How the education sector can influence the climate change agenda

  • The education sector – across all ages - can provide huge opportunities for climate change action
  • Educators, governors, parents, pupils and policymakers can be significant influencers in helping to create a sustainable world for generations to grow up in
  • Zurich Municipal’s recent whitepaper explores the climate change challenges and opportunities facing the education sector

The education sector – across all ages – can provide huge opportunities for climate change action. Students are galvanising educators to make changes, and institutions are well placed to make a substantial difference. They need to make a difference, to meet the demands and expectations of younger generations.

“The children educated now will be the biggest drivers for change. They will feel the full force of the warming world in their lifetimes and they want to protect their futures,” explains Tilden Watson, Head of Education, Zurich Municipal.

From the physical structures of educational institutions to what is taught within them, educators, governors, parents, pupils and policymakers can be significant influencers in helping to create a sustainable world for generations to grow up in.

Schools’ principles

At school level what appears on the curriculum is crucial to educating children not just about the facts and impacts of climate change globally, but also its influence on their lives personally and their communities.

The first step is to educate the educators so they can provide up-to-date, relevant facts on what needs to be done and what can be done. Schools should also be discussing what individuals can do to change habits and habitats (for humans, as well as animals) to avert two-degree heating and to adapt to climate warming and its consequences.

Children respond well to practical projects with tangible results and quantifiable, positive outcomes. A good example is recycling, which seems to have been increasingly successful this century, in small part to the responsibility schoolchildren have taken on. They brought home the information and enthusiasm shared at school and helped change behaviours.

A school’s physical presence will need to change along with its teaching, to make a difference. Even fairly modern refurbishments and new builds may not be equipped to deal with the temperature rises and weather events we are starting to experience now, that will become common by the mid-21st Century. Buildings and the way they are used should take into account climate mitigation and adaptation.

Schools can act now to fit energy saving methods of heating and cooling, making use of government grants and incentives for renewable and green technologies. Schools should plan in minor adjustments to building use, term timetables and regular events, to adapt to the changing climate.

Remembering the cancelled sports days in June and July 2018, could sports days be moved to the spring term when the weather is cooler? South facing classrooms can be limited to short teaching sessions in the summer term and discounted completely as exam locations. External exams could be moved entirely to earlier in the year, or even autumn, which may happen due to the COVID-19 crisis, in 2021 anyway.

Higher expectations

The higher education sector is aware they are educating the next generation leaders of organisations and governments who will be managing the physical, operational and economic risks climate change brings.

Universities have to be on the front foot to educate the next generation on climate risks and actions. They have to be seen to be leading the way, to satisfy the students of today, they are taking this responsibility seriously.

Recognising that what happens in the next decade will be crucial to limit global temperature rise, many universities in the UK, along with councils, have declared a climate emergency, signing up to carbon neutral pledges with ambitious goals, some as soon as 2025. Scientists, academics and students are helping address the climate emergency through courses, programmes, fellowships, sabbaticals and voluntary placements.

Universities are working with one another to form climate action plans, sharing research, expertise and resources. For example, twenty UK universities have combined to wield £50m worth of buying power to purchase renewable energy directly from British windfarms.

For institutions with large or multiple mixed-use campuses, carbon reducing measures can have great impact – practically and behaviourally. Energy saving actions alone produce huge environmental and financial benefits, including improved build quality, sustainable procurement, and reduced waste management.

The most important legacy of the education system could be to educate the next generation about climate change by example, and to give them the means to combat it and adapt to it.

How can we help?

Zurich Municipal’s recent whitepaper, The Climate Change Challenge, explores the climate change challenges and opportunities facing public and voluntary sector organisations, and how the risks involved in making this transition can be managed.