Education buildings: resilience to global climate change and avoidance of inequalities

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Pawel Wargocki  (DTU SUSTAIN and Technical University of Denmark)

Climate change in African countries

The population of Africa is around 18% of the global population. Yet, Africa is responsible for less than 10% of global warming. Africans cannot escape the consequences of climate change, which are made even more severe because of socio-economic disparities between the African continent and other wealthier parts of the world. The actions that need to be taken to reduce global warming are not simple and are usually quite costly, putting an additional economic burden on this challenged continent.

In 2023, extraordinary weather events occurred around the world. Globally, the average temperature was nearly 1.5oC warmer than in the late 19th century (1850–1900), a limit set by signed international protocols and agreements to fight climate change. These fierce temperatures were keenly felt by people in Africa, where temperatures increase at the rate of approximately 0.3oC per decade — higher than the global average of 0.2oC.

Impact of climate change on education

Access to education is fundamental to any society, wealthy or poor, and is one of the determinants of economic growth and development. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)  highlights the relationship between skills developed in schools and later quality of life, success, and prosperity.

Climate change affects schools, much like any other sector of life and human activity. However, the impact of climate change is perhaps even more acute when schools suffer from underinvestment, poor environmental conditions, and lack of funding. This is especially so when there are no solutions to help deal with the consequences of climate change — such as rising temperatures. Although many schools around the world face similar challenges, it is fair to say that these are much more prominent in Africa. As already mentioned, global warming negatively impacts lives from health to education and thus potentially limits future opportunities and increases vulnerability.   

What does the research tell us?

Most of the research on the negative impacts of elevated temperatures and other physical conditions in schools, including air quality and the acoustic and visual environment, has been undertaken in higher-income countries. Research on African schools is nearly non-existent, or focuses on other aspects of the school environment. 

Research shows that global warming and increased classroom temperatures negatively affect pupils’ learning ability. Elevated outdoor temperatures can result in poorer results on exit exams, thus impacting opportunities for further education and getting a new job. 

These effects are especially exacerbated for those from lower socio-economic strata, and are further amplified when temperatures are elevated for extended periods. There is evidence to suggest that global warming impacts the entire learning process, and, as ever, the consequences are even worse for African schools. 

What can be done to prepare for and mitigate the negative impacts of global warming?

Following recommendations regarding the risk of heat stress outdoors, temperatures between 30 and 35oC should be used as the levels that trigger action. Research on schools indicates that these temperature levels are already far too high, even when adaptation and acclimatisation by pupils are taken into account. Adaptation may make it possible to still feel comfortable in high temperatures, while acclimatisation affects physiological response; however, neither is sufficient for combatting the effects of high temperatures. 

Temperatures above 26–28oC in schools are likely to negatively affect learning. However, research about such temperature levels has mainly been on adults in offices and there is a lack of research, on tropical countries. This means we don’t know what temperature levels should be considered acceptable or unacceptable in school settings. In addition to temperature, we need more in-depth research to study the impact of thermal sensation and heat avoidance on students’ performance.  As far as the African continent is concerned, there is virtually no research on temperature, global warming, climate change, and learning

The UN has developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many of these are relevant for schools, but for schools in Africa, we should pay particular attention to SGD10, which relates to the need to reduce inequalities. It is the moral responsibility of countries that contribute most to global warming to help mitigate its consequences for those who are much less responsible for its devastating impact. Extrapolating results from research on the effects of climate change in Western countries to inform mitigation strategies elsewhere is simply not good enough. We need solutions that are tailor-made for the African continent and the challenges it is facing. Furthermore, these need to be affordable, efficient, agile, and low-energy, as a minimum.

Are there solutions and examples of successful projects that can be adapted and translated to the African context?

There are only a few solutions or successful projects to tackle the effects of climate change in schools, and where they do exist, they are not well disseminated.

The dearth of successful projects can be explained by the reality that schools and school authorities, even in many countries outside Africa, struggle to find adequate financial support, investment, recognition of the problems, and implementation of solutions.  The SDE-4 building at the National University of Singapore, however, is an exception.

SDE-4 is a net-zero building with numerous solutions developed and implemented to reduce its climate impact and promote and foster learning and development of new solutions. The building structure is open, with natural plants and vegetation around it to provide shade and reduce temperature. Rainwater is collected and reused. The roofs are equipped with photovoltaic panels (PVs). 

Natural ventilation and cross-ventilation supported by ceiling fans are the main solutions used to mitigate high temperatures and ensure ventilation. Air conditioning is only used in a few areas and only when necessary, i.e., when the other systems cannot maintain desirable indoor temperatures. The building uses thermal buffers — materials or substances that act as temperature regulators to prevent false readings. The façade can be dismantled — such façades are also used in education programmes, where students can develop and test alternative façade solutions.

We can only hope that with increasing awareness about climate change, ‘resilience projects’ will begin to bloom; however, such solutions must be affordable and adaptable to African conditions.

Despite current limitations, some solutions can already be proposed for use in African schools and implemented immediately; some are more relevant to new constructions, and some to renovations. Solutions include building or classroom orientation that will ensure decent daylight levels but avoid direct sunlight and overheating. Examples include corrugated painted roofs, which can contribute to a reduction in temperature; plants, and vegetation for absorbing heat; ceiling fans, cross-ventilation, and open areas. 

Using light, one-story construction can avoid creating economic burdens in cases where rebuilding is necessary after climate-related disasters, but probably on elevated areas to ensure no flooding or opting for a vertical separation between inside and outside. Many of these solutions will also reduce the risk of the spread of disease. Global climate change exacerbates these risks.

Key takeaways

As already mentioned, the benefits of taking steps to tackle the adverse effects of climate change can have a significant impact on the performance of schoolgoers. However, only a few studies have focused on the link between poor environmental conditions and the impact on performance in school.  Of course, costs associated with taking steps to mitigate the negative impact of climate change on education must be considered. However, costs incurred should be treated as an investment that will almost definitely bear fruit in the future. 

Any implemented solutions to create resilience to climate change should aim to ensure that schools can carry on functioning. School closures should be avoided, but they may not be avoidable during extreme weather conditions due to global climate change unless school buildings are well-prepared and the solutions are resilient and robust.

Establishing a successful beginning is particularly important for African schools, which are already significantly challenged. Providing a successful start for children into adult life should be a primary objective for schools.

Evette Ferrao
Evette Ferrao