How Schools Can Meet Their Decarbonization Goals

reducing carbon footprint in schools

The central purpose of a school is to educate young people and power their potential for future success. In a warming world, this includes building sustainable schools. According to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, the average school carbon footprint is 9.4 metric tons annually. Reducing the carbon footprint of schools is a step towards a net zero future. How do we get there? 

Let’s examine how the steps towards reducing the carbon footprint in schools can be as easy as 1, 2, 3 and A, B, C. 

Reducing the Carbon Footprint in Schools

The goal of a sustainable school campus is to function with net zero energy. This means that the school’s energy consumption balances the carbon it emits with that which it removes. The goal of decarbonization is to reach a carbon neutral future. To meet decarbonization goals, schools need to reduce their carbon footprint. A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gasses that are emitted into the atmosphere by our actions. 

The key to reducing the carbon footprint in schools is twofold:

  1.  Reduce the actions that emit the greatest amount of greenhouse gases.
  2.  Take steps that sustain green energy use and contribute to a clean environment.

Cultivating an optimistic culture of sustainability in schools is the key to net zero energy. Building this sustainability framework requires youth participation. Putting sustainability first and emphasizing green practices lays the groundwork for students to learn lifelong habits. These habits contribute to the health of students, their community and the planet. The ABC’s and 123’s of reducing the carbon footprint in schools is education, engagement and empowerment. 


Environmentally driven education centered on climate change issues and mitigation strategies nurture sustainability. Building an eco-friendly school starts with educating students, parents, administration and community partners about the benefits of a green school.

Education strategies that activate environmental learning include:

  • Curating a green library in the classroom
  • Writing an environmental vision statement with students
  • Teaching about the Earth and environmental movement leaders
  • Assigning articles about plastic pollution, climate change and mitigation
  • Creating environmental lessons that connect to students’ lives
  • Calculating the carbon footprint of the school, home or activity
  • Studying the life cycle of plastics, oil and chemicals
  • Investigating the eco-friendliness of the school lunch menu
  • Teaming up with community organizations and businesses with green goals 

The National Theatre for Children provides schools with educational theatre programming that supports environmental stewardship and energy conservation learning.


Educating students, parents and the community about the benefits of sustainability is the first pillar of meeting decarbonization goals. The next is to engage the school community in eco-friendly practices.

There are many ways schools can be more environmentally friendly.  Environmentally friendly practices can be integrated into the school culture with focus and planning. Encouraging students to take part in these strategies is the biggest factor for successful engagement. Involve students in spreading the message beyond the classroom, into their homes and out into the community. 

Ideas on how to reduce greenhouse gasses at school can range from recycling bins and school supplies to cleaning products and lighting upgrades. 

Environmentally Friendly Ideas for Schools

Recycling Bins in Schools

Make recycling visible and a part of everyday routines. Help students understand the why behind recycling. Emphasize the benefits. Create excitement to make it stick. Visit a recycling center to see recycling in action. 

Eco-Friendly School Supplies

Supply classrooms with eco-friendly craft supplies. Read labels and research low carbon manufacturers. Reusing supplies is also Earth-friendly. 

Clean Up the Cleaning Products

Schools are in constant clean up mode. Use environmentally friendly cleaning products in the classroom and advocate for their use district wide. Research what to look for in green products. Read labels for environmentally harmful ingredients. 

Improve Air Quality

Climate change reduces the quality of air we breathe. No one wants a school with poor air quality that leads to health issues and reduced human capacity. 

A few tips for better air include: 

  • Updating ventilation systems
  • Filling spaces with indoor plants
  • Installing eco-friendly air purifiers
  • Removing harmful building materials
  • Adopting an anti-idling program for school buses 

Reduce Food Waste

Rotting food emits methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Implementing a composting program for food scraps in the cafeteria and classroom reduces food waste. It helps move schools to a net zero future. Consider creating a compost team or partnering with a local farm to bring efforts into the community. 

Green Transportation

Encourage alternative forms of transportation like walking or biking. Advocate for bike lanes, bike racks and the elimination of unnecessary car use. Have students calculate the gas emissions of different modes of transportation. Plan a green transportation event where students can educate their community on green ways of getting around. 

Energy Efficiency

There are many strategies to improve the energy efficiency of schools, including shutting down computers, closing doors to conserve heat and using low energy appliances. Have students calculate the energy efficiency of electronics. Rethink lighting by:

  • Using energy-efficient lightbulbs
  • Relying on natural light when possible
  • Upgrading lighting fixtures
  • Turning off lights

Don’t Forget to Celebrate!

Nothing creates engagement like a party. Celebrating progress sustains efforts. Communicate success through planned eco-friendly celebrations. For an added boost wrap progress celebrations into environmental holidays. 


Students are the engine for creating an eco-friendly school. The most important ways to reduce the carbon footprint of schools puts students in the driver’s seat. This means integrating awareness of climate change into lessons but also empowering students to find solutions they can implement. Finding climate change solutions as a student helps them see how their actions are connected to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Projects to Empower Students with Reducing the Carbon Footprint in Schools 

Plant a School Garden

A school garden project involves students at every level, from planning to implementation. Students are empowered to discover a deeper appreciation of how food is grown and harvested for consumption. Students can:

  • Plan the plot
  • Decide what to plant
  • Research how to grow, plant and harvest
  • Experience the food cycle in action
  • Experiment with eating fresh, healthy food grown themselves

Garden projects don’t have to stop at planting vegetables and herbs. They can extend to environmentally beneficial rooftop gardens or rain gardens that help reduce pollution and preserve sewer systems. 

Organize Fundraisers and Rallies

Empowering students to rally and fundraise for reducing the carbon footprint in schools helps build skills necessary to create a sustainable world. They can fundraise for solar panels, petition the district for a composting policy or rally for zero waste school events

Create a Green Club

A green club or climate change group for interested students encourages big picture ideas and peer-to-peer teaching. Students can advocate for net zero programs in their schools and help raise awareness for decarbonization goals. 

Conduct Environmental Audits

Students can conduct waste and energy audits in their schools, analyze the results and brainstorm ideas to mitigate inefficiencies. They can also advocate solutions and track progress. 

Create Pledge Campaigns and Challenges

Empowering individual students is one thing, but empowering students as a group is the heart of sustainable change. Pledge campaigns can center around recycling, waste reduction, energy saving, green ways of living or zero waste classroom challenges. 

Plan Outdoor Events

Get students outdoors to experience nature. Enhance firsthand experience by bringing them into the community for trash pick-up. Action in the community empowers positive sustainability. 

Make It Their Own

Let students take the lead on what they care about and want to make better. Their ideas about the future matter. Allowing them to create projects that affect their future empowers sustainable schools.

The National Theatre for Children creates educational theatre programming for schools that educate, engage and empower students to create change in themselves, their families, and their communities. 

Educate, Engage and Empower 

Creating zero net energy schools means implementing plans for reducing the carbon footprint in schools. It also means educating students about climate change, engaging them in solutions and empowering them to take action. Taking steps towards achieving net zero energy reduces the carbon schools produce, but it also teaches students eco-friendly habits. Showing students personal steps to reduce a carbon footprint is vital. More vital, though, is to empower students to spread those habits to their families and into their communities. This is a one-two punch that both reduces carbon emissions today and creates a sustainable tomorrow.

How Schools Can Meet Their Decarbonization Goals