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Collaboration and Action: Tactics for Tackling the Climate Crisis

By Tom Wallbridge
Collaboration and Action: Tactics for Tackling the Climate Crisis

In 2020, Students for the Environment (SFE) gained board approval to make the International School of Kenya (ISK) carbon neutral by 2030. Students helped rewrite and strengthen the school environmental policy. “ISK is committed to continuously improving its environmental performance…  to reducing its carbon footprint and becoming a carbon-neutral international school.” We felt elated. But that changed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s headline-grabbing report in August 2021. It was described as “Code Red for Humanity” by the United Nation (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres.

ISK shares Nairobi as a home with the United Nations Environment Programme’s global headquarters, and our school co-curricular clubs now target one or more UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) each year. SDG 13, “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts,” resonated with our club, as did our school vision statement, “Empowering students to create solutions for tomorrow’s challenges.” But as one student said, “what about today’s challenges!” Suddenly we felt that our 2030 target wasn’t nearly urgent enough!

Fortunately, our group had some experience working on institutional policy. In the past, SFE had mostly focused on fundraising and awareness campaigns. But increasingly we realized that the biggest impacts to be made were through shifting policy and modifying systems. Our members also believe that social justice is inextricably linked to the environmental crisis. For instance, the poorest sections of society generally have the smallest carbon footprints, yet they bear the brunt of the consequences of the climate crisis. In 2019, SFE researched the impact of our waste on one of Africa’s biggest dumpsites, Nairobi’s Dandora landfill. The 175,000 residents of neighboring Korogocho, which means “crowded shoulder to shoulder” in Kiswahili, live in an area of just 1.5 square kilometers. Their lives are blighted by heavy metals and air pollution. We explored alternatives, took field trips, and shot and edited a video that we showed to the high school during assembly before successfully proposing to the leadership team that we change our existing refuse and recycling collection systems. Now over 95% of the “waste” collected from our school is reused or recycled and none of it is dumped in Dandora. We thought these skills and processes could work again. But becoming carbon neutral is a huge undertaking. We needed help.

Our breakthrough came from collaborating with other ISK students to form the Carbon Neutral Alliance. Student organizations such as the Associated Student Body, Plastiki Rafiki, the Greenhouse Project, Interact, Round Square, Construction by Design, and the Global Issues Network each sent a representative to work towards the same goal, changing school policy to accelerate our move toward carbon neutrality. New ideas bloomed from the cross-pollination of diverse perspectives and specialisms. Could we integrate sustainability into the solution?  Maybe in the form of practical, student-led initiatives? Why not become carbon positive?

Three weeks after the “Code Red for Humanity” warning, at the start of our 2021/22 academic year, the Carbon Neutral Alliance requested the opportunity to speak at the upcoming school board meeting. It was a frantic first month of meetings and research, brainstorming and speech writing, calculating, and designing slides. Each group brought new ideas discussed in corridors and impromptu meetings. We connected with the International School of Uganda’s Greening Task Force and spoke to regional carbon offsetting experts. The complexity of the task was daunting. How do you define an institution's carbon footprint? What parameters should we set?

On September 28th, the Carbon Neutral Alliance addressed the board to propose fast-tracking ISK’s carbon neutrality target from 2030 back to 2023! We proposed a two-year plan, initially reaching carbon neutrality through carbon offsetting.

Then as we progressively make ISK’s facilities more sustainable, we will be investing less in carbon offsetting until we are as fully carbon neutral as possible, and no direct carbon offsets will be necessary. The students had framed all their points using the school educational Aims (Act and Solve!), SDGs, and the school mission and vision statements. At the end of COP26, our director announced that, “ISK has committed to fast-tracking our transition towards carbon neutrality… we will undertake the first step, a full environmental audit.”

This was great news. However, since we were now fast-tracking, we needed to be creative in funding a proper environmental audit. The cost was around $20,000! Immediately, students campaigned for the director’s innovation fund and grants from the principal’s budgets. We received pledges from SFE, Global Issues Network, and Plastiki Rafiki. The Greenhouse Project shared the profits from their first harvests sold to the community. SFE, Interact, and Roundsquare pitched to the Lion’s Tank, an Advancement Office and Parent-Teacher Organization initiative based on the Dragon’s Den, Shark Tank, and Lion’s Den TV shows, in which student groups apply for money. We secured another $1500 and raised the $20000 in two months.

We look forward to the challenges and opportunities offered by the environmental audit. The possibilities for meaningful, real-world curriculum links are boundless. So is the potential for even more successful student-led environmental initiatives. Carbon Neutral Alliance groups have already established or run projects ranging from tree planting in the Aberdares mountain conservancy to our moving to a single-use plastic-free campus, from biogas food waste initiatives to camel-based charcoal seed balls dispersal via camels in zones facing desertification. Students are buzzing with new ideas for greening our campus and incrementally lowering our carbon footprint. Furthermore, facilitating students campaigning skills for policy change prepares them with essential practical career skills and knowledge. SFE’s student leader from last year is now on a scholarship studying sustainability at university.

Students for the Environment and the Carbon Neutral Alliance discovered how productive and exciting collaborative actions can be, both within the school and with other schools and communities. As one student said, “We hope to be a model to other communities and inspire them to act.”

Tom Wallbridge teaches English, Film, and Creative Writing at the International School of Kenya. 

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