Linking Global Education and the Climate Crisis: An Alternative Approach

As we approach the pivotal COP26 meeting, it may be tempting to ‘sell’ global education as a means to tackle climate change. While there are empirical and moral reasons to be cautious of this approach, education which builds foundational skills can play a crucial role in building resilience to the negative impacts of global warming in poor countries.


Image of Kirsty Newman

Kirsty Newman


Image of Sarah Lane Smith

Sarah Lane Smith

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) of the UK

Two intersecting global crises: climate and education

Everyone working in international development will be anxiously awaiting the outcomes of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which will take place in just over a month in Glasgow. Global warming will have a disproportionate negative impact on developing countries, threatening health, security, and livelihoods and fueling inequality including gender-based inequality. At the same time, there is another lesser-known crisis which also has devastating impacts on poor countries: education systems in the majority of low- and middle-income countries are stuck in a state of perpetual failure, with the majority of children attending school but learning very little.

Perhaps in an attempt to ensure that the learning crisis is not overshadowed by the climate crisis, many have tried to make the case that global education can be part of the solution to successful climate change mitigation—by developing ‘green skills’ or by reducing fertility. In the lead up to COP 26, we expect these policy proposals to be promoted by many. And we have to admit that they are seductive; we all want to believe that one good thing that we all want will help to achieve another. But, unfortunately this argument that education can be part of the solution to climate change is not well backed up by the evidence. Here we set out why, but also suggest an alternative approach which links the solutions to the two crises.

Popular climate and education policy 1: Green skills in developing countries

The first policy option that some put forward is to focus education efforts in developing countries on building ‘green skills’ to help countries transition to a low-carbon economy. This may appear to be a clever way to ensure investment achieves a double impact both on education and on climate. But it is deeply unrealistic given the reality of education in poor countries.

The United National Industrial Development Organization's Green General Skill index includes detailed information on the key green skills which the world needs. In summary, they propose that green economies will require a range of advanced technical skills in engineering, science, operational management, and monitoring. Building these skills is undoubtedly a good thing. But we need to remember the scale of the learning crisis. In low-income countries, a staggering 90 percent of children are in learning poverty (i.e., not able to read for meaning by age 10). There is no way that students who are not even literate are going to be able to develop advanced technical skills. Children in lower-middle income countries are doing slightly better—on average around half of their children learn to read by age 10. But learning to read by age 10 is a very low bar; most lower-middle income countries have learning levels which still lag massively behind those found in richer countries and it seems unlikely that they will be able to develop a globally competitive labour force in highly technical sectors. Furthermore, even in countries where some students are achieving secondary-education level competencies, it is questionable whether global education financing should be used to target these elite students when vast swathes of the population remain illiterate.

We are all for a focus on building these advanced technical green skills as an end goal. But suggesting that we can focus on that in developing countries when so many children are not gaining even the most basic of academic competencies seems ludicrous and morally flawed. Radical prioritisation of foundational learning is needed before higher-order skills can be addressed. Of course, green skills can also encompass more basic skills for example in sustainable agricultural or cooking practices however we would remain cautious about recommending large-scale investment in technical and vocational training given its relatively poor track-record of success and the huge needs which remain in the basic education system.

Popular climate and education policy 2: Reduced fertility through education

The second option which is often put forward is that girls’ education will reduce global warming since it will reduce birth rates. We feel deeply uncomfortable with this argument; the implication is that we should solve the climate crisis, which has been created by rich countries, by limiting the number of children that women in poor countries have. Putting aside this discomfort, it is also not clear that the evidence behind this claim stacks up. Colleagues at the Center for Global Development (CGD) have recently put out a fantastic blog on the links between girls education, fertility, and climate change. They concur that there are real ethical concerns about this causal pathway, but they also point out that the evidence underpinning it is shaky at best. In fact, there is evidence that in some contexts increased education will actually lead to higher emission levels.   

This is not to say that girls’ education should not be a focus of attention. Getting girls and boys to learn is hugely important and—as far as we are concerned—a moral obligation for the world. However, justifying it based on spurious evidence doesn’t help anyone. It implies<—incorrectly—that poor women’s reproductive choices (or lack thereof) are to blame for climate change. It suggests that there needs to be a benefit to the rest of the world (in the form of reduced emissions) to justify supporting quality education in lower income countries when in fact the quality education is of enormous importance on its on merits and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And, in some cases, it drives a focus on programmes to pay girls to sit in school without learning anything rather than a focus on building education systems that work.

An alternative approach: Foundational skills as a feature of climate resilience

The fact that education in developing countries may not stop climate change does not mean that we do not need to consider the implications of climate change for education policy. In fact, there is a crucial connection between learning and climate, but it lies in the role that learning can play in building resilience to climate change rather than in preventing it from happening.

Even if developed countries mount unprecedented action to limit global warming to 1.5⁰C, climate-related severe weather events are going to become more common and people living in poor countries will be most severely affected. One consequence will be increasingly regular school closures due to floods, heatwaves, and storms. As we have seen in the COVID pandemic, prolonged school closures can lead to huge learning losses; new learning outcome data from India’s Karnataka state reveal that the proportion of standard 3 students who can read a standard 2 level text dropped from 19 percent in 2018 to 10 percent in 2020. Weather shocks in early childhood are particularly damaging for a range of cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes. Children in Mexico exposed to cyclical El Nino related shocks in early childhood perform worse in cognitive tests 4-5 years later and are more likely to be stunted, with reduced height and weight, than children who have not been exposed. Similarly, research in India has found that exposure to rainfall shocks for children in utero or early childhood has negative effects on vocabulary at age 5, and on mathematics and other non-cognitive skills even at age 15. In later childhood, climactic shocks also have a highly detrimental effect on schooling. In Madagascar, an island frequently affected by extreme weather events, rainfall shocks and cyclones reduce the probability of adolescents attending school and increase the probability of early entry to the labour market for both boys and girls. Moreover, emerging evidence that interrupted schooling is also likely to have the effect of widening the range of abilities within classrooms when kids do return.

A new report from Save the Children sets out how climate change-related vulnerability interacts with other factors leaving some countries with extremely high education risks. The report draws on a new global index which ranks countries according to overall risk to education. Importantly, the index combines the risk from external shocks (such as climate-related severe weather events, pandemics, or humanitarian crises) with the resilience of the education system to give an overall rating of education risk—an acknowledgement that school closures will have far greater impacts in places where learning is highly fragile. Research from the Punjab Province of Pakistan highlighted that while on average children’s scores improve as they pass through school years, each year around 20 percent of children actually score lower than they did the previous year. Thus, even with schools open, children were only slightly more likely to consolidate their learning than to forget it each year. School closures are likely to be particularly devastating in contexts like this where learning is already so fragile.

However, there is a way to protect children from these risks: if strong foundational skills (including literacy, numeracy, and core socio-emotional skills) are built, children have far greater resistance to the impacts of closed schools. This can be seen in the protective effect of pre-primary education in Ethiopia and in forthcoming evidence on the impacts of Teaching at the Right Level in Botswana.

Foundational skills will be particularly important in enabling remote learning, for example through distribution of paper resources or, in locations with adequate internet access, through computer-assisted learning. COVID has also taught us—in both of our cases through first-hand experience—about the challenges of providing remote learning for children who are not yet literate. Remote learning for young children will always be challenging, but many developing countries have faced the almost impossible task of trying to provide remote learning for children who remain illiterate throughout their primary school career—not to mention the challenge of poor penetration of technology. For countries facing the prospect of prolonged future closures due to extreme weather events, the urgency of building foundational skills early is more acute than ever; only with these skills will children have any chance of being able to learn if they are sent home from classrooms again.

As well as being protective against future shocks, the techniques for developing foundational skills will enable all children to start learning again quickly once they are back in the classroom; ALIGN-ed approaches, which include differentiated teaching to reach children at the level they are at, will be particularly important for children returning from prolonged school closures who will have a wide range of abilities.

The importance of foundational skills for resilience is also an intergenerational issue. We already know that a woman’s literacy level is associated with greater empowerment within the family and increased child survivalbut it can also protect against learning loss in the next generation. Early in the COVID pandemic, educationalists were quick to draw on research conducted after the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 to highlight the huge learning losses that school closures can generate. However, that research also provided the crucial insight that these learning losses were completely prevented in households where the mother had completed primary school. Evidence from the MICS6 data further supports the importance of parents’ learning levels on children’s learning; learning levels are far higher for children in households where parents have completed primary school, where parents read to children, and where there is at least one child-focused book. And new data from Nigeria shows that having parents who are educated protected children at least partially from learning loss following COVID-related school closures.


It is vital that the education sector wakes up to the realities of climate change. As we face the prospect of far more climate-related disruption to schooling, foundational skills will be a key resilience factor for both the children of today and their future offspring.

While there are thousands of research articles examining the health impacts of climate change, there is very little analysis on the potential impacts on education and how resilience can be built. This is not a call for educationalists to switch and focus purely on links with climate change; the last thing the education sector needs is further fragmentation. However, as set out above, consideration of the potential impacts of the climate crisis actually adds even more weight to the calls to focus relentlessly on foundational skills. Foundational skills are vital for today’s children and they will be a key resilience factor for future generations in developing countries as they bear the brunt of a crisis created by rich countries. Additional research will be needed to understand how foundational skills can continue to be built despite the other effects—beyond school closures—that climate change has on learning. For example, there is evidence that heat itself can inhibit learning, so there will be an increasing need for sustainable and affordable approaches to reducing classroom temperatures.

As pointed out in another CGD blog, there are various other ways in which education systems can be used to build resilience to climate change in addition to their role in driving learning. However, we would contend that the primary purpose of education needs to be to get children to learn—and that many of the other positive effects of education are far greater if children are learning while in school.

Lastly, whilst there are undoubtedly education inequalities within countries, we must not lose sight of the fact that the biggest educational inequalities are between countries—even the most marginalised children in rich countries have far higher learning levels than the average child in a developing country. Climactic shocks and rising temperatures are likely to widen this global learning inequality, leaving poor countries with weaker systems and less resources yet further behind. This is particularly unfair since, as already noted, the climate crisis is overwhelmingly of rich countries’ making. More research and action are needed to strengthen failing education systems to deliver basic and climate-resilient learning for all kids.

Sarah Lane Smith is Education Research Adviser in the Research & Evidence Division of the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and are not a representation of official UK government policy.

RISE blog posts and podcasts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.