Our Children, Our Planet, Our Responsibility (III)
Readers who regularly endure the unmitigated torture of long-haul flights with restless young children should look away now. I enjoy flying. It comes with the territory in my job and for most of this century at least I have been lucky enough to have criss-crossed the world at fairly regular intervals. There is always a sense of anticipation that even the most frustrating security protocols have so far failed to dispel, and I never fail to appreciate that moment when the doors finally close, for a few hours at least, on all the demands of everyday living. There may be jet-lag ahead but…
Photo credit: Andrey Khachatryan
I cannot imagine a world without air travel. What a privilege it is to be alive in an era when we can experience and appreciate so many of the diverse wonders of our planet so easily. Unfortunately, there is a catch. I only hope that my delight in the pleasures of globe-trotting will not deny my grandchildren the same opportunities.
Almost ten years ago, it was estimated that 2% of the world’s carbon emissions emanated from air travel. At the time this was thought to be a conservative estimate and we all know how airports have become busier, how many new runways have been built and how many more routes have opened up in the years since. The airline industry has made massive strides in terms of fuel efficiency in the last ten years, but a family flying economy direct from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to Heathrow just once will still add more to their carbon footprint than an average year of driving will.
The carbon footprint of our whole school community is huge. We regularly send staff and students on overseas trips for recruitment and training, we provide almost all of our teachers with annual return home leave flights and, of course, our parents clock up an incredible amount of air miles for business or pleasure in any given year. Compared to this, anything we do in terms of turning down the air-conditioning or switching off lights when we leave the room is very small beer.
I know that – like some proverbial polar bear – I am treading on very thin ice here. It is the nature of a community/business such as this one in a location like Japan that frequent long-haul flights are largely unavoidable. It is all too easy to veer towards hypocrisy, preaching a doctrine that contradicts the very philosophy of globalism upon which our community is built.
But we have to do something. We have no choice. We must do more than talk, and we must do it now.
Photo credit: K. Elliott, NOAA
A useful starting point would be to factor concern for the environment into our every aspect of our annual planning. Do we really need to send four teachers back to the UK or over to Singapore if we can bring one trainer out here? How important is it that our football team plays in a tournament in Hong Kong when there's an equally competitive opportunity for them in Kobe? If we offer a service expedition to Cambodia, do we factor the cost of carbon off-setting into the charge for the trip?
We recognise that there is an appetite among our students and their parents to make a difference. How can we make it easier for them? Our website now hosts a carbon off-setting calculator:
Anyone who chooses to do so can calculate the carbon cost of their travels and, if they wish, make a donation to compensate for the impact on the environment. As with all of these schemes, there is the potential for exploitation so it is important to be discerning but, once you know the size of your carbon footprint, there is always the option to support a local initiative where you can be sure that your donation is being spent effectively. One day, perhaps, we will be able to launch a scheme of our own.
All this goes hand in hand with the everyday things that we are trying to do in school - installing water fountains specially designed to make refilling reusable water bottles easy; selling reusable bottles and bamboo drinking straws; banning plastic cutlery, etc. We have even banished vending machines selling drinks in plastic bottles from our school building at Showa - a big step in Japan!
The British School in Tokyo is just one international school in a similar position to thousands of others around the world. Imagine the impact that a sector-wide approach actively promoted and pursued by organisations such as COBIS, FOBISEA and the Japan Council of International Schools could have on the health of our planet.
I have always believed that one of the primary aims of membership organisations such as these should be to model best practice, to set a clear example to the world of international education. This has clearly been the case with the admirable and highly effective stance taken on child protection and safeguarding. Can they now take steps to do something similar in response to a global emergency that so many of our students see as being the most pressing issue of our time?
Schools such as ours have to accept responsibility and must be prepared to be held to account. Here at BST, our next step is to share an annual Environmental Impact Statement with our school community. Will the organisations who accredit our schools now rise to the challenge and follow suit? I hope so - time is not on our side.
This is the last in a series of three short pieces about young people and their concerns about the environment, and about our responsibilities as parents and educators.