Five years ago, my colleague Samantha Hall and I (then PhD students), helped a local high school in Western Australia (South Fremantle Senior High School) to calculate their carbon emissions with aim to go carbon neutral. Nine months later that school achieved their goal and became the first certified school in Australia – an achievement that was celebrated with the Prime Minister. We were pretty chuffed.

Ness& jules

2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard with Vanessa Rauland from SimplyCarbon

During the process of calculating their emissions, the staff at the school asked Sam and I (what should have been a relatively straight forward question), ‘how do we compare?’. We had no answer. We did some investigating but there were no benchmarks, nothing to compare them to. Of course the WA Department of Education had some data, but we were told that it wasn’t quite in a state to make accurate comparisons.

As uni researchers and carbon nerds with a love of excel, number crunching and data analysis, you could imagine our disappointment! We simply assumed this information would be collected, interrogated and used to inform all sorts of important building management decisions.

So we began asking Education Departments in other States and got a similar response: most were trying to collect it, but they weren’t quite there yet. It’s complicated.

This (still unanswered) question has stuck with us over the years and has now become a major focus of our Low Carbon School Program. We hope to help to develop these benchmarks to enable schools to compare themselves with other schools, compete to reduce emissions (and costs!), and use the data in the classroom!

The Power of Data

Most people have heard the mantra “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. While not all agree with it (i.e. it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to do nothing!), it does make decision-making and the management process a whole lot easier.

Having a baseline or benchmark to compare yourself against can be extremely insightful. For example, Principal Steven Berry of Winterfold Primary discovered, after comparing gas bills with some neighbouring schools, that he had seven gas leaks on his school site! You could imagine his shock. Not only was it a serious safety risk to his students and staff, but a whole lot of his precious money had literally been disappearing into thin air.

Another example was at South Fremantle Senior High School. Then Carbon Neutral Officer, Kathy Anketell, noticed a huge spike in water consumption after installing Greensense live energy and water monitoring at the school. After weeks of tirelessly checking toilets, urinals, taps and the swimming pool for possible leaks (she was convinced there must be a glitch in the system!), she finally discovered that a water pipe had broken under the oval and was simply flowing into the groundwater. It is unlikely this would have ever been picked this up without scrutinising the data.

There are countless other examples of wastage happening in schools. The result is huge amounts of unnecessary carbon emissions and thousands of unnecessary dollars being spent on utilities every year. Something we at SimplyCarbon are determined to fix…

Creating Baselines and measuring progress

As part of our program, we are making sure every school collects data from their electricity, gas, water and waste bills (both consumption and costs). We are using 2015 data to create their baseline. They are then able to measure the success of the initiatives they will be implementing over the next year and a half by comparing the data at the end of each year. We have big targets and ambitions!

C02 per student

Carbon emissions per student within the Low Carbon Schools Pilot Program

Our biggest challenge is making it as simple as possible to ensure schools start AND maintain the system. So from our learnings so far, here are some tips to get anyone started who wants to begin the Low Carbon journey…

Data Collection Tips

  1. Choose which year you want to have as your baseline (tip: pick a year before you started implementing big changes like solar power or recycling)
  2. Collect your bills, make copies, and file in a separate “Low Carbon School” folder (separate tabs for electricity, gas, water and waste).
  3. If you have bills that go over your chosen time period (i.e. from Dec 2014 – Jan 2015), make sure to include those bill too, as you need the full 12 months
  4. Get students to create a basic excel sheet to capture the data (i.e. consumption and costs over a 12 month period) and start to monitor how you are travelling year on year.

Turning this information into carbon emissions is a bit more challenging – and requires some more complex calculations and continuously updating of figures (i.e. emission factors change every year and vary State to State). We are developing a template as part of our Low Carbon Schools Pilot Program – if you are interested to know more about this or for other tips, tricks and sustainability info, please to sign up to our newsletter!


About the Author: Dr Vanessa Rauland is a Co-Director at SimplyCarbon and is heading up the Low Carbon Schools Pilot Program. She has a vast background in sustainability and climate policy, and a PhD in low carbon cities. She is also a lecturer at Curtin University Sustainability Policy (CUSP) Institute where teaches, researches and supervises several PhD students.