11/05/2011 10:25 EDT | Updated 01/05/2012 05:12 EST

How to Make Kids Care About Climate Change


Climate change is one of the most hotly debated issues of our time, both from an economic and a moral viewpoint. And whenever someone makes a case for action from a moral stance, most often they'll justify it by invoking the future plight of the world and the children that will inherit it. It's a delicate subject, after all, what's more important than our children?

One of the most difficult aspects in inspiring the necessary change in consciousness is that climate change is such a hard idea to engage with. It is so abstract that it doesn't really hit our nerve endings. Energy is invisible and intangible. But the fact of the matter is that most of our daily routine involves some sort of environmental impact. And the truth is most of our lifestyle could be made more efficient. That might sound overwhelming, but the changing of consciousness required to live efficiently does not necessarily require us to give up all the comforts that we take for granted. It's really more about cutting out the waste. For a great glimpse of this kind of efficient future we can look to our children and our schools.

Zerofootprint has partnered with the Halton Catholic District School Board to save energy by cutting out environmental waste. The effort is to bring awareness to young people, not just by educating them about the perils of climate change, but by having them directly engage with the impacts of their everyday activities. The idea behind the program is to give teachers and students feedback on their energy use through visual maps and gauges. This insight will provide them with the information needed to adjust their behaviour accordingly. Schools are outfitted with monitors in the hallway showing energy use data. They then can adjust by doing something like turning off all the computers or, if it is bright outside, turning the lights off and opening the blinds. They also have 'energy free' lunch hours (where the kids play board games instead of computer games). And, schools can challenge each other to a friendly contest on who can reduce their environmental impact the most.

The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, as the kids themselves have been the driving force of the program. The benchmarking program has spilled into other subjects too. And teachers are matching their students' enthusiasm. The monitors that are up in the hallway influence teachers who are not even directly associated with the program. They try to curb their energy in order to contribute to the dips in usage that the students are looking for. Eco-teams made up of students are now functioning like sports teams -- to give schools another point of pride besides the usual extra-curricular activities.

As inspiring as it is to see students and teachers directly engaging with their environmental impact, the benefits aren't just on the moral side of the equation; there will be a huge payback on the economic side of things. The cost avoidance will be substantial. There is a significant potential for savings for school boards facing budget restrictions and program cuts. Added to the fact that this is the first stage of the program where teachers and students are still learning to behave more efficiently. The future for energy efficiency is extremely promising.

Imagine if this sort of behavioural change was used in our offices and homes -- the savings would be astronomical. With so much debate revolving around our future energy sources, we sometimes forget that simply acting more efficient is the most effective way to both save money on our energy bills and combat climate change. Zerofootprint's energy management software can provide much needed insight into environmental impact and what to do about it. When a student was asked how she felt about the program, she replied, "Proud of myself." Soon we can all feel proud, because our greatest untapped energy resource is the energy we never use.