Are Schools Becoming ‘True Net Zero’?

Posted: November 1, 2021

Back in the late sixties the availability of energy was something we all took for granted, we had an abundance of coal to keep the lights on and our toes warm and enough oil in the ground to keep our cars running for our lifetimes. Issues around energy consumption were not something the average person concerned themselves with, it was for another generation to worry about and the promising nuclear energy developments seemed to be the answer to all our future needs.

It wasn’t until the seventies with events such as the miners strikes and oil crisis that the understanding that energy was not an infinite resource entered public awareness. The fossil fuels being used to power our homes and cars would not last forever and access to energy could be disrupted for any number of reasons. Whilst the news only reported on the political and supply issues facing the energy sector, there was a dawning realisation that the our reliance on these limited supplies was not sustainable. This realisation combined with pressure on government from the growing environmentalism movement and developments in wind power in America led the UK government to begin looking into alternative energy sources.

When the hole in the ozone layer was discovered it was the first time the public felt a personal responsibility towards changes happening to the earth’s climate. As the first publicly acknowledged ‘climate crisis’ the response was immediate, there was a community feeling towards working to fix this issue. Each person was to make small, simple changes to their lives for the greater benefit of protecting the planet. Over time and as a result of this community action the ozone layer repaired itself and, in the aftermath there was a smugness about how we can handle this planet and its climate dependencies. Although, despite this complacent attitude towards climate change, the mood music had changed and along came a dawning realisation of our responsibility to manage our impact on the world around us. Carbon released in to the atmosphere had to be a thing of the past for everyone.

So where did we start? In the same place all political projects start, the small, simple changes easily made by the masses and where the positive impact was undisputed. The low hanging fruit in this case was the reduction in our energy consumption, efficiency was the order of the day. For buildings this meant we needed to ensure they were airtight, insulated, and with heating and lighting being as energy efficient as possible.

In the last few years, the focus, both financially and altruistically has firmly been on the carbon in the energy we use to heat and light our buildings, this is known as Operational Carbon. Almost everyone is aware of what operational carbon is and simple changes we can all make to reduce the amount of operational carbon we are responsible for. However, operational carbon is not the only area that must be targeted in the fight to reduce the UK’s carbon footprint. Embodied carbon may be the hidden saboteur to the goal of ‘Net Zero by 2050’.

Embodied carbon refers to the carbon required to manufacture construction materials, ship them to site and construction of the building with these materials. This process can make up between 30% and 70% of a buildings lifetime carbon emissions, embodied carbon is a massive contributor to the energy emissions the UK is responsible for. Whilst the current movement towards building new operationally efficient buildings may seem like the answer, without looking at the embodied carbon expense of these buildings we may actually be cancelling out the advancements made by ensuring new buildings are operationally sustainable.


          

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