Almost two years after dozens of its students missed classes to call for action on climate change, Washington state’s largest school district now has a deadline of 2040 to produce 100% clean and renewable energy.
The commitment, unanimously approved by the Seattle School Board this week, would ultimately put an end to the district’s reliance on fossil fuels to heat buildings, prepare meals, and transport students. To get there, the district would have to invest in electric school buses and heating methods that use electricity instead of natural gas. District officials estimate the transition will cost more than $ 1 billion, with some cost-saving benefits in the future.
The Seattle move follows similar recent efforts by other major districts across the country, including LA Unified, Oakland, and Salt Lake City, building in part on the dynamics of the global youth-led climate strike movement, which is estimated to have included nearly all of the neighborhoods of American youth. These activists echoed the United Nations’ global calls to cut CO2 emissions by around half by 2030, or risk irreversible or permanent changes to the environment, including extreme weather and rising sea levels.
“The science is crystal clear: schools in Seattle need to strengthen leadership in the 21st century. We need to listen to our youth, ”said Jessica Levine, a teacher at Eckstein Middle School in Seattle, during the school council meeting on Wednesday.
American public schools have a significant carbon footprint, according to a 2020 report from the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. They have the largest fleet of local transport vehicles in the country – yellow school buses – which run mainly on diesel. And the country’s nearly 100,000 school buildings make up a large portion of the public sector’s energy consumption, the report said. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fossil fuels burned for transportation and electricity cause more than half of America’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
For tax reasons, too, more school districts are going green. Energy costs – a total of $ 8 billion a year for schools – are the second highest cost for districts after employee salaries, according to the EPA. The agency estimates that nearly $ 2 billion could be saved annually by making schools more energy efficient.
Work on the Seattle resolution began almost two years ago after students from the Seattle area demonstrated every few weeks, led by youth organizers such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who caught the world’s attention in 2018 when she saw her every Friday the school skipped protest in front of the Swedish parliament.
Seattle School board member Zachary DeWolf, co-author of the resolution with board member Lisa Rivera-Smith, recalls a June 2019 graduation from Garfield High School where Valedictorians used their airtime to tell adults about the warming world to challenge that they had inherited.
Everything just lit a fire under him, DeWolf said. The following fall, he and Rivera-Smith began meetings with the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club, the national environmental organization. They invited a broad coalition of school employees, students and local community groups to contribute to the resolution.
The resolution provides for an implementation plan to be submitted to the Board of Directors by January 2022 at the latest. In addition to the 2040 deadline, the district must meet a deadline to run 100% carbon-free electricity by 2027. Any new buildings built after the resolution’s creation may not be fossil fuel based.
The main challenge will be finding the resources to make all the changes needed and maintaining the momentum of a resolution that sets the first target six years away, proponents say.
“We really need to make sure that the pressure on the school district remains and that this becomes a reality, rather than an empty promise,” said Ruth Sawyer, climate and clean energy organizer for the Sierra Club.
Before the resolution, the district had already made commitments to become more environmentally friendly. Some school buildings use solar panels or geothermal heating techniques. New buildings have been retrofitted to reduce waste and energy consumption. According to Tim Robinson, spokesman for the district, between 2010 and 2020 the district reduced its average energy use intensity, or energy use per square foot, from 43 to 36. The national average for schools is 48.5, according to EnergyStar.