Page last updated at 20:50 GMT, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Energy efficiency begins at home

By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Solar panels on school (BBC)
The school has installed solar panels on its roof

The climate change conference in Copenhagen has been billed by government ministers as one of the most important meetings on the planet.

From the outside, it can be difficult to get a grasp on the importance of the conference.

But there are people in the UK who think it matters, and are already doing things that could reduce carbon emissions and save energy.

I went to Walton-on-Thames to talk to Joe, a primary school pupil, his friends and three generations of his family about what they are doing, and what Copenhagen means to them.

"We have three sets of solar panel in the school - the sun shines down on them and gives energy to use in the classroom as lights." Joe and his friends Rosalind, Karen, and Alex are showing us around Ashley school, which has just won an award for is green innovation.

As well as solar PV for electricity, there are solar thermal panels on the roof for heat. It's used for the infants' swimming pool, which comes as a great relief to the children. "When we used to go in to the swimming pool, it was really cold", says Jo, "it's much better now".

The children generally think something is happening and want to do something about it
Richard Dunne, headmaster, Ashley school

As well as the panels, the school has a wood-chip boiler, installed to replace the broken down one that gave up the ghost a couple of years ago.

Some chickens called Pip, Ginger and Madame Flappy (the chicken monitors get to take the eggs home), and each year group has an allotment in the school grounds. There is tree planting, and natural light is used whenever possible.

The headmaster, Richard Dunne, was inspired to make the changes to the school after a trip to Antarctica, where, he says, he saw the effects of climate change at first hand.

But he is aware that part of the education process means helping the children to think for themselves.

"I don't think we do the children any favours to present it as 'climate change is happening and we're all agreed on that', because there are people who don't think that is the case and they have an argument to put to support that. Having said that, the children generally think something is happening and want to do something about it," he says.

Schoolchildren (BBC)
The children are being encouraged to think for themselves about climate change

He points out that the energy saving measures have had an effect on the school finances as well - saving about £4,000 in the last couple of years.

The school day is almost over, and Mr Dunne chats to parents in the playground, asking if they will be helping at forthcoming Christmas bazaar.

Jo comes out to meet his mum, Elizabeth, along with his little brother. Mum has baby Katie in a buggy.

She is very passionate about saving energy and reducing the family's use of carbon - but admits that, as the song goes, it's not easy being green:

"Walking instead of taking the car takes longer. Hanging out the washing to dry instead of sticking it in the tumble dryer takes longer. We all need to make the extra effort," she says.

Dad Mark works in the green industry and says we have to think about how we reduce or make sustainable the amount of energy we're using.

However, there are sometimes some complicated decisions to be made: "If you have a fridge that uses a lot of energy, it may not be possible for you to replace it, and it's not clear that that would be the best thing to do anyway."

As the children play with their Lego on the kitchen table with their parents, I talk to Mark's mum and dad, Barbara and Brian, in the living room. They point out that the things they did naturally, like not wasting food and making do and mending, now have to be taught at school.

"It is possible to cook fresh food and work," says Barbara.

They are pleased that their local authority has started composting waste and recycling - and, as Brian points out, that some councils are rediscovering means of light transport like the tram.

But as for Copenhagen? As Brian puts it: "We hear all these targets and we're sure they're necessary, but I haven't heard anything that will bring it back on to what we have to do. It's all very remote and academic - just being told at Copenhagen that [China] is going down this worthy road as much as anyone else is not going to make me turn the radio up."

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