Misplaced ambition

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
29 July, 2022

It isn’t crazy to claim that New Zealand’s school system lacks ambition. Or, if it is, our shop has been crazy for a while.

But if you were going to complain about a lack of ambition in the New Zealand school system, carbon accounting seems a ludicrous place to start.

Unless you’re the Ministry for the Environment.

Newsroom reported this week on frustrated Ministry for the Environment officials unable to get school boards to fill in carbon accounting paperwork. They briefed Ministers that the education sector lacks “sufficient ambition.”


Every tonne of greenhouse gas coming from schools, whether in transport to and from school, in heating the buildings, in powering the lights, or even in the trash that winds up at landfill, is covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme.

But Ministry for the Environment officials are dismayed that half of schools aren’t filling in forms detailing electricity consumption, despite being contacted multiple times.

The real tragedy is that so many schools bothered responding.

Every school already does its own real carbon accounting. They just don’t know it. Carbon charges show up in the bills that schools pay. The binding emissions cap takes care of the rest unless a school keeps livestock.

I don’t think many schools keep livestock.

A school system spending time on carbon accounting would lack ambition to fulfil its core mission.

Think about what schools currently have to deal with, in addition to the long-term issues that the Initiative regularly highlights.

Term 1 of 2022 must have been hell for principals and Boards.

Lots of their teachers are out sick. Far too few relievers are available to help. The teachers who aren’t sick have to accommodate both students who are in the classroom and those who are isolating at home.

Taking measures to keep teachers safe and limit spread draws ire from some parents. Not doing so means more sick teachers, a harder time staffing classes, and more parents taking the precaution of keeping their children home.

Some schools have had to cancel afternoon classes, to free up teachers to cover for missing colleagues.

It is an administrative nightmare to juggle while trying to deal with huge long-term issues around declining literacy, numeracy, and attendance.

And despite it all, the Ministry for the Environment thinks schools should be spending their time running futile carbon accounting exercises.

Ambitious schools will be right to continue ignoring them.

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