Killing Neither Bird (But Wasting the Stone): The Conundrum of Girls’ Education and Climate Change

It is tempting to try to spend money in a way that achieves two goals—but the big risk is that you end up achieving neither.


Image of Kirsty Newman

Kirsty Newman


I was recently invited to speak at an event about how girls’ education can ‘tackle’ climate change. Politicians love nothing more than this manoeuvre of using budget allocations to attempt to ‘kill two birds with one stone’. If they have promised to spend a million pounds on girls’ education and have also promised to put a million pounds into climate change mitigation, of course they will seek out ways to fund a single million-pound programme that contributes to both goals.  

The history and risks of chasing two goals 

This strategy is not new. The Official Development Assistance budget in the UK is ring-fenced (albeit with a far lower circumference ring than in the past), so the UK government has attempted many times to squeeze more outcomes out of it, ranging from UK trade interests (hullo Prosperity Fund), funding for UK academia (I see you, Global Challenges Research Fund) and tackling extremism (yes, I’m talking about the short-lived Empowerment Fund).  

The problem with this tactic is that it is very easy to spend a million pounds on a single project that achieves negligible impacts on both sets of outcomes, and, in fact, the cumulative impacts of two sensible £500k projects may be far greater.  

Identifying genuine win wins

So how can we tell whether we can achieve two wins with one effort? 

In a recent conversation with RISE Research Director Lant Pritchett, he suggested to me that the simple way to identify whether significant ‘win wins’ can be achieved is to think about each of the problems you are trying to solve and to list out the key root causes you seek to tackle. So, for climate change I would hazard a guess that the top five root causes are something like: 

  1. Fossil fuel-derived energy
  2. Transportation 
  3. Destruction of natural carbon stores
  4. Construction/manufacturing
  5. Farting cows*

What about the root causes of poor learning amongst the world’s girls? I would suggest the top causes are something like: 

  1. Low political/societal priority given to the goal of learning (as opposed to raising levels of access to schooling and years of schooling completed)
  2. Entrenched systems of poor recruitment, training and support for teachers
  3. Misalignment of curricula with children’s learning goals and needs
  4. Finance (wastage, poor allocation, corruption)
  5. Poor access for girls in a small number of highly populous countries

We can argue over the detail and the order of these two lists. But I think we can agree that there is no evidence to suggest that girls’ learning in poor countries is on the list of causes of climate change (see this RISE blog for more details) and, similarly, that climate change is not a major reason for the lack of girls who are learning.

Foundational skills for climate resilience

Having said all this, while girls’ education cannot solve the climate crisis, it is important to think about education when we consider how to build resilience to climate change. And any education-related resilience project will need to start by building foundational skills. Without these, aspirations to build leadership, critical thinking, green skills, and so on will never be possible. So to come back to Lant’s sense-check on achieving dual goals, it is very plausible that low foundational skills would be on the list of root causes of low resilience to climate change.   

Some people may worry that focussing on foundational skills is not specific enough to be considered as a climate-resilience initiative. But we need to remember that we want what works best, not what is most specific in its outcomes. A simple analogy is to consider treatments for different ailments—for example, doing yoga may be the best approach to treating my muscle stiffness even if it will also have benefits for my insomnia. In fact, its multiple positive benefits are a good thing. Similarly, if we support foundational skills as part of our efforts to build resilience to climate change, we should be delighted that it will also have positive impacts on women's empowerment, employability, and so on.  

Policy recommendations

So, here are my suggestions for a sensible approach to climate and girls’ education: 

  1. Rich countries need to take responsibility for the mess they have created. Reducing greenhouse gases will largely need to be through domestic policies.
  2. We should not pretend that girls’ education programmes will reduce climate change—doing so is disingenuous, but it also risks a focus on approaches that are in the best interests of rich countries, not of poor countries.
  3. We should make the case for inclusion of foundational skills development as an approach to climate resilience/adaptation.


  • *Actually, the category should be agriculture in general, but I am inherently childish so I wanted to get the word ‘fart’ into my blog.

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