A young girl and her school friends in school, Juba, South Sudan

How education can help save our planet

When UNICEF was established as a means of providing aid to children worldwide in 1946, the world was reeling from the aftermath of a shattering world war in a new atomic age.

Three quarters of a century have passed since its founding this year, and during the ensuing decades, babies born in UNICEF’s founding year will have lived to a ripe old age themselves, having seen great changes. The period after the Second World War is associated with an unprecedented advance in medical science, rapid economic growth and for a brief time, a sharp rise in the number of babies being born.

UNICEF is just one part of the broader United Nations family, an agency tasked with aiding the development and education of children all over the world. At the time of its founding, UNICEF was catering to a world in which the population barely numbered 2.5 billion people. By 2021, there are over 7.8 billion people, according to UN estimates.

When we involve children in issues that affect them, children often come up with powerful, innovative solutions to their own future

– Meghna Das, Senior Programme Specialist for sustainability, UNICEF UK

That means that since its founding, UNICEF has existed in a world in which there are more children alive than at any time in human history. These children all have value in the world of today and tomorrow, but not all of them have equal access to the tools they need to live a healthy, long life. A good education is one such tool, and we were keen to learn what UNICEF has been doing to improve the educational experience for the world’s children.

Agents of change

Meghna Das has been part of the UNICEF family for just over five years, at the time we get in touch. In her role as a Senior Programme Specialist for sustainability at UNICEF UK, she has phenomenal insights into the work of this agency. It would be remiss of us to fail to acknowledge that not all children have a level playing field when they start in life, and changes to the environment are increasingly tipping the scales in this field.

As Meghna explains, “The climate crisis is a child rights crisis and prevents a child’s basic rights from being met. These rights include the right to water, clean air, health, education, nutrition, protection and even their survival. This affects children throughout their lifecycle and accordingly, is a direct threat to a child’s ability to survive, grow, and thrive.”

One of the greatest issues of our time is the feeling millions of us have of impotence in facing up to the challenge of climate change. How can younger people make effective change, as many of us are on the sidelines, while the powers that be are very much represented by the older generations and their interests? It’s all too easy to subscribe to the idea that control is beyond our reach, or that the older generations will simply not listen to us. Meghna has other ideas entirely.

“However, children are not only victims of climate change but also powerful agents of change. In addition to bearing the brunt of climate change impacts, millions of children around the world are rightfully demanding a sustainable planet.  At UNICEF, we believe that better technologies and business models could be key enablers in reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change.”

The world of tomorrow is shaped by the decisions of policy makers in the here and now. If we want a flourishing green economy, children need the right skills and education in order to operate the gears of this economy when the older generations relinquish their grip on power.

Power flows from STEM

One of the things we were most interested to know was what UNICEF is doing to promote subjects which are of the utmost importance in ensuring the green economy can thrive in the future. The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are the bedrock of learning children will need in their curriculum in order to be part of the green economic success stories of the coming century.

Meghna adds: “UNICEF recognises that climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating gender and other inequalities – and disproportionately affecting women and girls in all countries. As the world responds to these crises, there is a need for STEM knowledge and skills.”

Getting young people invested in the importance of STEM is especially vital when it comes to the futures of girls. Meghna believes girls’ empowerment through greater participation in STEM learning will not only ensure a level playing field for men and women when it comes to tackling climate change but have positive spill-over effects in society at large. STEM helps arm the next generation with the skills they need to work in high-productivity industries, aiding the creation of infrastructure to make the world of tomorrow as futureproof as possible.

Urgent action is needed to ‘climate proof’ the education sector and to produce information that is accurate and empowers children to become climate-conscious citizens who are actively involved in climate adaptation and mitigation

– Meghna Das, Senior Programme Specialist for sustainability, UNICEF UK

Not only that, but it gives women a seat at the table when it comes to discussing the direction of travel from here. Ensuring that women can fill jobs as easily as men puts the next generation in the right mindset to collaborate in solving problems of the future. There’s less room for error, mistakes or misunderstanding when more people have access to skills and opportunities from childhood.

As a case study, Meghna recalls a woman called Amina in Somalia who is helping her local community harness the power of solar energy, having been taught how to install solar panels. This was only made possible through a UNICEF-supported Youth Empowerment Centre in Dollow, Somalia. This Centre is catering to young displaced Somalis, offering training to help prepare them for jobs in industries such as engineering, construction and plumbing.

As Meghna explains: “Amina has been on the solar panel course for five months having fled her home three years ago as a result of insecurity. At first, people never thought she would be able to work on solar panels. But now she is full of confidence.”

If more woman like Amina are given the right start in life, communities in all corners of the globe will see the benefit of cleaner energy and more cohesive communities. It all starts with a good education from the earliest possible moment.

Learning the lessons of climate change

For anyone who doubts the power of education, Meghna has a statistic to put wind into your sails. She tells us, “According to recent research, if only 16 per cent of high school pupils in high and middle-income nations received climate change education, carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by approximately 19 gigatons by 2050.”

As we mentioned, as of 2021, there are more children alive today than at any point in human history. That widens the scope for potential learning experiences to be had. However, it also means more children are vulnerable to the effects of climate change than ever before. UNICEF is cognisant of this, having launched its very own Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI), which monitors exposure to the damage inflicted by our changing environment.

“The CCRI found that approximately one billion children, living in 33 countries, are at an extremely high risk from the impacts of climate change”, Meghna tells us. “These children face a deadly combination of exposure to multiple overlapping climate and environmental shocks and stresses with a high vulnerability resulting from limited or low availability, quality, equity and sustainability of essential services for children, such as water and sanitation, healthcare and education.”

Access to necessities like clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare and education is already threatened and the numbers cited by Meghna could increase to even higher levels if we’re not careful. However, Meghna offers a ray of light for these children, telling us: “Investments that improve educational outcomes can considerably reduce overall climate risk for 275 million children. This includes investments in climate resilient infrastructure in schools, digital learning, climate education and green skills building.”

Embracing e-learning or teaching in a more digital space is something children have already gotten to grips with, since COVID-19 first started spreading across the world almost two years ago. Millions more could benefit from getting out of the classroom and becoming more familiar with using technology to increase their capacity for learning. It’s not just the way children learn which could prove pivotal in ensuring a greener future, however. The content of such learning experiences needs to be shaped in a way that impresses the value of more sustainable practices, and a realistic sense of the challenges we now face. In an era where fake news pervades many online spaces, Meghna addresses the importance of getting the facts right when we teach the next generation about the state of our world. She tells us, “Urgent action is needed to ‘climate proof’ the education sector and to produce information that is accurate and empowers children to become climate-conscious citizens who are actively involved in climate adaptation and mitigation.”

Getting children onboard

Each generation has its environmental child spokesperson. For those growing up in the 1990s, we had Canadian 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki. She was best-known as ‘the Girl Who Silenced the World for Five Minutes’, doing so while addressing a summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 on the subjects of the ozone layer and air quality.

In 2021, we see the likes of Greta Thunberg speaking up for the environment as part of a new youth wave. Greta was a schoolgirl-turned-environmental activist who started making ripples internationally by skipping school to protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Since then, Greta has addressed the UN, admonishing world leaders for placing the need for economic growth above the hopes and dreams of the younger generation. She did so, having sailed to New York from Plymouth over two weeks in a solar-powered yacht, forgoing taking a plane to avoid the carbon footprint it would entail.

Meghna sees the value of giving young people their voice in such matters, saying: “Children and young people have risen to the challenge, demanding that the world recognises that climate change is now the defining human rights challenge of this generation.

“They have revealed the depth of frustration that they feel at this intergenerational form of injustice, as well as their courage and willingness to challenge the status quo, and their role as key stakeholders in addressing the climate crisis.”

The clock is ticking to empower the youth of today, so they have the power and understanding to take over the reins when the time comes, according to Meghna. “Children and young people are the future leaders and innovators who will do what is necessary to protect the planet, but it might be too late”, she admits.

However, all is not truly lost, as she concludes: “Responding appropriately to climate change will require big decisions and changes to our entire economic system – it requires addressing how progress is measured and how stakeholders are held accountable. It will require bequeathing to children and young people a liveable planet together with an economic model that is sustainable.”

Working together

Preparing the next generation for the future is a team effort, as Meghna reveals to us. That’s why UNICEF has partnered up with Extreme E to give children a curriculum to really get their teeth into. “Since 2020”, Meghna claims, “Extreme E has been supporting UNICEF’s work on climate change education, helping children across Greenland to understand and address the climate related issues, which are putting them and future generations at risk.”

The partnership has resulted in the creation of an educational package to be distributed to schools all over Greenland, to be included as part of a revised curriculum, which Meghna tell us will be unveiled during Climate Week, commencing on 27th September 2021. The package will “reach over 2,000 young people between 14-16 years of age”, according to Meghna. As we have previously highlighted when exploring Greenland, waste management is one of the many environmental issues besetting the country, which is home to just over 56,000 people.

The country is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, but climate change could threaten the delicate balance needed to sustain the biome Greenland possesses. “The partnership is helping empower children to become active citizens”, says Meghna, “providing them with the necessary tools to reimagine a cleaner, greener future.”

The key to mobilising large numbers of people starts with what they are taught in school, and UNICEF and Extreme E are clearly savvy to this reality, as Meghna concludes. In essence, children have some of the broadest imaginations of any age group on the planet, and by opening the door to them on all things environmental through education, they can let these imaginations run wild, as they dream up solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow.

“When we involve children in issues that affect them, children often come up with powerful, innovative solutions to their own future. It is for this reason that this partnership is aiming to provide them with the relevant information on climate change and engaging them on climate action and solutions.”

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