Cover image by LeManna / Shutterstock

The public education sector is often neglected as one that requires deep and enduring transformation if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). Yet U.S. schools hold vast potential to lead on climate action. Their collective footprint — including nearly 100,000 schools on 2 million acres, 50 million students, and 480,000 school buses plus additional vehicles — offers a compelling and critical emissions mitigation and learning opportunity.

In addition to environmental impacts, investing in climate-smart schools can deliver essential cost savings and health and resilience benefits for the community, while improving students’ educational experience and ability to learn. Such investments also present the opportunity to address current and long-standing inequities in the public education system, and to provide support to underserved communities who are most affected by climate change.

Unprecedented investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act enable schools and school systems to more fully realize their potential as beacons for climate action, all while saving money, addressing historic inequities and equipping the next generation of climate and sustainability leaders. Now is the time for schools and communities to access federal and other funding sources to invest in a climate-smart, sustainable and equitable public education sector.

Why Public Schools Should Pursue Climate Action

By the numbers alone, schools represent a crucial — and largely untapped — opportunity for climate action:

  • The U.S. public education system consists of nearly 100,000 K-12 schools. Among the largest consumers of energy in the public sector, school buildings spend nearly $8 billion annually on energy costs. The energy used to operate these buildings produces annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 18 coal-fired power plants.
  • K-12 public school buildings are located on two million acres of land, including school yards — the majority of which are made of asphalt. With temperatures rising and 36% of the country’s students attending school in areas that qualify as heat islands, this land use pattern poses risks for student and community health.
  • On their way to school, approximately 20 million U.S. public school students ride one of the country’s 480,000 yellow school buses — around 90% of which are currently powered by diesel fuel. Electrifying the full U.S. school bus fleet by 2030 would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking 2 million cars off the road. In addition, the share of students commuting to school in private vehicles has grown significantly, more than tripling between 1969 and 2017, while the share walking or biking has dropped by 75%.

Alongside emissions reductions, climate action in the public education sector can deliver a range of benefits across public priorities. After teacher and staff salaries, the largest expense for K-12 public school districts is energy. Clean energy or energy efficiency measures that reduce those costs could free up resources for everything from textbooks to better teacher and driver pay. The use of electric vehicles and building improvements can also protect the health of students and school staff. Likewise, integrating more green spaces on school grounds could contribute to improving children’s physical and mental healthbehavior and engagement and cognitive development.

Moreover, as a familiar focal point in communities across the country, climate-smart schools can help their surrounding towns and counties adapt to increasingly frequent climate-related disasters. Schools equipped with renewable energy resources such as solar panels — combined with electric school buses, stationary storage and bi-directional chargers — are poised to become centers for emergency response and resilience.

Climate-smart School Investments Under New Legislation

States, municipalities, school districts, tribal communities and others can leverage Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act funding to advance climate action in public schools. Federal funding sources offer opportunities to invest in buildings and energy, green school yards, and clean transportation, among other priorities. Many of these measures are also designed to support the Justice40 Initiative, providing benefits to underserved communities to help address financial and opportunity inequities that have plagued school systems for generations.

For a more detailed look at Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act opportunities available to school districts, please see these resources WRI created in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s This is Planet Ed:

School Building Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy generation provide a pathway for districts to reduce their carbon emissions while improving indoor air quality and saving money that can be put back into teaching and learning. These investments are especially critical in underserved communities, where school buildings are typically of lower quality and condition, impacting the indoor environment as well as student health and achievement.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes a $500 million competitive grant program, Grants for Energy Efficiency Improvements and Renewable Energy Improvements at Public School Facilities (IIJA Sec. 40541)The Department of Energy (DOE) will award funds to school districts to invest in energy efficiency measures such as HVAC systems, the building envelope and lighting; renewable energy; and alternative vehicles, such as school buses and other fleet vehicles. The program will prioritize low-income communities and those that engage in energy-related performance contracting.

This funding can build on the broader federal financing and technical assistance ecosystem, as outlined in the Biden-Harris Administration’s Action Plan for Building Better School Infrastructure. Schools and local governments can leverage funding in the 2021 American Rescue Plan, including Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds and State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, to invest in climate-smart infrastructure improvements — for example, upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and improving indoor air quality.

Inflation Reduction Act

The Inflation Reduction Act includes several tax incentives for clean energy production and investment, including a first-of-its-kind direct payment option for schools and other tax-exempt entities. Schools are well positioned to tap into the Sec. 13101, Sec. 13102, Sec. 13701, and Sec. 13702 Tax Credits for Production and Investment of Clean Electricity. They can also indirectly access the Sec. 13303 Energy Efficient Commercial Buildings Deduction through a contractor or other entity responsible for executing the project.

Whether schools receive these tax credits via direct payments or through contractors as a reduction in costs, the provisions can help lower the financial burden of transitioning to clean energy. This is especially true for school districts located in “energy communities,” which are eligible for enhanced tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act. Broadly, energy communities are defined as those where coal plants or mines have closed; communities with brownfield sites; or communities that have been economically reliant on the fossil fuel industry and now face high levels of unemployment. Likewise, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has released guidance on the types of clean energy investments in low-income communities that may be eligible for enhanced tax credits.

The Inflation Reduction Act also offers a competitive grant program within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under Section 60106 Funding to Address Air Pollution in Schools. This provides $50 million in funding for schools in low-income and disadvantaged communities to monitor and decrease air pollutants, including greenhouse gases.

States and local actors can support districts in taking advantage of these new building and energy funding opportunities in several ways:

  • Through targeted technical assistance, state energy offices can support districts serving low-income communities and communities of color to apply and plan for these funds.
  • State officials can train district level staff to conduct site assessments that extend to all loads (building and transportation), to take a holistic approach to energy upgrades, and to explore the potential for vehicle-to-grid or vehicle-to-building applications.
  • State officials can also complement these funds by developing and aiding in the implementation of energy savings performance contracts and build upon them through equity-oriented programs. For example, New York State’s $59 million Clean Green School Initiative focuses on indoor air quality and energy efficiency measures exclusively in underserved communities.

Green School Yards

Over one-third of U.S. public school students attend school in a heat island — a situation that stems in part from the prevalence of asphalt school yards. These impervious surfaces immediately around schools also contribute to local flooding and overwhelmed wastewater and stormwater treatment plants. Green school yards, which include vegetation and permeable surfaces, reduce flooding and local temperatures, bolstering community resilience in the face of extreme weather.

Inflation Reduction Act and Other Federal Funding

State and local officials can look to federal programs to make transformative investments in school yards. The Inflation Reduction Act created the Sec. 60201 Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants, a new program providing $3 billion for community-led projects in disadvantaged communities, which could be leveraged for this purpose. Additional funding streams to invest in green school yards could include state and local fiscal recovery funds, the Department of Education’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and EPA’s Clean Water Revolving Fund.

State and local actors are key leaders and partners in planning for green and resilient school yard investments. The Trust for Public Land offers resources on green school yard development, including case studies on local engagement and inclusive school yard redevelopment processes.

Zero-emission transportation

Approximately 90% of school buses on the road today are powered by diesel fuel. These vehicles not only contribute to climate change, but their exhaust can lead to cancer, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Moreover, while diesel exhaust pollution is dangerous for everyone, its impacts are not felt equally. Today, communities of color face fine particulate matter pollution from on-road vehicles that is 61% to 75% higher than for white residents.

Electric school buses — which have zero tailpipe emissions and the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any school bus type — offer a cleaner, safer mode of transportation for students and communities.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

The EPA’s Clean School Bus Program, created under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, offers an unprecedented $5 billion in funding for electric and alternative fuel school buses over five years. States can also leverage the Sec. 11401 Charging and Fueling Infrastructure grants to deploy public EV charging, including at schools, to support the transition to electrification. This will allow school staff, families and community members to charge electric vehicles, including electric school buses, at school, and will increase familiarity with charging infrastructure.

State and local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, schools and school districts can also leverage Safe Routes to School funding — which the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Sec 11119 expands to include high schools — to encourage walking and biking for school transportation and improve commuting safety. The law also made safe school commuting projects eligible under the Highway Safety Improvement Program.

Inflation Reduction Act

Through the Inflation Reduction Act, school districts can take advantage of tax credits, such as the Sec. 13403 Qualified Commercial Tax Credit (45W) and the Sec. 13404 Alternative Fuel Refueling Property Credit (30C), to help with the purchase of electric school buses and EV infrastructure. Districts can also leverage the Sec. 60101 Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicles Program, which is a grant funding opportunity.

States can take various steps to promote equitable uptake of these investments, such as allocating supplemental funding, providing technical assistance for underserved districts, and establishing fleet transition targets and other enabling policies.

Considerations and Next Steps for Advancing Climate-smart School Initiatives

As schools, districts and states leverage and combine these funding opportunities, they should consider the following for robust and equitable implementation:

  • Equity must take center stage. Deep disparities have long characterized the distribution of opportunities and achievement across the U.S. education sector. Depending on the approach taken, investments in climate-smart infrastructure described here can either reinforce and exacerbate these trends or make progress in addressing them. Unless pursued with a meaningful equity-centric approach, school bus electrification, for example, runs the risk of reinforcing existing patterns of unequal air pollution burden. Putting equity first can take various forms, including embedding equity in program design from both a procedural and distributional perspective, engaging stakeholders in decision-making, and investing in workforce development to ensure the transition to clean energy in schools benefits everyone.
  • Community engagement is paramount. Local school communities will understand their needs and priorities better than anyone when it comes to investments in climate-smart schools. For example, look to the Trust for Public Land’s participatory design process for community engagement during green school yard designs.
  • Schools can set a precedent for climate action and education. Students and school staff make up 17% of the U.S. population, making schools a highly visible opportunity to demonstrate the health, economic and other benefits of climate-smart investments. State and local policymakers can showcase these investments to the community, and school leaders can incorporate principles of sustainability and climate change into their curriculums. States can follow the lead of New Jersey, where the State Board of Education adopted climate change learning standards for kindergarten through 12th grade. School leaders can help develop lesson plans that showcase learnings and support workforce training efforts in the new green economy.
  • Climate-smart schools boost emergency preparedness. In many cases, investments in emissions reductions are also investments in resilience, and policymakers can draw connections to state and local emergency preparedness priorities in making the case for climate action in schools. Schools with on-site solar, for example, or electric school buses equipped with vehicle-to-building technologies, are well positioned to serve as emergency centers during natural and other disasters.
  • Climate-smart investments can contribute to student health, well-being and other outcomes. School systems have, rightly, been focused on the daunting task of educating students during a global pandemic. Administrators and teachers face unprecedented challenges with student attendance, learning loss, widening achievement gaps, teacher and bus driver shortages, and student mental health. Investments in climate-smart school communities, including healthy buildings and transportation as well as green school yards, can attract students and improve the learning experience. As school leaders invest in student and community wellness, they should look to climate-smart initiatives, like those described here, as an effective strategy.

Return to view all sectors

Further Reading


Resources from Organizations Working on Green Schools

Featured Experts

Silhouettes of children playing swing in turbine wind park at sunset