Schools and Universities [Better Places]

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It is estimated that school and university facilities produce over ten per cent of national carbon emissions just through their energy use. Due to their footprint and reach, they are likely to have equivalent impacts on land-use, water usage and waste management. Billions of pounds are also held by these institutions in investments through pension funds and endowments.

These establishments provide accommodation and services for hundreds of thousands of people and own huge buildings central to many cities and towns. They often characterise a place and offer jobs for a high percentage of a local population. These places can become hubs where people learn how to make a better future as well as becoming shining examples in their use of energy and sustainable practices.

Here you will learn about what you can do as a parent, staff member or student to help initiate change in these important and very visible institutions.

How to improve sustainability

The opportunity to reduce impacts from these organisations is great. Energy efficiency measures, renewable heating and electricity, could make these places net energy contributors, whilst being hubs for energy storage. Many schools and universities have already begun installing solar panels, but sadly a number are still reinstalling aged oil and gas central heating systems. This persists even where there is a great opportunity to install renewable alternatives.

Methods of transport to and from these places also can be greatly improved through encouragement to use two-wheeler vehicles, shared transport schemes and electric cars. It is also possible for these organisations to greatly improve environmentally friendly practices around food, waste and educational resources.

Funds held by these organisations have often become a target for campaigners, resulting in many divesting pensions and other endowed holdings. However, it should be noted that non-private organisations have their pensions and budgets managed by local councils.

What is holding back progress?

For most organisations, the single biggest barrier to implement new practices is money, with knowledge, time and support for change also being major issues. Many receive some form of professional support to help them consider sustainability, but with institutional resistance and finance being barriers, they often do not propose bold solutions. Sustainability has an annual budget which is mostly spent on reporting an institution’s annual impact.

Capital expenditures which reduce the overhead costs of an institution are considered major projects and when they are proposed they are usually dismissed due to tight budget restrictions. Those managing finances often need to see 1-3 year returns on invested time, money and resources. This approach misses the opportunities over a 10-20 year period represented by very high potential returns from investments such as solar panels or heat pump installation.

Most do have a sustainability plan. This is often created to demonstrate that the organisation has given these issues some thought and to ensure they meet mandated requirements. These plans sometimes are embedded in the strategic thinking of an organisation, but more often than not they are simply a sideline.

On divesting funds, the biggest thing holding organisations back is the difficulty in moving these funds and the time and attention people can invest in making this change. It is often complex to move pension funds – you can learn more about this on our Divesting Pensions pages.

What can be done to support change?

Informing people of what can be done, alongside the creation of institutional support, are the two biggest ways to enable change. To do that, a single person or a group of people will need to consider what could be done by the organisation.

Often the glossy sustainability report is the best place to start, to consider alongside some blue-sky thinking about what is possible. Our pages on Better Homes offer a huge resource in considering building management, whilst our pages on Better Living offer thought-provoking resources on food, fashion and technology.

In addition, our community site offers support – simply ask a question and someone should come to your aid!

Research your project

The research stage can be incredibly time consuming and therefore it’s often best to go to meet the professional who deals with sustainability at the organisation. You should consider the scope for changes prior to meeting them and ask for a tour of what’s been done at their site. Often these individuals are very willing to spare the time to help educate someone from within the organisation who may be willing to help.

You may then be in a position to start talking with other members of the community around the organisation about what they think should be done. Sometimes you can get support to host a gathering and this could then form the basis of a group to think about sustainability.

Do have a look out for groups that have already started and don’t be put off by any existing lack of progress. If there is already a group, then your injection of energy and the support from our community could make all the difference!

Find the funding

By this stage, you should realise the scope of the potential changes that could be made and perhaps some idea of the costs required to implement them. It can be extremely beneficial to at this point consider how to overcome the biggest barrier of all – the money!

Often what isn’t considered by organisations is the potential to raise money to fund capital improvements, and this doesn’t have to be a charitable fundraising effort. It is possible to create bonds in capital improvement and sell them as investments to stakeholders.

This type of thinking is complex. Where possible it’s best to tap into demonstration projects which have done similar things. We are hoping to develop a library of such demonstrations within our community website, so if you do any research, we would love you to please share it!

Meet with the board

When you’ve got all your ducks in a row it’s time to get a meeting with the board of the organisation, or if they don’t respond to you or the group, then to campaign for changes. Simple commitments are best to frame such a meeting, they offer incredible PR benefits for the organisation and are easy for others to support. Here are some top potential commitments you could campaign for:

  • Make xx school carbon neutral by 2030 by: -
    • Moving all school consumed electricity to 100% renewable by 2025.
    • Replacing all existing heating systems with renewable alternatives by 2030.
    • Meet 50% of the school’s electricity needs by producing solar energy by 2025.
  • Divest the school’s pension fund entirely away from fossil fuels by 2025.
  • Allow only electric vehicles to park on school premises by 2035.
  • Move all school meals to 100% vegan by 2023.

Of course, there are numerous ways of creating very different types of commitments and we welcome you to share your thoughts and experiences within our community area.

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