Marking Earth Day with a Call for Green Schools

As we celebrate Earth Day this year, enormous global environmental challenges still loom and reducing green house gas (GHG) emissions continues to be a major international concern.

One way to reduce GHGs and combat climate change is to infuse green technology and environmentally sustainable practices into building design, construction, maintenance and operations. With millions of schools around the world, ensuring that they are environmentally sustainable is one important way for the global education community to make a contribution to climate change mitigation efforts.

Green schools are buildings that create an optimal, healthy learning environment while saving money, energy and resources. They follow comprehensive building standards, utilizing materials, designs, and operational measures to improve health and productivity, often based on the LEED certification system. Green schools have proven economic, environmental, health and academic benefits.

The United States, which is currently responsible for one-fourth of GHG emissions, has an opportunity to lead by example on green schools. Over the last decade, green schools have grown in prominence throughout the U.S., led by state-wide initiatives in California, Texas, Arizona, and Massachusetts, among others. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, there are currently 379 LEED certified schools and 1,741 LEED registered schools throughout the country. However, this represents just 1.6 percent of schools in America.

While the initial cost to making schools green is more significant than traditional buildings, the long-term benefits and savings greatly outweigh these costs. A Capital E study on the performance of 30 U.S. green schools finds that the average cost of traditional school construction is $150 per square foot. The “green premium”, or increase in initial costs for a green school, constitutes an approximate 2 percent increase or $3 more per square foot. This is a small cost in the short-term given the long-term savings. Adopting green design and technology can help communities gain an average of $70 per square foot.

On average, green schools lower energy usage and water usage by over 30 percent each. Currently, the schools in the United States spend a total of $7.8 billion annually on energy costs. By lowering energy usage, utility costs can be greatly reduced, which provides more funds for teacher training, learning equipment, textbooks and more. Energy efficiency not only translates into direct financial benefits, but also to major environmental and health benefits. Green schools not only reduce water usage by one-third, they help tackle local water pollution by reducing run-off and improving groundwater charging.

Setting the (Green) Stage for Learning
The greatest benefit of green schools is the long-term impact on student learning and performance. An overarching goal of all green school initiatives is to create healthy and productive learning environments through improved indoor air quality, lighting and acoustics. Improvements to the environmental factors within a school building contribute to better student health, which in turn promotes better academic performance. For instance, indoor air quality has a significant impact on asthma symptoms and asthma-related absences. According to the American Lung Association, students missed an average of 14 million school days in 2008, due to asthma. Studies evaluating the impact of improvements to indoor air quality have shown a 38.5 percent reduction in asthma-related symptoms. Improved indoor air quality also reduces the spread of illnesses like as the flu. Creating a learning space that is less prone for students to develop asthma and catch other respiratory illnesses gives them more consistent time in the classroom. This allows for more opportunities to learn. Research also suggests that “daylighting” – the practice of maximizing exposure to natural light – improves student performance and test scores, as well as sleep patterns for young children. All of these benefits from green schools contribute to a better learning environment, which studies have shown have a 3-5 percent increase in learning ability and test scores.

Green Schools as Teaching Tools
Green schools can also be tremendous teaching tools for students to learn sustainable and environmentally-conscious behavior.

By providing school administrators, teachers and students with continued exposure to sustainable and green practices from recycling to rain catchment, green schools promote sustainable and pro-environmental behaviors. In addition, teaching curricula that focus on sustainability allows students to understand the human impact on the environment. In particular, green schools provide students with a hands-on opportunity to become a part of the solution.

The Global Action Network for Energy Efficiency Education’s (GANE) Green Schools Program in the U.S. provides training and tools that make students the focus of green schools by placing them in leadership positions to carry out energy diagnostics in their school building. The green building becomes a learning lab for these students to apply science, math and language arts to solve the global climate change problem. Through basic changes in operations, maintenance and individual behavior, schools participating in the GANE Green Schools Program have reduced their energy consumption and equipped students to promote energy efficiency in their homes and communities.

Building green schools in developing countries also has added benefits in terms of life skills-based environmental education, access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, and renewable energy for the school. School-based programs that harvest rainwater and grow tree in nurseries serve as student-centered, participatory approaches to learning that foster confidence and competence while positively impacting the environment. Again, while these approached are more costly on the front-end, ensuring environmentally friendly school facilities in developing countries contributes significantly to improved health, increased student enrollment and retention and reduced vulnerability of children and the community at large. When aligned with culturally- and environmentally-relevant pedagogy, these measures help to nurture the knowledge, skills and actions necessary to ensure economic growth and sound environmental policy and practice.

As an environmental movement that began with the overwhelming support of students and teachers, it is only appropriate that on Earth Day 2011 policymakers around the world take a closer look at the untapped opportunity for addressing climate change through the development of green schools. With 2.2 billion people (one-third of the global population) under the age of 18, policymakers, educators and communities should use education as a way to address global climate change issues.

This commentary was supported by the research assistance of Anna Moffet, New York University.