24 January 2024 - Global

Harnessing education to build climate resilience

Ratana, 12, and her classmates collect rubbish from Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

Ratana, 12, and her classmates collect rubbish from Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. Linh Pham / Save the Children

On International Day of Education 2024, we are reminded that children are some of the most important architects of a just and sustainable futureChildren are also amongst those most affected by climate change. Yet, while education systems are essential to children’s learning, wellbeing, and development, they so far have been largely overlooked in the mounting efforts to achieve climate justice. 

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Education and the climate crisis   

A staggering 1.3 billion school-age children live in regions highly susceptible to – and in many cases already experiencing – the effects of climate change. With 90% of these in low- and middle-income countries, this too often compounds inequalities and impacts on and wellbeingMore and more, climate-induced hazards such as floods, droughts, fires, extreme heat are posing a challenge to safe and continuous schoolingYet only a mere .03% of climate finance goes to education.

Save the Children consultations globally have found that children are calling for national education programmes on climate change, including awareness initiatives, eco-friendly practices in schools, teacher training on climate-related topics, uninterrupted school access during emergencies, school feeding programmes in climate-affected communities, and funding from high-polluting countries.

“The impact on school attendance at the time of the floods? We cannot go to school and food is less, due to changes in the climate. The result [is] the loss of education.” Boy in Iraq 

"As children, we must be involved and taken into account.... There must be spaces for environmental education." From a discussion among 13–16-year-old girls, Peru 

 Jok’s lessons take place under a tree in a town in Akobo West, South Sudan.

Jok’s lessons take place under a tree in a town in Akobo West, South Sudan after devastating floods destroyed the local school. Esther Mbabazi / Save the Children

The beginnings of a breakthrough   

The year 2023 was a landmark one in linking climate and education. It saw historical adoption by the Committee of the Rights of the Child of General Comment 26 on child rights and the environment with a focus on climate change. At COP28, a dedicated day was held, with both the Greening Education Partnership and RewirEd convening high-level meetings to explore ways in which education can strengthen the climate agenda. 

This growing political attention has been reflected in both political commitments and emerging partnerships: at COP28, 28 countries endorsed the new Declaration on the Common Agenda for Education and Climate Change.The Global Partnership for Education (GPE), UNESCO, and Save the Children shared our groundbreaking work on  Climate Smart Education Systems soon being rolled out with more than 20 education ministries.And the largest investment of climate finance in the education sector to date was announced: with $70 million from the Green Climate Fund and the GPE, Building the Climate Resilience of Children and Communities through the Education Sector (BRACE) will demonstrate approaches to integrate climate change into the education sector including in curriculum, educational management and climate resilient infrastructure, initially in Cambodia, South Sudan, and Tonga. 

Proof, priority, and investment  

While all this is encouraging, we see three critical areas as needing further attention in building the resilience of education systems to equip children for a changing climate: 

  • Improved understanding of the impacts of climate change on education. Since 2020, climatic shocks have disrupted education for around 62 million crisis-affected children and adolescents in 27 countries, a figure likely to rise with the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. Harvard research suggests that each degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature reduces the amount learned that year by 1%. Yet in many countries, the impacts of climate on education are anecdotal and lack rigour, which makes decisions on both action and investment more difficult. 

  • Greater focus on education as part of climate action. We are not making the most of the opportunity of education to tackle the climate crisiswhile 59%of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) include commitments to the education sectoronly 39% of countries have a national law, policy, or strategy for climate change educationThe Greening Education Partnership is developing Green School Quality Standards and Curriculum Guidance which identifygood practices, but their adoption and use are crucial.  

  • Significantly increased climate and education investment. Between 2006 and 2023, just 2.4% of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds supported projects that considered and included children, and only one among 591 projects had education as its principal objective.There is hope though that this funding is on an upward trajectory: from 2016-2021 climate and education funding has grown slightly from a very low starting base, with grant funding increased by 13% and climate-related debt induced funding by 43%. This year’s work on the new collective quantified climate finance goal (NCQG) presents an important opportunityto further increase focus on children’s rights and investment in child-critical services like education. 

climate exhibit

Building on momentum  

There are significant opportunities to continue to build on this past year’s momentum on education and climate resilience. Partnership, innovation, and robust coordination across the humanitarian-development nexus at all levels are crucial. 

Globally, COP28 leaders made a historic decision to hold an ‘expert dialogue’ in Bonn later this year on the disproportionate effects of climate change on children, marking the first dedicated UNFCCC agenda space for children and an important opportunity to advance the role of education. The CRC Committee will begin to evaluate all Parties’ compliance in light of General Comment 26 and can also enquire about other commitments such as those taken under the Declaration on the Common Agenda for Education and Climate Change.  

Nationally, governments must identify promising interventions and stimulate investments in the right places, focusing on anticipatory action and using tools like the new Climate and Environment Intervention Matrix. Donors can step up support for climate and education by investing in emerging initiatives such as Climate Smart Education Systems and BRACE. And equipping children is perhaps the most transformational measure, with programmes such as Green Generation and others designed to increase climate literacy and mobilise children’s leadership and action.  

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Acknowledgements: 

Thank you to Nora Charif Chefchaouni, James Cox, and other Save the Children colleagues who have shaped the ideas on education and climate resilience presented here.Further thanks to Ben Horner, Charmian Caines, Thora Frost, and Andy Baxter from Boston Consulting Group for their valuable contributions to this article.

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