Kids Nudge Parents On Smaller Carbon Footprint

Children in Britain are driving the environmental agenda. They're forcing their parents to walk them to school, buy green products and watch the family's carbon footprint. But skeptics say their youthful enthusiasm will have little real impact on Britain's contribution to the climate crisis.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the industrial countries coming under pressure at the Copenhagen conference to make bigger cuts in its emissions is Britain. Politicians and activists are fighting it out in Denmark. But at home in Britain there's a quiet revolution already underway among schoolchildren.

NPR's Rob Gifford begins his report at a schoolyard.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

ROB GIFFORD: Recess at Poplar Elementary School in South London and the usual whirlwind of small people whooshes towards the playground. Today, though, the kids have an unusual visitor in the shape of an inspector from a group called Eco Schools.

Unidentified Man: �composting area. You can always tell me what, you know, what you've been doing there. And then we're going to go in your school and look at the recycling corner.

GIFFORD: Eco Schools is an organization that helps schools to be environmentally friendly. It sets up a simple seven-step process to address environmental themes from waste and healthy living to recycling and solar heating.

Unidentified Children: Use the glass light, turn off radiators before opening windows.

GIFFORD: Here at Poplar School, as in much of Britain now, with the help of groups like Eco Schools, it's the children who are driving the agenda. Ten-year-olds Caitlin Fletcher(ph) and Kirin Evans(ph) are eco reps in the school's eco council.

Ms. CAITLIN FLETCHER (Student): We have the ideas and we share them with other people and our teacher.

Mr. KIRIN EVANS (Student): The eco reps make sure that everybody's saving the electricity, saving energy. And we have different monitors in our class.

GIFFORD: Head teacher Katherine Davis(ph) says the green agenda has reached a whole new level in British schools in recent years. She says people's psyche has changed.

Ms. KATHERINE DAVIS (Teacher): Got solar panels heating in parts of the new build, all the lighting; the radiators are all geared to be as, you know, ecologically low on fuel usage as possible and as energy efficient as possible. So we actually - it's become sort of more deep-rooted.

GIFFORD: And what's more, says Davis, it's in the curriculum too, with students taught environmental issues in science and geography classes.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Children: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. JAIME CLARK(ph) (People and Planet): This is actually my first protest.

GIFFORD: Northwest of London, in a funky open plan office in Oxford, Jaime Clark is putting on the latest promo DVD of his NGO, People and Planet. People and Planet is another of the growing number of NGOs that's helping schools across Britain to implement environmental strategies.

Mr. CLARK: Students have been a little bit dismissive possibly or upset by the idea of government and maybe the adult population telling people to change a light bulb and the world will be a better place, that simply taking one bike journey rather than a car journey is the answer, that - actually students want that big shift.

GIFFORD: But while looking for the big shift, Clark's colleague, Alice Mumford, is still thinking globally and acting locally.

Ms. ALICE MUMFORD: We've got a school in Gloucester that have just managed to get a policy put in place for any student living within three miles (unintelligible) isn't allowed to drive into school. We've also got other schools that have just managed to get solar power for their school center, a wind turbine on their common room. And we have a lot of schools and colleges planning carbon dating events.

GIFFORD: Did she just say carbon dating events?

Ms. MUMFORD: We encourage them to spend the day together go on low-carbon dates. So maybe they go for a cycle instead of a drive, they can eat vegetarian food together, have a nice candlelit dinner instead of turning on all the lights. So having a bit of fun, but also learning about carbon reduction.

GIFFORD: But despite any amount of carbon dating, Britain, like most other industrialized nations, still has a massive problem on its hands. The government has pledged a huge 80 percent cut in its emissions by the year 2050, but now other voices aside from the usual climate change suspects have joined the debate - groups like the British Institute of Mechanical Engineers, which has just released a report on the subject looking at it from an engineering point of view. Tim Fox is the institute's head of environment and climate.

Mr. TIM FOX (British Institute of Mechanical Engineers): The key message in the report is that without a substantial change in the government's approach and the public approach to tackling climate change, we're unlikely to meet those targets. And it really does need a change on the level of the sort of attitude that one would develop in trying to tackle a war.

GIFFORD: Fox says the war needs to be broadened to include more sectors of life, such as engineers. He says geo-engineering is the way forward - larger projects such as forests of artificial trees, which absorb CO2 on a huge scale.

Mr. FOX: Came up with three practical solutions within the report. They were the use of artificial trees to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, the use of algae on building surfaces to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and the use of reflective surfaces, primarily to reduce the overheating of city centers.

GIFFORD: So far, Fox says, the British government has not picked up on these suggestions in a major way. He says for all the crucial changes in thinking in the minds of British schoolchildren, it's a change in the thinking in the minds of politicians that still matters most.

MONTAGNE: And NPR's Rob Gifford joins us now from London. Rob, let's return for a moment to those schoolchildren. You know, we just heard the point made that it's about the government and adults taking action. So does that mean that getting kids invested at an early age in being green is somehow all for naught?

GIFFORD: I don't think it's for naught. I think the long run it really will start to have an influence. So will the changes that are going on clearly in British schools all over British schools kick in soon enough? There's a race going on for them to kick in early enough to make a difference before climate change becomes too drastic.

MONTAGNE: What about the adults then? Are they changing their behavior anywhere near as much as these kids seem to be?

GIFFORD: Well, I'm not sure that they are. I mean, if you take my generation, for instance, you know, you can almost hear my brain working after I've drunk a can of Coke or had a beer - I must put beer in recycling bin. I have to force myself to think like that. These kids are growing up thinking like that. It's in their DNA. And I'm not sure, even in Britain, where, you know, as we've heard, plans are taking hold, I'm not sure that the older generation are really getting into it quite as much.

MONTAGNE: Well, look, I'm from California, where it's pretty automatic to recycle, you know, even for those of us who are older. But how does what's going on in Britain compare generally to the U.S.?

GIFFORD: Well, just in talking with some of the experts in doing the interviews for that piece you just heard, most people are saying that Britain and Europe generally is 10 or 15 years ahead of the United States in this environmental awareness in terms of recycling.

And I suppose there is more of a feeling here. People are used to using public transport much more. There's not so much of a sense of the birthright of cheap gasoline and using two cars or whatever. So there is a feeling, though, that America is catching up, that people have got their heads around it now a little bit more in the States and that people are pushing together now on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed around the world.

MONTAGNE: Rob, a pleasure talking to you.

GIFFORD: Thank you very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Rob Gifford speaking to us from London.

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