At the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Education and Environment Ministers came together for the first time and committed to integrating sustainability and climate change learning into both formal education systems and professional training. While this pledge represents a significant step forward, leaders must now be much bolder by recognizing the central role that education must play in developing long-term climate solutions. Research by the Brookings Institution has shown that if just 16 percent of high school students in high-and middle-income countries began receiving a comprehensive climate education it could lead to a 19 gigaton reduction of CO2 by 2050 – the same amount as increasing investments in concentrated solar power. So why are we still not fully utilizing one of the most powerful tools we have?
Achieving net-zero by 2050 requires halving emissions each decade. We must leverage the power of education for this in two ways. First, we must reskill the workforce and create a ‘just transition’ that ensures workers are not left behind in the shift towards a more sustainable future. Next, we must ensure that all children are equipped with a quality education that gives them the knowledge and tools necessary to fight climate change.
Retaining strong public support for green policies is a crucial component of reaching our climate goals. There is simply no way for this to happen if these policies lead to significant job losses. Therefore, it is imperative that changes to the global economy do not exacerbate existing inequalities and support those working in declining industries. Currently, around 40% of all jobs worldwide are at risk due to climate change, and many industries will require adaptations to ‘future proof’ jobs in the decades ahead. This means significantly scaling up investment in education to create a resilient workforce. For example, the UK government recently announced a plan to install 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028. However, in June 2021 a report revealed that there were only 1,200 qualified heat pump installers in the UK. If the government wants to meet its target, it will need to train eight times the number of heat pump installers currently working. Helping workers adapt and train for the jobs of tomorrow is key to building a sustainable long-term climate policy.
We must also focus our efforts on the next generation. The children of today overwhelmingly understand the need for urgent action. However, the climate crisis is also a great source of anxiety for many, with 60 percent of children in a global survey reporting that they felt worried or very worried about the future of our planet. Many children are channeling this anxiety into action by leaving school and joining climate strikes around the world. While their efforts should be lauded, we must find ways to help them make their voices heard in school.
There are already several successful models of ways that education can be a part of the solution. Italy became the first country to make climate education mandatory, with 33 hours of teaching per year devoted to climate issues, and other subjects being taught through the lens of sustainability. The Climate Action Project is empowering children to learn about the climate in a practical way. And organizations like Camfed are working to give young women in Sub-Saharan Africa training in sustainable agricultural techniques.
The consequences of inaction are stark, particularly for women and girls. According to a report by the Malala Fund, 12.5 million girls will be prevented from finishing their education due to climate change-related factors by 2025. Conversely, increasing access to education for girls can yield incredible results – a recent global study revealed that deaths caused by extreme weather events could be reduced by 60 percent if 70 percent of girls were able to finish secondary school.
If we are to meet our climate goals, we must put education at the core of our approach. Otherwise, we are trying to fight the battle with one arm tied behind our backs. At COP 26, we heard world leaders speak about the need for further technological innovation. Yet, while innovation is an important piece of the puzzle, it is only the behavioral change that comes from education that can yield the wholesale shift necessary to save our planet. Education can help bridge the gap between ambition and results by training the workforce of tomorrow and empowering our children to develop innovative solutions to the biggest problem of our age. We need more action and less words.