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April 11, 2021

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Seattle Public Schools commits to weaning off fossil fuels over next 20 years

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Nearly two years after scores of its students missed class to demand action on climate change, Washington state’s largest school district now has a 2040 deadline to run on 100% clean and renewable energy.

The commitment, approved unanimously by the Seattle School Board this week, would eventually mean an end to the district’s reliance on fossil fuels to heat buildings, prepare meals and transport students. Getting there would require the district to invest in electric school buses and heating methods that use electricity instead of natural gas. District officials estimate the transition will cost more than $1 billion, with some cost-saving benefits down the road.

Seattle’s move follows similar recent efforts by other major districts around the country, including L.A. Unified, Oakland and Salt Lake City, partly built on the momentum of the global, youth-led climate strike movement that, by one estimate, saw participation from nearly a quarter of American youth. Those activists echoed worldwide calls from the United Nations to cut carbon emissions by roughly half by 2030 or risk irreversible or long-lasting changes to the environment, including extreme weather and rising sea levels.

“The science is crystal clear: Seattle schools must step up their leadership into the 21st century. We must listen to our youth,” said Jessica Levine, a teacher at Eckstein Middle School in Seattle, during the Wednesday School Board meeting.

American public schools have a significant carbon footprint, according to a 2020 report from the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. They possess the country’s largest fleet of mass transit vehicles — yellow school buses — which are mostly fueled by diesel. And the country’s nearly 100,000 school buildings make up a large share of energy consumed by the public sector, the report says. Fossil fuels burned for transportation and electricity account for more than half of America’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

More school districts are going green for fiscal reasons, too. Energy bills — totaling $8 billion annually for schools — are the second-highest cost for districts, behind employee salaries, according to the EPA. The agency estimates nearly $2 billion could be saved yearly by making schools more energy efficient.

Work on Seattle’s resolution began nearly two years ago, after Seattle-area students began demonstrating every few weeks, following the lead of youth organizers such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who captured the attention of the world in 2018 when she skipped school every Friday to protest in front of Swedish Parliament.

Seattle School Board member Zachary DeWolf, co-author of the resolution along with Board member Lisa Rivera-Smith, remembers attending a graduation at Garfield High School in June 2019 where the valedictorians used their airtime to challenge adults about the warming world they inherited.

It all just “lit a fire” under him, said DeWolf. The following fall, he and Rivera-Smith began meeting with the Washington state chapter of the Sierra Club, the national environmental organization. They invited a broad coalition of school employees, students and local community groups to provide input on the resolution.

The resolution requires an implementation plan to be presented to the Board no later than January 2022. In addition to the 2040 deadline, the district must also meet a deadline to run on 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2027. Any new buildings constructed after the resolution’s creation must not rely on fossil fuels.

The biggest challenge will be to acquire the necessary funding to make all the changes needed, and to keep momentum going on a resolution with the first target set six years away, advocates said.

“We really need to make sure pressure stays on the school district, and make sure this becomes a reality instead of an empty promise,” said Ruth Sawyer, climate and clean energy organizer for Sierra Club.

Prior to the resolution, the district had already made commitments to become more eco-friendly. Some school buildings use solar panels or geothermal heating techniques. New buildings have been retrofitted to reduce waste and energy consumptions. Between 2010 and 2020, the district reduced its average energy use intensity, or energy use per square foot, from 43 to 36, according to district spokesman Tim Robinson. The national average for schools 48.5, according to EnergyStar.

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