Reaching net-zero: how to transform the education system

A significant transformation is needed for education institutions to hit the goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. So what are the first steps that can be taken? Dr Sally Uren, chief executive at Forum for the Future, offers some advice

Last year, the Department for Education set a goal for all schools, colleges and universities to be carbon-neutral by 2030, and has recently announced plans to secure an outside contractor to help schools with their environmental plans.
As it stands, we are currently on track for a rise of 4°C by the end of the century – our food systems won’t operate with that level of elevated temperature. We are also not on track to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
In order to address the climate crisis and reach net zero emissions, it’s important for all sectors – including education – to quickly become carbon neutral. Education is also a key enabler for sustainable development, having the foundations to equip current and future generations on how to tackle climate change. It’s time for us to take a different, unchartered path to up our ambition around sustainability.

Understanding your carbon footprint
The first step for most educational institutions is to understand what the impact of its carbon footprint really is. This can be done by looking at energy bills, as well as the building and transport emissions an institution is responsible for. Educational institutions should also consider their scope three energy emissions – these are associated emissions that are not created by the institution itself. Scope one and two emissions are much easier for an institution or company to track and control.
Scope one emissions cover the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions an institution or company makes directly e.g. running boilers. Scope two covers the emissions an institution makes indirectly, like electricity or energy that is bought for controlling temperatures in buildings and is produced on the institution’s behalf. Scope three emissions are all the associated emissions the institution is indirectly responsible for, up and down its value chain.
Institutions have less control over the scope three emissions but it is often where the biggest impact of a carbon footprint lies. This is important to consider as one of the biggest carbon outputs in the educational ecosystem is the scope three energy used to produce the food that schools, colleges and universities buy.
Next, each institution should look for opportunities to reduce their energy consumption, whether this be through investing in insulation to keep buildings warmer or switching energy supplier. A great example of tackling scope three emissions would be to look at the procurement of food and whether sourcing local or seasonal food – or even starting a school garden – can be prioritised.
Renewable energy options should also be considered, with ground-sourced heat pumps and solar panels on roofs offering an alternative to fossil fuels.

Solar panels capture the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity. Schools can then use the electricity, store it or send it to the grid. Use of this technology can make annual savings on a building’s electricity bills.
Solar thermal panels meanwhile capture the sun’s energy and use it to directly heat water. This water is then stored in a hot water cylinder for use within the building.

Education is key
The responsibility for reaching net zero doesn’t lie at one level – this has to be a collective effort across the whole educational ecosystem, from students to the governors or top decision-makers. Beyond reducing their carbon footprint, educational institutions have the responsibility of not only reaching net zero, but simultaneously educating a future generation on how to tackle the climate crisis. At the moment, education isn’t equipping students with the knowledge or skills on how to reach a net zero carbon economy, yet it is essential for change.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The future isn’t something that simply just happens to us. The world we live in today is a result of the decisions we made yesterday. The decisions we make today will determine what happens tomorrow. So we have to hold hope, despair and possibility in the same frame and really believe that the future is ours to write. The next generation can pave the way for new solutions on how to reach the carbon target with fresh and imaginative ideas, something that is often overlooked. It is our responsibility to inspire students to think outside the box and encourage creativity in the climate space.
The need to integrate sustainability and climate literacy is true for all stages of education: primary, secondary and tertiary, both as something to study but also as an essential part of education like Maths and English. An overhaul of the whole education system is needed to enable change-makers across all sectors and careers – the students of today are the change agents of tomorrow. The ultimate goal of education is not just reaching carbon neutrality, but to help create a just and regenerative future.

Sally Uren recently spoke about transforming carbon neutral education for a just and regenerative future as a keynote speaker at Bett 2023 in March.


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