Who’s making the grade on climate change education ambition?

A student holds a replica of Earth with wind mills.
Editor's note:

This piece was originally published by Education International.

The release of the 6th IPCC report on the physical science of climate change this year raised the alarm around the urgency to act on the climate crisis. Clearly, global leaders did not heed the previous five alarms nor did they listen to recent calls to increase the ambition of their efforts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. They have also neglected their duties to build a climate resilient citizenry that is equipped with knowledge about and skills to act on the climate emergency, particularly in terms of climate change education (CCE).

In 2019, I along with esteemed colleagues pointed out in a report ahead of  COP25 that few countries were paying attention to the education and empowerment of children and youth— especially girls and young women—as a solution to the climate crisis. Specifically, we found that 42 countries out of 160 whose NDC we analyzed mentioned the education of children and youth in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)—national climate action plans detailing pathways for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change. None formally recognized the role of girls’ education in climate strategies, despite girls being some of the most affected by the climate crisis.

This finding was disappointing, as all countries that ratified the Paris Agreement also committed to engage in climate empowerment to enable all members of society to address the climate crisis. This includes the education (both formal and nonformal) and training of children and youth, who will inherit  the climate crisis that they had no part in creating.

Six years since the passage of the Paris Agreement, and amid a global pandemic, global leaders will gather for COP26 in Glasgow in November to negotiate climate action. Aside from the main goals of mitigation and adaptation, countries are also called upon to include climate education as part of their NDCs. Have countries, since 2019, increased their ambition when it comes to the role of education in their updated, revised, or new NDCs? It comes as no surprise that the answer is unfortunately not.

Like any student on the brink of failing a class, this is the time for countries to get their act together. The IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report makes it clear that we are in the middle of climate catastrophe—no country is safe from its impacts.

In a new study that I conducted with Education International as part of its #Teach4thePlanet campaign, I found that every country (95, as of September 30, 2021) that had submitted its updated, revised, or new NDC had failed when it comes to making the grade on the Education International (EI) Climate Change Education (CCE) Ambition Report Card. Below is a summary of the benchmarks for the EI CCE Ambition Report Card.

The Education International Climate Change Education Ambition Report Card

The EI CCE Ambition Report Card, developed to help support the monitoring of EI’s Manifesto on Quality Climate Change Education for All, grades countries’ policies along six criteria:

  1. Policy ambition. Does the country call for compulsory CCE that is assessed with clear timebound benchmarks to monitor progress?
  2. Pervasiveness. Does the country call for CCE across the education system, including all levels of education and across all subject areas?
  3. Inclusiveness. Does the country’s approach to CCE benefit all target populations, including the most vulnerable? Does the country engage and consult with educators and students during the CCE policymaking process?
  4. Quality of climate change education. Does the country call for CCE that is gender-empowering, intersectional, and transdisciplinary? Does it call for CCE that is based in science, fosters civic engagement and climate action, and builds pathways to future careers in the green economy?
  5. Climate justice. Does the country center its approach to CCE in the pursuit of climate justice, by teaching how different groups, like women and girls as well as indigenous peoples, are differentially impacted by climate change?
  6. Systems strengthening. Does the country call for the adequate financing of public education needed to support the delivery of quality CCE? Does the country ensure that teachers receive adequate training and continuing professional development to deliver quality CCE?

It is imperative to recognize that not all countries have the capacity at this time to execute ambitious CCE plans. The indicators outlined above point to a high standard that should be the aspiration of every country, with the caveat that developing nations must be ensured international support based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Wealthy nations must take the lead in this global undertaking.

How did countries fare on their CCE ambition?

Overall, education and CCE ambition, are poor. Of the 95 countries with updated, revised, or new NDCs, 76% are referencing education (up from 68% of 160 first NDCs in the 2019 analysis). While this may sound good initially, it is important to note that the majority of these references position education in general terms: 1) as a generic pathway to success of a non-education sector’s climate action strategy (e.g. education about recycling to strengthen a country’s waste management strategy); 2) as a positive outcome from the success of another sector’s contribution (e.g. electrification helps increase educational opportunities); 3) as collateral damage (e.g. hurricane damage to schools); or 4) as a demographic variable to describe the country’s population. Only 24% of NDCs specifically mention the education of children and youth (down from 26% in the 2019 analysis). Meanwhile, only 21% of NDCs mention CCE; none are calling for compulsory CCE as a climate strategy.

In terms of the quality of CCE, a few countries are leading the charge. However, the overall progress in CCE remains stagnant (see Table 1). For instance, none of the countries calling for CCE in their NDCs are calling for CCE that is based on science, leaving room for the co-optation of CCE by vested interests, even when climate change is already being taught in science classrooms. Although more countries (11) referenced the need to create educational pathways to careers in the green economy, actors invested in seeing a just transition to a green economy—including the United Kingdom and the United States—should be concerned that NDCs are not seriously attending to the education and training needs of the present or future workforce.

Table 1Table 1. Quality climate change education

When it comes to inclusion, a larger share of NDCs reference children and youth (69%, up from 42%), and the total share of NDCs that reference future generations and/or intergenerational equity has improved (34%, up from 5%). Countries are also doing better at identifying children and youth as key stakeholders rather than narrowly positioning them as a vulnerable group or a beneficiary of climate activities (However, countries are not necessarily positioning them as agents of change). Such inclusion might be attributed to the rise of youth climate activism. However, this is a classic example of tokenistic representation as governments have not acted on young people’s demands for quality CCE or climate justice.

In terms of including educators in NDCs, there has been no mention of engaging teachers or consulting education unions during the development of the NDCs. Only one NDC (the Marshall Islands) explicitly recognizes that teachers play an important role in promoting sustainability in the education sector, in the same way that an NDC might recognize farmers (especially women farmers) as key in strengthening the climate resilience and adaptive capacity of the agricultural sector. It is clear that the education sector could learn a lesson  from gender advocates like WEDO and the NDC Partnership who have made great strides in increasing countries’ attention to gender as a cross-cutting issue and a priority action area, as well as a key stakeholder group in the NDCs.

Indeed, 82% of NDCs mention women and/or gender (up from 43% of first NDCs), and 41% of NDCs recognize that vulnerable groups are differentially impacted by climate change. Unfortunately, there has not been the same level of improvement when it comes to NDCs mentioning girls, who bear an even greater level of vulnerability in the context of climate change. While 15 NDCs mention girls (up from three) and two NDCs in the context of girls’ education (Cambodia and the United Kingdom), no NDCs formally recognizes the contributions that an investment in girls’ education could make toward their climate strategy. In fact, only three NDCs (Argentina, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico) recognize children’s rights, including boys’ and girls’ right to education in the context of climate-related school disruptions. Out of the climate vulnerable countries that the Malala Fund anticipates will impact the education of girls the most, none that have submitted an updated, revised, or new NDCs mentioned girls’ education.

Finally, countries are not paying attention to the need to strengthen education systems to support the delivery of quality CCE. For instance, while nine NDCs point to the importance of international cooperation to support education and training opportunities, only two NDCs (Cambodia and Myanmar) specify that more funding needs to be directed to the education system. But, direct funding isn’t the only way to strengthen education systems. For instance, education infrastructure, including school buildings and roads, can be damaged, destroyed, or become dangerous due to extreme weather events and/or prolonged environmental changes or hazards. Yet, only eight NDCs articulated the need to make education infrastructure ‘greener’ or more resilient to the effects of climate change. Also, the delivery of quality climate change education is dependent on an education workforce—educators, school leadership, school staff, etc.—that is equipped and supported with training and resources. While nine NDCs point to the need to invest in teacher training, only one NDC (the Dominican Republic) calls for continued professional development opportunities that meet teachers’ training needs to prepare learners to face the greatest existential threat of our time.

Is there any hope for climate change education?

Like any teacher seeking to kindle hope in their learners after a tough test, I curved (or adjusted upwards) the grades and took a closer look at the results. There are a few bright spots, of which governments might take inspiration. On a 42-point curve—which means that 42 percentage points were added to every country’s real score, a very large curve—17 countries rose to the top (see Table 2).

Table 2. Education International Climate Change Education Ambition Report Card ScoresCambodia’s updated NDC ranks at the top not only because of its attention to mainstreaming climate change into its Education Strategic Plan, but also because it positions the education of children and youth as an enabling action in achieving its climate targets. (Cambodia along with Colombia are the only two countries to get a perfect policy ambition score.) Cambodia also lists its Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports as a relevant ministry in its NDCs, creating a pathway for the education sector to engage in decision making related to climate policies. And, its NDCs make reference to the education sector’s barriers and capacity needs that must be met in order to strengthen the sector’s role in addressing the climate crisis. This includes not only climate resilient school infrastructure, but also other important aspects from teacher training to strengthening its data management systems to track climate-relevant data for the sector.

Similarly, the Dominican Republic’s updated NDC positions the education system as important in delivering the country’s individual training and institutional capacity building needs to achieve the country’s climate targets. Indeed, their NDC has set timebound targets for the country to make progress on its education goals, including the training of teachers and the full integration of climate change into teacher training institutions. Cabo Verde’s updated NDC, along with Argentina’s second NDC, specifically mentions climate literacy. However, Cabo Verde’s educational focus is less on the education of children and youth and more on the training of specific green skills for the country’s present workforce needs to transition to green industries in the country, such as energy, tourism, and waste management.

Clearly, countries have a lot to improve. This is especially the case among countries that have been the main contributors to our present-day emissions levels. However, few show signs that they will be stepping up any time soon. For instance, the education ministers of G20 countries, which represents nearly all of the top 20 carbon emitting countries in the world, failed to step up at their summer meeting this year to prioritize climate literacy, despite a joint civil society statement representing hundreds of millions of people urging the G20 ministers to do so. In fact, none of the top 20 carbon emitting countries nor the top 20 wealthiest countries that have submitted their updated NDC makes a reference to CCE. Only three of the top carbon emitting countries mentioned the wellbeing of future generations. Instead, it is countries with the lowest carbon emissions that are more likely to discuss CCE in the context of their national climate strategy. If we apply the curved EI CCE Report Card scores, countries scoring an A are all countries with high climate vulnerability. The need for concrete commitments on CCE by all countries has never been more imperative, especially from a climate justice perspective.

Recommendations for countries still finalizing their updated, revised, or new NDCS

While continued work on increasing CCE ambition is needed in countries that have already submitted their updated, revised, or new NDCs, there are still over 80 countries still finalizing their plans. Here are three suggestions for how these countries might increase their ambition on CCE in their national climate plans:

  1. Prioritize quality CCE that is based on science and is oriented to climate action as well as climate justice. Quality CCE must also be intersectional and gender-responsive; and it must have civic engagement as a key climate outcome. Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Argentina have demonstrated that it is possible to prioritize CCE alongside other climate strategies in energy, transportation, and other technical sectors. Quality and empowering education can be an enabler to achieve climate targets in 5 years, 10 years, 30 years and beyond. But it needs investment today.
  2. Involve educators and education unions in the NDCs process. Just as countries are beginning to normalize the participation and engagement of youth, women, indigenous peoples, farmers, and other key stakeholder groups in the NDC consultation process, countries must view educators as among these key stakeholder groups as well. Empowered educators are critical to the delivery of quality CCE and the development of green skills, climate resilience, and the civic mindset needed to ensure countries can engage in the long-game of climate action. To achieve this, educators need access to training and professional development that can equip them with the necessary local, scientific, and social scientific knowledge about climate change, its impacts and They also need access to teaching and learning resources and pedagogical tools to guide students meaningfully on climate awareness, to climate grief, to hope, and to innovation and action.
  3. Strengthen education systems. Even the best plans for CCE in NDCs will fall short so long as education systems remain underfunded and under-resourced. TheirWorld estimates that there is a $59 billion a year global budget shortfall when it comes to ensuring universal education for girls and boys around the world. System strengthening of the education sector should be viewed as complementary to strengthening the capacity of the agriculture sector, as well as the climate adaptation plans of urban centers. This should be reflected in national budgets as well as national policies. Climate policymakers should regularly engage ministries of education to determine their needs as part of national efforts to strengthen individual and institutional capacity to mitigate against and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Like any student on the brink of failing a class, this is the time for countries to get their act together. The IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report makes it clear that we are in the middle of climate catastrophe—no country is safe from its impacts. As such, we cannot afford any country to fail on CCE.  Let’s assemble a team of support (from the teachers to the tutors to the peer mentors to the international community) who can help us all make the grade.


  • Footnotes
    1. Countries whose updated, revised, or new NDCs were included in the analysis, as of September 30, 2021: Andorra, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Cabo Verde, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Republic of Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Democratic Republic of Korea, Ethiopia, European Union, Fiji, Gambia, Georgia, Grenada, Guinea, Honduras, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Republic of Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Liberia, Lebanon, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Republic of North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Sudan, Suriname, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Tonga, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, Viet Nam, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
    2. Here, any score between 0-59% is considered failing.