The start of the new school term is a chance to ditch old habits ... such as driving the kids to school, argues Daisy Narayanan, Director of Urbanism at Sustrans Scotland


THE planet needs a radical change of habits. And it can start with the school run. We know that if we are to get serious about tackling climate change, we will need a radical transformation in the way that we live our lives.

But understandably, knowing where to start, and which part of our life to change first, can often feel daunting and overwhelming.

However one small, and relatively easy switch to that greener, and more sustainable world we are trying to reach can start with something as simple as the school run. I know I can’t be alone in having mixed emotions about my children going back to school next week.

On one hand, a steady routine will be a much longed-for blessing. As will be an empty house, as many of us continue to work from home. Meanwhile, my children are eager to get back to lessons and see their friends.

But after five months of homeschooling, prolonged family time, and staying in one place, everything is at once the same, but also almost unrecognisably different. I can’t deny that for me, like many others, the past five months have been a time of much stress, anxiety and many sleepless nights.

But, there have also been wonderful pockets of calm and joy. Having no option but to stay in one place and take a step back from my normal, hectic everyday life has made me appreciate the little things even more. For many, lockdown has rekindled their love of getting around on foot and by bike. Others have realised that distances between local landmarks are much shorter than they first thought. They have noticed the birds singing. Taken pleasure in local wildlife. Met neighbours they hadn’t seen before, and tried to shop local.

For me, it has been cycling along the normally busy streets with my children, without the fear of motor-traffic. Also the joys of discovering local sights in my neighbourhood that I never realised existed, on my daily walks.

Yet this collective slower, gentler pace of living has had very little impact on global carbon emissions. Yes, there have been less people flying (a good thing) and less people travelling unnecessary journeys by car (another good thing), but there has only been a small drop in carbon emissions – a crucial contributor to the heating of our planet. Much of the global warming predicted to happen is already locked in and cannot be stopped.

For example, the so called ‘earth overshoot day’ will fall on August 22nd. This term “overshoot” represents the level by which human population overshoots the sustainable amount of resources on Earth each year. After that day, we, as a planet are living beyond our means.

Granted, due to to Covid-19, this August 22nd date is an improvement of last year’s date of July 29th. But as a whole, this yearly date has been getting steadily earlier.

We cannot and should not expect a global economic and health disaster such as the coronavirus pandemic to slow the destruction of the planet. And we all know we need to do more, both collectively and as individuals, if we are to be serious about helping to reduce our impact on the planet. If lockdown has taught me anything, it is that small, simple changes to my everyday habits can make a huge, and indeed very positive impact on my life and my relationship with the people I love.

Which brings me back to the school run. At present, the highest proportion of Scotland’s carbon emissions are emissions from transport – in particular private cars. Cars cause 40% of transport emissions in Scotland, and even if every new car sold in Scotland in 2030 were electric, we’d still need to reduce overall car mileage by 20% to meet our climate commitments.

Meanwhile, the recent Hands Up Scotland survey, which tracks how children travel to school, showed that more children were travelling to school by car than ever before in 2019.

The start of the new school term next week is a chance to try out new behaviours and change old habits. And leaving the car at home for the school run should be one of these. Many of us are still working from home. And others will have a renewed appreciation for walking and cycling. By embracing the chance to try something different, a small change to the way our children travel to school can not only be a healthy way to start the day, for parents and children alike, but good for our planet too.

It could become a chance to spend time with our children and taken in our surroundings. I don’t know about you, but part of me will actually miss my kids being around so much.

Of course, this won’t be for everyone. For a start, not everyone works from home. Many also need to drive to the school – including children who have physical or sensory disabilities.

But as Scotland’s Active Nation Commissioner, Lee Craigie has said, those of us who can, should leave the roads clear for those who need them. So what is needed to turn the school run into a walk, a bike or scooter ride? In most cases, it’s a safe route to school.

In some cases the presence of ‘school streets’ can help. This is when streets around schools are closed to motor traffic at pick up and drop off times. Recent research has shown that moves like this increase the number of children walking, cycling or scooting to school, all whilst improving safety.

And best of all, it generally doesn’t cause displacement of traffic to other streets. The point is, if the conditions are right – in this case acting local, allowing ourselves to enjoy quiet streets, while seeing ourselves as part of something bigger - we can change habits. Radically. That’s what dealing with the pandemic needs.

And when it comes to climate change, that’s what the planet needs.