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Learnings from COP27: Education as a tool of innovation for the climate change generation

Curricula can be infused with scientific and technical know-how alongside indigenous and local knowledge. The cross-cutting imperative should be to foster critical thinking instead of rote learning so that the next generation can embrace complexity and make informed choices.

Instead of mirroring a broken development paradigm predicated on an extractive relationship with nature, India can lead with an approach that’s better for both people and the planet. A climate-resilient education system will be essential to realising this opportunity. This will enable Indians to move from vulnerability to agency, for forest-dwelling youth to be entrepreneurs in a nature-based economy, for children displaced by climate-induced disasters to attain a transformative education and be on pathways towards green jobs.

At COP27, India released its Long-Term Low Emissions and Development Strategies (LT-LEDS). This outlines priorities for carbon-intensive sectors like electricity and industry and transport, and emphasises the role of a Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE) as a mass movement towards sustainable consumption and production. From behavioural shifts of individuals to the re-shaping of markets, education has a vital role in the LiFE movement. This could make a significant dent in reducing planet-warming gases — demand-side actions have the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70 per cent in 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

However, the education sector and children face several headwinds. First, school closures during the pandemic have led to a learning deficit that’s getting reflected in reduced test scores. This will likely impact productivity and per capita income levels in the long term. One year of school closures could reduce GDP levels by anywhere from 1.1 to 4.7 per cent by mid-century, according to a paper by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The lasting impacts of Covid-19 could hinder economic mobility for a generation of Indians and alter the arithmetic for public finance.

Second, climate impacts are already disrupting children’s learning and well-being globally. For instance, extreme heat reduces students’ learning levels and causes physiological harm. Schools are temporarily shut down and children’s health is affected due to persistently poor air quality in cities like Delhi. Debilitating deluges are permanently displacing families, often leading to children (and disproportionately girls) dropping out of schools and being trafficked or subject to child labour due to distressed household incomes. As these disasters grow more frequent and intense, we must prepare the infrastructure, content, and delivery of the public education system to protect the most vulnerable citizens, many of whom will be climate refugees.

Third, the lived experiences of climate-induced disasters and anxiety about the future are causing despair and dread among young people. This is compounded by digital platforms and news cycles that don’t linger long enough to make sense of challenges or build a widespread understanding of breakthroughs like the significant reductions in the costs of renewable energy.

Consequently, the education system ought to be leveraged to both avert crises and shape opportunities. At a national level, a strong enabling framework for a climate-resilient education system could cover matters from curricula to nutrition to school building codes in a climate-changed world. With its scale and reach, the public school system is not only a source of learning but also shelter, clothing, food, and community for millions. Building off a recent UNICEF paper, India should create this framework through a consultative exercise with educators, students, experts from the humanities and sciences, and relevant ministries and departments.

Design and implementation in states and districts should be shaped by existing local needs and anticipated climate risks. This could involve infrastructure investments so school buildings can double up as emergency shelters in cyclone-prone areas and capacity additions so government schools in mega-cities that are destinations for climate migrants can integrate and empower children. Across the board, children should be able to access clean water and nutritious food. Students’ mental health needs should be served through an empathic expansion and an emphasis on social and emotional learning.

Curricula can be infused with scientific and technical know-how alongside indigenous and local knowledge. In pockets, there are already innovative initiatives under-way where non-government organisations are adding tremendous value through contextualisation and close work with communities. These efforts range from the buffer zone of Kanha National Park where Baiga and Gond students are learning about the potential of integrating biodiversity conservation with regenerative agriculture to the by-lanes of Bengaluru where youth are taking civic and climate actions from waste management to lake restorations to make their city more liveable.

The cross-cutting imperative should be to foster critical thinking instead of rote learning so that the next generation can embrace complexity and make informed choices. While we must strive for abundance and equity, societies and individuals will likely need to negotiate scarcity and trade-offs.

There are important considerations that could qualify these arguments. Some may rightly point out the need for climate education across society rather than simply at the primary and secondary levels. The imperative to retrain workers in industries that have a limited future in a green economy is being underlined in recent times. So is the need to prioritise technical training in colleges and universities so we can rapidly accelerate our decarbonisation pathway.

While each of these goals should be pursued, decades of data reflect how investments in primary and secondary education are the greatest lever for development and can often be net positive for public finance in the long term. Furthermore, we can’t afford to be narrowly focusing on technical training for the innovation, research, and development of climate technologies. Rather, we should develop strong analytical capabilities and holistic thinking about societal transformations and how new technologies will be embedded in communities. A blinkered short-term approach could lead to a suboptimal transition addressing symptoms rather than the root causes and merely shifting unsustainable demand from one set of finite resources to another. As Elizabeth Kolbert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist put it, “the ‘invisible hand’ always grasps for more”.

From consumer choices to innovation to policy to finance, each aspect of a green economy will be underpinned by a strong education system that is resilient to climate change. This could be the greatest enabler of a uniquely Indian Lifestyle for Environment that taps into our civilisational richness and becomes a model and movement to be emulated by the world.