Schools are missing from the state’s climate plan

Ed sector one of largest users of land, energy in Mass.

ON THURSDAY, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a landmark climate bill which affirms, for the first time, that schools are part of the state’s leadership on climate. What’s missing is a plan that will turn that affirmation into action.

The Green and Healthy Schools provision in the climate bill, originally filed by Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb, passed with support from advocates throughout the state. It calls on several key agencies to devise school building standards that promote healthy, safe, and carbon-free learning environments. It’s a crucial step.

In order to take practical steps to address schools’ massive carbon footprint, however, a separate element — the state’s climate plan — must be fixed.

The education sector is one of the largest public users of energy and land in Massachusetts. The climate plan, issued this past June, lays out strategies and targets to help Massachusetts reach its emissions reduction goals. And despite the Legislature’s acknowledgment that school buildings play an important role in addressing the climate crisis, they are conspicuously absent from this plan.

The omission of school buildings was the predictable result of a process that both failed to engage the education sector, and relied on inaccurate building data. The Buildings Sector Report, which formed the basis for determining which building types have the greatest climate impact, misstates the footprint of Massachusetts school buildings by an order of magnitude: Schools occupy approximately 186 million square feet of building space, but the report claims that schools occupy only about 15 million. (This error also calls into question the state’s estimate of current overall commercial building emissions.)

Schools’ vast footprint makes them essential to achieving the state’s climate goals. Schools rank among the top five categories of commercial building space in Massachusetts and the largest in the public sector. With so much building space, they could help make a serious dent in the state’s aim to retrofit 300 million square feet of commercial building space by 2030.

One out of every 6 Americans visits a school daily. Their budgets and operations are matters of public discourse. The young people who walk school halls are among our nation’s strongest climate leaders. Schools make for great places to model climate solutions and the cost savings that often result — but the state’s plan neglects this opportunity. In the community engagement section of the state’s climate plan, schools are merely places to “hang flyers” — alongside senior centers and farmers’ markets.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority  calls the shots on school construction and is a major player in the heavy construction industry. Since its inception in 2004, the authority has provided over $15.9 billion in funding and currently has 600 projects in the queue. And yet, the authority is not mentioned once in the climate plan, either.

This all makes painful sense given that education and youth leaders were absent from the list of contributors, reviewers, and advisory committee members.

But it’s not too late to fix the problem. Reaching our ambitious climate targets will be hard work requiring all hands on deck. We need a plan that includes — not ignores — our schools.

Here’s how state leaders can help.

  • The Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs should correct the Buildings Sector report. An accurate representation of school buildings’ geographic footprint will show how big a role school climate action could play in reducing carbon emissions.
  • The Massachusetts School Building Authority  and Department of Public Health should move swiftly to implement the Green and Healthy Schools provision. The authority should immediately solicit input to help guide the school buildings assessment, and the DPH should engage district leaders and other stakeholders to create school building standards that align with the state’s commitment to health, climate action, and equity.
  • The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is in possession of $100 million in COVID relief funds earmarked for improvements to school HVAC systems. DESE should engage the necessary technical assistance to ensure that those funds are invested in ways that move schools along the path to electrification.
  • The Legislature should allocate a portion of unused American Rescue Plan funds to jumpstart zero carbon retrofits for public buildings, including schools. More than 100 organizations agree. A Zero Carbon Renovation Fund could advance climate action and upgrade deteriorating existing buildings, starting with those that serve the most vulnerable populations.
  • Attorney General Maura Healey, as she advances her candidacy to be the next governor, should make commitments to increase equitable access to healthy, climate-resilient, decarbonized school buildings and grounds for those families most affected by and vulnerable to climate change impacts. This will send a signal to agency and municipal leaders, as well as nonprofit and private sector partners, readying them for a new chapter under a new climate-ambitious administration.

Young people need to be invited into this work and education leaders need to be cultivated as climate leaders. With new appreciation of just how significant a footprint our school buildings have, state leaders should welcome every opportunity to advance climate mitigation and adaptation in our schools.

Sara Ross and Jonathan Klein are co-founders of UndauntedK12, a nonprofit supporting states to activate schools in responding to the climate emergency.