Is your school burning fossil fuels? Even the Government may not know

An estimated 1150 state schools burn fossil fuels to heat classrooms, but the Government doesn’t have an exact figure, or a full list of affected schools.

This suggests the Government’s funding to date – $55 million to convert 90 schools to green fuels – will cover a small fraction of the problem.

Whatever the actual number of dirty boilers, environmental groups say school heating systems should be fossil fuel-free by 2025.

As well as contributing to the climate crisis, fossil fuel combustion creates air pollution, which can damage children’s lungs.

In 2019, the Government announced a $200m fund to help public sector organisations, including schools, to swap fossil-fuelled boilers for cleaner sources of heating. The programme has focused on coal, the most-polluting fossil fuel. But the announcements have been silent on the total number of schools using fossil fuels, including coal but also diesel and gas.

To find an answer, a coalition – comprising 350 Aotearoa, Coal Action Network Aotearoa, OraTaiao Health and Climate Council, Parents for Climate Aotearoa and School Strike 4 Climate NZ and the teachers’ unions NZEI Te Riu Roa and Post Primary Teachers’ Association – tallied all available data.

They confirmed at least 277 schools are heated by fossil fuels. Of these, 125 schools used coal. The project identified the fuel used by 546 schools, but the heating tech of nearly 2,000 schools remained unknown.

The group suspected many more fossil-fuelled boilers were out there.

Stuff had previously tried to calculate this total, by sending Official Information Act requests to more than 2500 boards of trustees in 2019. This identified more than 60 schools burning coal, but half the schools did not reply.

Pressed for the numbers, the Ministry of Education said there are at least 200 boilers in schools burning coal, an estimated 150 burning diesel and roughly another 800 burning LPG or natural gas (the fossil form of methane).

The ministry’s estimate suggests the classrooms of 378,000 students are heated by fossil fuels.

Ministry of Education head of infrastructure service Kim Shannon​ said the ministry has received $55m to date to help schools to ditch coal (which is $5m more than the original allocation). So far, 36 schools have been given the green light.

The ministry also funds school sustainability projects through a contestable fund – a proportion of this $5m pot went to replacing boilers last year, Shannon said.

In December, the Government announced the public service would be carbon-neutral by 2025. Boards of trustees are being asked to measure and reduce their carbon footprints, and remaining emissions will need to be offset (though the start date for schools is still to be determined).

Fossil-fuelled boilers are likely to be the biggest source of emissions for many schools.

Based on the Government’s estimate that $55m is required to switch 90 schools off coal, the cost to switch the estimated 1150 schools away from fossil fuels could be as high as $703m.

A boiler burning coal is the dirtiest form of heating available – producing more greenhouse gas to create the same heat.
Robert Cianflone/Getty ImagesA boiler burning coal is the dirtiest form of heating available – producing more greenhouse gas to create the same heat.

But failing to switch would also carry costs. Climate Change Minister James Shaw confirmed that any offsets for ongoing emissions would need to be purchased out of existing budgets. However, he expects clean heating for schools to be arranged before 2025.

“I’m pretty confident that at the very least we will have funded the replacements of all of those boilers in schools by 2025 [although] the actual work may not be fully complete by then.”

Shaw said the recent announcement by Education Minister Chris Hipkins that the Government was taking back control of managing school property would help the Government hasten the process. “One of the advantages… is that it becomes easier to support schools with their energy needs.”

Bluff School still burns coal for heating. Principal Geoff Folster​ hopes that will change soon, for climate and safety reasons.

“We still do get comments from parents like: ‘Why do you still have a coal boiler?’ and things like that. And even the smoke that comes out, it’s never ideal,” he said.

Without dedicated funding from central government to make the switch, schools would need to fund greener equipment from their general maintenance funds, Folster added. “The kids miss out on other things because of that.”

He supports a faster roll-out across all schools. “We’re supposed to be the ones pushing this on our kids, about being environmentally safe.”

Hundreds of schools, including Darfield High School, burn fossil fuels – such as coal – to heat classrooms and facilities.
Joseph Johnson/StuffHundreds of schools, including Darfield High School, burn fossil fuels – such as coal – to heat classrooms and facilities.

A little up the road, Dunedin North Intermediate has already been tapped – the Enviroschool’s coal boiler will be converted to burn green fuel, likely wood.

Principal Heidi Hayward​ was delighted that the Ministry of Education has initiated the switch for her school before the end of the boiler’s life.

Climate-conscious students and parents can encourage their principals and boards to ditch fossil-fuelled boilers. But the ministry and MPs hold the power to open the purse strings, not individual schools, she warned. “It’s outside their scope of control.”

Coal Action Network Aotearoa’s Tim Jones​ said creating a list of all the schools remaining on fossil fuels is a priority. “The Government needs to get the data right, so it knows what the actual situation is. It needs to make that data publicly available, because that would help to get support for its programme.”

Erica Finnie​, of 350 Aotearoa, agreed: “It’s pretty frightening through our research to see the Government may not have a clear idea of actually how many schools are using fossil fuels.”

She wants all schools to be free from coal, diesel and gas by 2025, to align with the carbon-neutral public sector goal. This will meaningfully reduce emissions, rather than simply offsetting them.

To reach that goal, she’s calling on the Government to double the Clean Powered Public Service Fund in the 2021 Budget.

“Fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry are the leading cause of emissions that are causing the climate crisis, globally. They have no place in our schools.”

The combustion of fossil fuels releases microscopic pollutants into the air, which can negatively impact people’s health.
Joseph Johnson/StuffThe combustion of fossil fuels releases microscopic pollutants into the air, which can negatively impact people’s health.

NZEI president Liam Rutherford​ said tamariki are highly concerned about climate change, but a high number attend a school that burns fossil fuels. “It’s certainly not the learning environment we would aspire for them.”

School boards cannot afford the costs to switch a fossil-fuelled boiler to greener tech, Rutherford said.

“Boards often feel hamstrung because of the size of the job… This really is too much for schools to be able to do on their own, but there is a real thirst out there,” he added. “This is the time for the Government to come to the party and partner with local schools to be able to do it.”

Jones said central government should offer assistance to locate boiler experts and manage the project, as well as financial support.

“Schools also need to know that they will be supported through the process, that they’ll be able to get good information, that it won’t be a hassle.”

School boiler swap-outs would assist other businesses in the area to follow suit, Jones said.

The $200m fund is a good start, but more cash is needed, he added. “This is an area where the Government can move quickly.”

Fossil fuel-free schools would also boost children’s health, said OraTaiao Health and Climate Council co-convenor Dermot Coffey​.

Burning fossil fuels creates air pollution – the small particulates from the combustion are “responsible for a large burden of ill health across the world”, he added. More than 1200 deaths each year in New Zealand are linked to air pollution, though this may be an underestimate, Coffey said.

Climate change will also impact people’s health, from heat stress and anxiety to the spread of infectious diseases and injuries sustained during extreme weather events.

Up to 94 schools across the country will also experience issues – from buildings being cut off to backed-up toilets – when climate change causes the oceans to rise by 1 metre.

CORRECTION: This story referred to North Dunedin Intermediate. The correct name of the school is Dunedin North Intermediate (updated May 14, 9am).

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