Climate education makes a place for itself at COP27: a cause for hope?


If being educated means living unsustainably, we need to recalibrate our notions of what education should do and what it means to be educated.

Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education.

(UNESCO, 2022, p. 34)

Climate change and its effects on our planet and on society are one of the greatest threats to humanity’s survival and to life as we have known it up to now. COP27, which was held last November in Egypt, brought the climate issue back into prominence on the TV news and in conversations, so taking advantage of the fact that the Climate Change Conference took place just a little over one month ago, we now wish to pose an important question: just what does education have to do with all this?

In a recent UNESCO survey published in the document Youth demands for quality climate change education (UNESCO, 2022), 70% of the young people who were surveyed stated that they cannot explain climate change, or can only explain its broad principles, or do not know anything about it. The survey also shows that over 100 surveyed countries do not mention climate change in their respective curricula. Likewise, it reports that while 95% of the surveyed primary and secondary school teachers admit that it is important to teach about climate change, under 30% stated that they felt they are prepared to provide such education.

The world report on education Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education (UNESCO, 2022) is emphatic and demanding with regard to the role that education should play in the fight against climate change. This report affirms that education’s outlook must be linked to the predicted world situation in the years to come, and, in this respect, climate change is unquestionably having and will continue to have a serious impact on our planet. Conversely, on the basis of the aforementioned survey’s results, it would appear to be evident that education in the world at large is still far from being able to say that it has taken up this challenge in all its magnitude.

Education’s outlook must be linked to the predicted world situation in the years to come

For this reason, in the midst of a very grim political, social and climate-related panorama, the fact that climate education has made a place for itself in a United Nations Conference on Climate Change is a cause for hope. However, precisely which global initiatives on climate change education have been presented at COP27? How must education be transformed in order to deal with climate change? Taking advantage of the holding of COP27 and the media attention given to it, this article seeks to present and to analyse the proposals of global character which the international organisations are promoting to foster climate change education around the world.

First of all, what are the COPs?

COPs (Conferences of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) have become a key meeting point with the representation of nearly all the world’s countries for establishing and implementing actions and roadmaps aimed to halt climate change and to successfully adapt to the consequences of climate change which can no longer be avoided. Although the growing intensity of the climate emergency has drawn great attention to the most recent COPs and their results, COPs have in fact been held year after year since 1995.

But what has been so special about COP27? Just as was announced on the opening day of the Summit by Mr. Simon Stiell, Secretary General of UNFCCC: “Today a new era begins – and we begin to do things differently. Paris gave us the agreement [referring to the Paris Agreement of COP21], Glasgow gave us the plan [referring to the Glasgow Climate Plan established at COP26]. Sharm El-Sheikh shifts us to implementation. No one can be a mere passenger on this journey. This is the signal that times have changed”. Four key paths of action have been contemplated to bring about this implementation: mitigation, adaptation, climate financing, and the polemical concept known as “loss and damage”.

It could be seen that the capacity to reach agreements entailing a real turning point in the fight against climate change is very limited.

After 39 hours of debate, however, it could be seen that the capacity to reach agreements entailing a real turning point in the fight against climate change is very limited. The Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh agreed to generate new funds for the purpose of assisting the developing countries, which are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, as a response to “loss and damage”, and this was the most notable agreement reached. Even so, in the words of the summary of the conference published in the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB), “the need to act in the face of the climate crisis has never been clearer”, but “with many other policy priorities competing for their attention, leaders made few new transformative announcements”.

What role has education played at COP27?

Education agents and climate agents sat down at COP27 to broach the link between their two fields, especially through the spaces promoted by UNESCO, and this served to evidence a paradoxical scenario: just as is stated in the Report, a correlation is observed in the world between education attainment and completion, on the one hand, and the practice of unsustainable activities, on the other; that is to say, the most highly educated countries and people are those who most accelerate climate change.

The most highly educated countries and people are those who most accelerate climate change.

According to the stance taken in the Report and in the debates generated in these UNESCO spaces within the framework of the COP, although the presence of ecology in numerous curricula, educational programmes and legislations must be praised, the research on the effectiveness of education for climate change shows that in order to be effective, education must take into consideration the breadth of competences required to empower students with the knowledge, the awareness and the skills to live and act for a sustainable future. This means broadening the present focus, which is still too closely centred on scientific knowledge – a knowledge that is necessary but not sufficient.

Education and climate change: a twofold implication

UNESCO recognises the tie between education and climate change in two directions. On the one hand, climate change is already having a direct impact on the right and the access to education: environmental disasters that prevent children from attending school, extreme climate conditions that hamper learning, forced migrations, food insecurity, the spread of diseases… And on the other hand, education for sustainable development, set out in SDG 4.7, is a paradigm for hope and a powerful lever of change at a decisive moment for the future of life on Earth.

Consequently, in both the strategy to promote Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and in the call made by the new world report on education, it is clear that if the transformation of education becomes focused on the building of futures that are fairer and more sustainable for all, there is cause for hope.

UNESCO’s commitment to ESD gained momentum in 2021 at the Berlin World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, with the presentation of the document Learn for our planet. A global review of how environmental issues are integrated in education (UNESCO, 2021). The conclusions of that document, together with the Final Declaration of the Conference, may be found here. The Declaration analyses the extent to which environmental education is integrated in curricula around the world, and it also has the objective of strengthening the States’ commitment to an effective quality education for sustainable development.

Greening education is no longer just an option: it must impregnate the educational system

The momentum generated in Berlin has now led to the creation of the most significant world initiative in climate education, which arose within the framework of the Transforming Education Summit that took place in the past month of September. This initiative, called Greening Education Partnership: Getting Every Learner Climate-Ready, was presented at COP27 and in it UNESCO requests the countries to integrate quality education for sustainable development in four lines of action: greening schools, greening learning, greening capacity & readiness, and greening communities. In this way, moving out of the classic framework of providing climate education only as a content of the curricula in the scientific field, greening education entails a far-reaching change that questions the purpose of education, the selfsame curricula and even the organisation of schools and communities themselves, just as has always been advocated by education for sustainable development.

Greening education entails a far-reaching change that questions the purpose of education.

It is to be welcomed that the work carried out by the international organisations, the countries and the entities of civil society has finally allowed education to make a place for itself in a climate conference. It is also to be welcomed that the Greening Education Partnership constitutes an opportunity to legitimate and to group together all the existing initiatives, large and small, underway in Catalonia and around the world, as well as a chance to demand that the countries should undertake stronger and more radical commitments.

Just as COP27 has wished to be the implementation COP (with greater or lesser effectiveness), this implementation should also penetrate the educational field by adopting the transformative idea of greening education with the urgency that our planet’s situation and humanity’s survival require, as well as with hope, reaffirming education as an indispensable condition of possibility for building fair, sustainable and peaceful futures.

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