.

Four core activities underpinned the pilot: 1. workshops; 2. calculating and tracking performance; 3. creating action plans, and; 4. monthly Meetups. The five monthly workshops were delivered in the first six months to provide information on the program activities, as well as to invite guest industry speakers to provide information and advice on what key actions they could implement. Their progress was tracked over the two years using excel spreadsheets provided to them by the LCSPP team, which captured consumption, costs and carbon emissions from data on their electricity, gas and water bills.

An ‘Action Plan’ template was also provided, enabling each school to add and manage their own actions. All schools met monthly at one of the participating schools (‘Meetups’), where they would share experiences and discuss actions they were implementing.

By the end of the program, the carbon emissions from all 13 schools dropped from a baseline of 3,352tCO2-e in 2015 to 3,086tCO2-e by the end of 2017, representing a reduction of 266 tonnes of carbon emissions (CO2-e) or 7.5 per cent.

In contrast, the total utility costs for the 13 schools from electricity, gas and water increased from $1.48 million in 2015 and to $1.59 million by December 2017. This was an increase of approximately $120,000, representing an eight per cent rise. Four of the 13 schools reduced their total costs during the pilot. The financial savings between the four schools that reduced ranged between – $839 and $23,346.

The overall increase in costs was due to a variety of factors, the most significant being changes in student numbers. Between 2015 and 2017, total student numbers across the 13 schools increased from 7,386 students to 8,605, representing an average increase of 15%. This led to new demountable buildings being installed in some schools, increasing consumption and consequently costs. Therefore, to take into account the fluctuation in student numbers, results were also calculated on a per student basis.

While on a per school basis, 10 of the 13 schools reduced their total carbon emissions, on a per student basis, all 13 schools reduced their emissions. The average carbon savings per student across all 13 schools was 0.08 tonnes of CO2-e, representing a 20 per cent reduction per student.

Similarly, in terms of costs, while nine of the 13 schools increased their total utility costs (i.e. across the whole school), 10 of the 13 actually reduced their costs on a per student basis. The average savings across those 10 schools (70 per cent of the program), was over $31 per student. The utility savings averaged across all 13 schools was $16 per student.

In addition to fluctuating student numbers, there were a number of other external factors that influenced the results. These included weather (though this was normalised), changes in electricity tariffs, changes in emission factors, leaks, among others. This made comparisons and correlations problematic and demonstrates how difficult it is to determine the impact of school-based sustainability programs.

Nevertheless, visualising and analysing the data provided important feedback and insights for the schools along the way, many who eagerly investigated anomalies in their data. These investigations also triggered schools to pursue a variety of low carbon actions and initiatives.

A total of 625 low carbon initiatives were identified amongst the 13 schools Action Plans. The majority (36%) of actions focused on energy, with waste coming second (26%) despite it not being tracked in the excel spreadsheets. Nineteen per cent of actions targeted water. Interesting, more than 70 per cent of the actions identified were considered low or no cost actions, demonstrating the vast potential for schools to reduce consumption in a cost-effective way.

A tree planting program was also initiated and delivered by a parent at one of the participating schools as a result of the LCSPP. Thirteen schools participated in the tree planting program. These students planted over 50,000 in 2017, which led to the baseline carbon emissions of all schools being completely offset – enabling all schools to become carbon neutral.

Considering the pivotal role schools play within society, the project also highlighted the opportunity that school-based carbon reduction programs have to influence community awareness, knowledge and action on climate change and decarbonisation, primarily through kids taking their knowledge home and influencing their parents and wider families.

At the conclusion of this pilot in December 2017, work began on the next version of the program. In January 2018, ‘The ClimateClever Initiative’ was developed and was launched nationally. The new program is underpinned by innovative, data-driven software that enables schools to calculate, track and compare their carbon footprint, audit their buildings and create personalised, evidence-based, online actions plans that are interactive and can be student-led.

Not only has this important research helped to inform the next stage of the program, the financial savings identified through this pilot have provided an opportunity to create a sustainable business model to ensure the longevity of the program into the future.

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