David Preece, Head of Geography at Teach First
David Preece
Head of Geography at Teach First

COP26: How can schools reach net-zero emissions?

Following COP26, sustainability in education has been been put front and centre, meaning schools need solutions - now. Climate change specialist David explores what ways schools could go greener and the challenges that lie ahead.

As the COP26 Summit in Glasgow came to a conclusion, the Department for Education announced that it was publishing draft guidance on a strategy for the education and children’s services sectors to put sustainability at the heart of forward planning.

There is no question that the goals are laudable and ambitious – and I think we could all conceive of ideal scenarios in which our schools were at the heart of their community net-zero strategies. With large estates, we have the potential for solar power, battery storage and being the hub for a district heating scheme. We could place healthy, locally sourced food at the heart of our school meal service. We have buildings that would benefit hugely from decarbonisation and BREEAM standards of excellence. We could imagine a world where staff charged their electric vehicles on site during the day and where our school minibuses were all-electric, with these charging points open to the public once the school day closed.

For most schools, this dream is out of reach within the near future. For schools in disadvantaged areas, we know that there are more serious problems including funding pressures and the challenges of responding to learning lost due to COVID-19.

Reducing emissions to net-zero has been law since the 2019 amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008. Additionally, a number of commercial sectors are actively exploring ways to act in light of the October 2021 Strategy Paper and the Government’s Green Industrial Revolution strategy. With understandable focus on the recovery from the ongoing COVID pandemic, and the need to support children with their learning, schools are not yet prioritising these strategies in the same way. Here, we look at some examples of ongoing work that has been successful for schools and councils, and what might be learned from the wider changes in the commercial space.

Think local, act local: get children involved

Over 20,000 schools in England are involved in the Eco-Schools programme. This initiative creates a framework of steps that fosters young people’s decision-making, at the heart of a programme designed to encourage them to identify and develop local needs. When a school has worked through the steps, they can apply for Green Flag accreditation – recognised internationally as a symbol of a school’s commitment to environmental education. A large number of charities and academic research projects are already exploring ways of supporting schools, backed by learned societies like The GA and the Royal Geographical Society, and are already making large steps towards Action Area 1 and 2 of the DfE Strategies.

Other schools have taken more innovative approaches. In 2019, Teach First partner school The Totteridge Academy (Barnet, London) set up a small farm in partnership with a charity called GROW. Used as an outdoor classroom, as well as a productive space for growing food that appears on the school menu, the partnership recently featured on BBC’s Gardeners’ World!

But as these initiatives don’t address the net-zero approaches outlined in the DfE paper, we need to consider further ways in which schools can work towards a more sustainable future.

Learning from business: unlocking investment and economies of scale

One of the key variables in a school sustainability strategy involves the production and consumption of energy. In the commercial sector, Corporate Power Purchase Agreements (CPPAs) are a growing trend in the renewables market. A renewable CPPA is an agreement for the sale and purchase of electricity between a generator (for example, a wind farm operator), and a company (school, Multi-Academy Trust or council) that wants to buy electricity for its’ own use. CPPAs are generally a long-term contract, with fixed energy prices – typically guaranteeing reasonably consistent energy bills over ten years. This also comes with the confirmation of energy sources contributing towards carbon reduction, as well as price and supply certainty (which may be very attractive in current times).

There is no requirement for the generation of energy to be close to the site of a school: the provider will supply power directly to the National Grid, and the user needs to make no significant changes in their own infrastructure.

While individual schools could enter into such an agreement, this is more likely to be of benefit to a larger organisation (multi-academy trusts or local authorities) that can leverage economies of scale to make better strategic investment choices. Warrington Borough Council for example, has acquired a 34.7MW solar farm sited near York, pioneering a model of solar power generation and battery storage designed to supply the local authority with renewable energy.

Increasingly, local authorities have responsibilities and targets towards net zero, and may be keen to partner with schools to explore energy and financing options, or offer access to larger economies of scale in the purchase of renewable assets. Partnerships (e.g. Solar Together) offer group-buying schemes to install generation assets like solar panels and battery storage, which could be a way for trusts and councils to reduce costs and generate their own energy. In some areas, additional funding is available through corporate investment – the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency Fund (MEEF) has £500m of matched funding to support investment in renewable infrastructure.

There is a significant pool of expertise in the commercial world, working with deals far greater than school budgets. It is important to recognise that schools often lack access to the following:

  • Understanding what might be available.
  • Access to specialist knowledge.
  • Access to energy and sustainability consultants.
  • Affording the fees of the professionals involved.

What challenges to sustainable schools lie ahead?

Progress in Areas 1-2 (the academic and teaching goals) of the DfE Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy is ongoing in our classrooms, and there are numerous charities and organisations able to support schools in enhancing their already excellent environmental education. There are two key difficulties schools are coming up against.

First, the challenges facing schools are, amongst other things, compounded by a lack of expertise and training in this area. Understandably, most training for headteachers and school business leaders focuses on the needs of their school and managing risk in their school budget, rather than being aware of wider commercial, project and legal options. This means that we are missing out on large sets of information and potentially legislative impacts, as well as opportunities to learn from wider schemes and funding. Commercial advice on this from experts is undoubtedly expensive, and schools will be unwilling to spend in already tightened financial circumstances.

One of the other challenges concerns school funding. We know that many schools don’t have the models or opportunities to operate more sustainably. While the old feed-in tariffs have been replaced by Smart Export Guarantees, a school with renewable energy generating capacity could earn money back, or provide a potential revenue stream to an investment partner. At larger scale, these investment opportunities are funding UK offshore wind farms – why not for a solar revolution on our estate? We have the power of economies of scale to offer: there is space for a large MAT to take the lead on innovating and showing the sector how it can be done.

The Minister for Education’s vision for Sustainability in Schools is well articulated and a strong message for the sector. It’s important to view it as the start of a conversation. To get the most out of it, it’s imperative that the sector can draw on expertise and dialogue, and continue to explore solutions to the challenges schools face to reaching net-zero. The Green Revolution can be achieved, but schools will need significant help to get on board. 

 

David is Head of Geography at Teach First. After completing his PhD in climate science at UCL, he taught and led Geography for over a decade in London. As well as completing a UN Climate Change teacher accreditation, he has worked with the Royal Geographical Society, the Geographical Association and Royal Meteorological Society on climate and weather teaching resources. The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable expertise of Marianne Anton in preparing this piece: a renewable energy specialist at Watson Farley Williams LLP, who has worked for the energy regulator (OFGEM) as well as advising on significant renewable projects.

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