back to all Insights

Shaping climate education – a view from COP27

As observers and participants consider the achievements and level of ambition of the negotiations at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, our new global director, climate education looks at global progress on bringing climate action into classroom learning. 

School children in Thailand

Seven in ten (70 percent) young people say they either cannot explain climate change in detail or don’t know anything about it.

This startling statistic, from research led by UNESCO – the education and culture arm of the UN – was published during 'COP27' – the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The new research sits alongside previous UNESCO studies that found only 53 percent of school curricula mention climate change and only 2 percent do so in a meaningful way.

To plug these global gaps in learning, teachers and young people made a strong case for universal, quality climate change education during COP27.

“It is important for everyone to understand climate change and the implications, to be confident to make choices, take action and be part of the solution,” comments Christine Özden, our global director, climate change. “The schools, teachers and students we work with want us to support them in a global dialogue around climate change and education.”

Global climate education goals

World leaders committed to achieving quality education and to climate action in 2015 through a series of sustainable development goals (SDGs). The global goal for quality education (SDG 4) specifies that all learners should acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development and lifestyles together with human rights, gender equality, a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and cultural diversity. Alongside this, the goal for climate action (SDG 13) asks for action to improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning.

The appetite for climate education came through in young people’s responses to the series of survey and consultations led by UNESCO which it presented at COP27. The researchers found that nine in ten (91 percent) young people – the biggest group of the 8 billion people on the planet – wanted to learn more about climate change across the curriculum through “experiential, solution-driven and action-oriented approaches”. 

Part of Christine's plan for our approach to climate education is to build, participate in and encourage collaboration for climate education alongside coalitions and partnerships that create impact.

For example, the UN’s Greening Education Partnership, which held its inaugural meeting at COP27, envisions transformation can be driven from schools. It is looking at how to build the capacity of teachers, school leaders and policy makers to integrate climate education into school curricula, workplace skills development, teaching materials, pedagogy and assessment.

Teachers have a unique opportunity to help learners on their way to become part of a more sustainable future,” Christine notes. “Their experience and skill can help turn knowledge into understanding and ways of thinking that can shape and support the impact of the next generation.

Climate action in the classroom

More than 1000 teachers registered for Teachers COP, a side event at COP27 organised by the Office for Climate Education with the support of UNESCO, to find out about 12 inspiring projects that look at how to frame climate action in the curriculum, teaching resources, professional development and in the role of the school. Finalists spanned the globe: from Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Honduras to Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe to France, Germany, Ireland and the UK.  

The importance of making global concepts really relevant to learners was a thread that ran through many of finalists’ projects, balancing different ideas about effective actions and solutions to the climate crisis as well as the importance of being able to access and appreciate reliable information. One school became a sustainable microstate to give students an opportunity to explore the difficulties world leaders face when shaping and implementing policy, while another asked students to explore the difference between facts and beliefs by producing news reports or podcasts about climate change.

I constantly hear fascinating discussions on how to frame action for teachers and students in diverse situations around the world," comments Christine. "People have a real interest in finding workable solutions to real world problems. Crucial to doing this well is balancing being honest about the reality of climate change with hope for solutions. 

This year our international education team in Malaysia has run a national competition for young climate innovators based in a Cambridge school. Students entered by submitting a video and written entry to describe what they've done to combat the climate emergency. Our Cambridge International country director for Malaysia, and Brunei, Ng Kim Huat, said: "Based on the current climate situation in Malaysia, it is a critical time for our younger generation to engage in climate action. It is heartwarming to see the younger generation take a more active role in combatting climate change."

Actors for change

Climate change has a very real impact on sharing knowledge. Children forced to miss school due to drought, flooding or food scarcity has a negative impact on their educational attainment. Research from the Malala Fund estimates that if current trends continue, by 2025 climate change will be a contributing factor in preventing at least 12.5 million girls from completing their education each year. Also, UNESCO's research found Girls have less confidence in dealing with climate change based on what they learnt in school compared to boys.

Acting on climate change is one of the most effective ways we can help learners to stay in school, learn about the world and grow into adults who tackle the problems facing the world,” notes Christine. “The sustainable development goals set out the actions leaders need to take now for the future we want to share.

Surprisingly, as the impact of climate change will most effect future generations, a youth pavilion has not been at COP until this year. One of the youth demands for quality climate change education is for education to become part of the climate COP negotiations at the next summit.

“Students being important ‘actors’ for change came through strongly in all of the discussions about climate education at COP,” Christine observed. “Young people should have a say in their learning, bringing to life the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, and need knowledge to progress climate action. Sharing knowledge and sparking enquiry are at the heart of what we do at Cambridge.”

We are educating the innovators of tomorrow," Richard Gilby, our regional director for international education in Latin America notes. "Somewhere in a Cambridge school in Colombia or Cambodia, Nigeria or the Netherlands there are young people whose Cambridge education will help them become the innovators that will help humankind take the next step forward.

The climate emergency is one of the most important global issues of our time: we have a responsibility and capability to be part of the solution.