Using your School GHG Inventory to Make a Difference

When students see that their school creates tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) every year, many students’ first reaction is surprise and concern. Others may recognize that global warming is a threat to their futures and wonder why something isn’t being done about it. These are natural reactions and appropriate topics for every class class, every subject. In fact, putting student reactions into words can lead to testable hypotheses, thus helping to shape the next steps to be taken.

When people talk about ‘scientific method’, they often mean the process of testing hypotheses and theories. But those hypotheses stem from inquiry: observing the world around us, paying attention to details, gathering information, generating questions, and looking into previous thinking/work/research. Whether in science or in art, the creative process is fueled by curiosity about what we observe. Trying to answer questions about “why something isn’t being done” may involve both the natural and social sciences and the humanities, demonstrating the importance of a holistic, interdisciplinary approach.

Doing the GHG Inventory can be an excellent learning process—one that can integrate place-based, project-based, and interdisciplinary approaches.

“I think this information should be discussed more frequently at school, people are unaware of these severe hazards, students can be more involved in helping their community… and more action taken.”
—Student ‘Natalie’ (in response to New York Times article, March 2014)

Spread the Word About the School’s GHG Emissions

Since many people don’t really think about the local causes of global warming, the GHG inventory can also fill an important role by making these issues visible and informing the school community and the community at large.

The first step may simply be to identify key findings and discuss what they mean, what conclusions we can draw—including what can be done to reduce emissions. Not many schools have published GHG inventories, but we will provide participating schools with a few benchmarks for comparison. If you can, send us your completed inventory so we can include that (without identifying your school or district).ƒSince many people don’t really think about the local causes of global warming, the next step is even more important—what can schools, teachers, and students to do reduce GHG emissions, to slow and mitigate the effects of global warming? Here are some thoughts based on previous GHG inventories and the factors that can be changed. We think most student groups can be encouraged and led to produce many of the ideas themselves.

In each area, think about things we see every day that produce GHG emissions. For example, many students and teachers report that classrooms are too warm (although this is getting a little better as schools try to cut expenses) and too bright. In addition to being uncomfortable, both of these cases contribute to higher levels of GHG emissions. We will review each category of emissions below.

There are many ways to use information—and questions—from the inventory. Would these work in your school?

  • One or more students write a story for the school paper reporting on the GHG inventory process, then follow up with a report on the findings
  • Students (in any class) make a series of posters for the hallways, to raise awareness of key facts about global warming and the school’s emissions
  • Students present key facts and findings from the GHG inventory for an assembly
  • English or Journalism students do a ‘special edition’ on the GHG inventory, featuring indepth reporting on global warming & greenhouse gas emissions
  • Students help set up a special public event combining short presentations, a panel discussion, and research posters about various aspects of global warming
  • Students present to classes at other schools (for instance, high-school students presenting at middle schools or elementary schools)

Can you think of more ways to involve others in the GHG inventory and to share your findings and conclusions?

What Can You Do To Reduce Emissions?

Exploring ways to facilitate making change happen, empowers students and develops a sense of agency. What can we do to reduce GHG emissions? The options are different in every school, but a review of your GHG Inventory can provide some clues.


Thermostats are supposed to maintain the proper temperature of 20–22°C [68–72°F], but many classrooms are too warm. To make rooms more comfortable and reduce GHG, it is desirable to keep the main classroom area temperature within that range. Reducing the temperature reduces fuel consumption by about 3% for every 1°F.

If there is a forced-air system, the system may need to be balanced or ‘commissioned’ so the proper air temperature and volume are delivered to each vent in each room; otherwise, some areas may be overheated just to provide adequate heat in others. This obviously wastes fuel and increases GHG emissions. And if it is too warm, people may even open windows to compensate, making the problem even worse.



As with heating, temperature settings are very important. Thermostats should be set to keep the main classroom area at a temperature of 23–25°C [74–77°F]. Setting too low a temperature increases fuel consumption by about 3% for every 1°F. (See note about forced air systems in the preceding section dealing with Heating.)


Lighting in schools is often brighter than is needed or even comfortable, and this can cause eyestrain and headaches. It is not unusual to find levels up to double the recommended levels of 250–500 lux (25–50 foot-candles). Even lower levels are appropriate if students are working on computers, while higher levels may be needed for some very detailed work.

Many classrooms have good daylight and may not need any overhead lighting on some days, or may need it only at the end farthest from the windows. (If this requires a wiring change, it will be repaid by savings on electricity—calculating how long it will take makes a good math problem.)

Leaving lights on when a room is not in use is obviously a complete waste of electric energy.

Computers and other electrical equipment

Two of the most common are older equipment that consumes significant power even when inactive and equipment that is left on when not being used.

Transportation – District Buses

Because schools try to minimize costs, they may already have reduced mileage as much as possible, but it is essential to consider ways to eliminate extra trips. Students can explore ways to reduce the need for busing, though, exploring ways to get more people to walk, bike, or use public transit.

Another way to reduce emissions—and air pollution that harms students—is to make sure buses are not idling while discharging students or waiting to pick them up.

Busing for school trips is another part of most districts’ operations—and are an important part of the educational mission. So we don’t want to eliminate trips as much as make sure they are handled as efficiently as possible.

Miscellaneous Chemical Usage [Scope 1]

There probably isn’t much you can do about the school’s use of refrigerants, except to identify any older appliances and coolers that may need replacement. If the school uses synthetic fertilizers, these emissions can be eliminated by a switch to organic practices, as Harvard University and some towns have done. Indirect Emissions Created as a Result of the School’s Operations

These were listed in the preceding section as emissions commonly encountered with schools; here, we’ll consider some possible ways to reduce them.

Travel Long-distance travel (not including transportation on district buses) raises the question of whether these trips have a valuable educational purpose. (Examine on a case-by-case basis.)

Getting people to school is a necessary part of the school’s operation, but individual commuting is not directly controlled by or paid for by the school or school district. This is one case where knowing the exact value of current emissions from commuting may not be as important as finding ways to reduce them.

Biking and walking produce zero GHG emissions, and public transit may be a low-emissions option in some areas. These possibilities apply to students, faculty, and other staff. As you review the various options with students, be sure they consider difficulty, cost, and potential impact on GHG emissions.


Food purchasing is controlled by the school, so the upstream emissions generated in producing, transporting, and preparing the food are important concerns. As with commuting, knowing the exact amount of current food-related emissions may not be as useful as exploring ways to reduce emissions. It is much easier to estimate what changes could accomplish.

Here are some options to consider for reducing emissions related to food:

  • Use more organic food, since organic growing sequesters carbon into the soil. (Some school districts have already made good progress in this direction.)
  • Prepare food on-site to reduce emissions from mechanized processing plants and transporting food, especially frozen food.
  • Use more locally-grown food to reduce emissions from transportation.

As an added bonus, all of these changes would also result in healthier meals!

(We are preparing a separate document on Food, Health, and Climate, expected in 2017.)

Take Action!

Once you have identified areas where emissions can be reduced, it’s time to unite the school community and take action. Many of the approaches mentioned to spread the word about the GHG Inventory also work for taking action to create change. Here are some additional actions that teachers and administrators mentioned:

  • A class or team of students analyzes a particular action area, calculates costs and potential savings, projects how much it will reduce emissions, outlines the steps it would take to implement, and presents all this to the administration and/or school board.
  • Students form an ‘energy patrol’ to go through the school and identify cases where energy is being wasted? (This was a great success at one elementary school and even made the local newspapers.)
  • Students form a club to raise awareness of ways to become more sustainable—starting with a focus on reducing energy use and GHG emissions. (In general, students in public schools have a right to form a special-interest club with very little restriction, although they will be expected to meet the minimal legal limits that regulate student self-expression in school.)
  • One or more students write a story for the school paper about the proposed actions
  • Students (in any class) make a series of posters for the hallways, to raise awareness and enlist support for proposed actions
  • English or Journalism students do a ‘special edition’ on the proposal and what it involves

Can you think of more approaches to creating change?

Considering what actions to take and how to promote them throughout the school and community are great opportunities to involve teachers and students in all subject areas!

Sources and links to additional resources

Also see the School GHG Calculator instructions

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