Online Schools Crucial For Curbing Climate Change In SA

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Ahead of the 2024 academic year, schools around the country are now full, leaving thousands of learners unplaced. “And while provincial education departments are scrambling to build additional classrooms and schools to cater for these pupils, what about the environmental impacts of these projects?” asks Dr Corrin Varady, CEO at IDEA.

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He explains that South Africa, as the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter on the African continent, has committed to reduce its carbon emissions to between 350-420 MtCO2e by 2030. Yet, every single school building in the country emits around 173 tons of CO2 annually, excluding construction-related emissions and materials.

In contrast, however, online schools could help to reduce 83% of carbon emissions. And while these schools are not carbon-free, given the emissions from data servers and the manufacture of devices, their carbon footprint is far less as they reduce commuting for both students and faculty members while also decreasing energy and resource consumption.”

“At the same time, online learning can decrease a school’s energy consumption by 88%, which is critical given the country’s energy crisis. This is especially pertinent when one considers that South Africa’s public schools use an estimated 3.5 TWh of energy a year, equal to a quarter of the power produced by the Koeberg Power Station,” points out Dr Varady.

Yet, we continue building these schools that have a net negative externality on the environment, when we could be delivering a low carbon footprint alternative.

“Moreover, with digital learning programmes costing about 10% - at most - of what is typically spent on the construction of physical school infrastructure, this could be a lower cost option for provincial education departments to place learners, particularly in the wake of Treasury’s R1.78 billion chop to the school infrastructure budget for 2023/24,” adds Dr Varady.

He notes too that education is critical to South Africa’s mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change. “But, with the country in the grips of a dire teacher shortage – most notably in subjects like maths and science - online schools could provide access to subject areas that will help learners tackle the climate crisis. This is also in line with the vision of the National Development Plan (NDP) for the creation of an educational and national science system by 2030 which serves the needs of society.”

“We are getting to the point where the environment, our growing student population, and meagre infrastructure budgets mean we can no longer afford to keep ignoring digital learning, especially if we are to meet the country’s sustainability and education goals as we head towards 2030. There really is no other option. We cannot wait for ubiquitous internet access or for the country’s energy crisis to be solved. We need to be moving education online now so that we can develop learners who are able to innovate solutions to these issues and optimise this infrastructure to be more friendly to the environment,” concludes Dr Varady.

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