How can education systems advance the green transition?

By Francesca Borgonovi, Ottavia Brussino, Helke Seitz and Sarah Wildi

OECD Centre for Skills

Key points:

– Nearly 80% of young people report being aware of climate change and global warming. But while they are engaged they are less likely to participate in collective activities aimed at promoting environmental protection.
– Young people need to develop scientific skills, digital skills, financial literacy and sustainability competences to be ready for the green transition.
– A whole-school and interdisciplinary approach including students, teachers, families and learning can help to create a cultural shift towards a more sustainable future.

The first half of 2022 has broken many records with respect to weather conditions. Europe, Australia, Japan and Korea struggled with extreme heat, causing wildfires, droughts and floods. Extreme weather events are expected to continue throughout the year with the United States forecasted to have an above average hurricane season. Climate change makes extreme events considerably more frequent, more intense, and more deadly.

As many children around the world return to school from their summer break, it is crucial to consider how education systems can best equip them with the skills needed to be environmentally responsible today and to contribute to the green transition more long term. The Fridays for Future movement powerfully demonstrates that many of young people want to play a role in bettering environmental conditions, are ready to take concrete action and should be included in shaping the green transition. Younger generations can also be powerful agents of change by mobilising older generations and helping them to establish new environmental awareness. However, not all young people have the competences needed for the green transition. Many lack a solid understanding of scientific principles to make sense of complex environmental problems and, in the future, pursue careers that will promote greener production and consumption processes. Others seem to lack the agency or perhaps even the willingness to take concrete action to reduce their environmental footprints.

The OECD and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission have joined efforts to better understand the state of young peoples’ environmental sustainability competence across EU and OECD countries. Using data from various rounds of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), we investigated the different dimensions of students’ environmental sustainability competence toolbox (comprised of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and attitudinal dimensions) set out in the EU Sustainability Competence Framework. We also looked at how education systems can extend the toolbox to include collaborative problem solving, familiarity with digital tools and financial literacy.

Do all young people have environmental sustainability competence?

Across EU and OECD countries, the vast majority of 15-year-old students (nearly 80%) are aware of climate change and global warming. However, students’ environmental awareness varies greatly by topic. Their pro-environmental behaviour also largely differs by form of engagement: around 6 out of 10 students report being engaged in saving energy for environmental reasons, while fewer than 2 out of 5 students report participating in collective activities aimed at promoting environmental protection.

There are large disparities in environmental sustainability competence between students with different socio-economic backgrounds. For example, more disadvantaged students are at least 10 percentage points less likely to say that they care about the environment. There are also gender differences in students’ environmental sustainability competence. Throughout EU and OECD countries, girls are 7 percentage points more likely to say that they care about the environment.

Additionally, household and school environments can determine the extent to which young people acquire environmental sustainability competence. Within families, there is a positive correlation between the environmental behaviours of parents and children. Across schools, there are large differences in science achievement. However, students’ awareness of environmental problems, engagement in pro-environmental behaviours and caring for the environment vary little between students attending different schools.

Overall, when looking at young people’s readiness for the green transition, data show that less than one student out of three throughout EU and OECD countries achieves at least the minimum benchmarks across all environmental sustainability competence areas and a little over one student out of ten achieves higher standards in their science achievement in addition to the minimum benchmarks.

What other competences can we pass on to younger generations to promote a greener future?

From the global to the local level, tackling climate change and promoting sustainable growth also rely on collaborative problem-solving skills, as stakeholders need to work collaboratively to solve the most pressing environmental challenges. In addition, combining solid environmental sustainability competence with sound digital skills is key if young people are to contribute to the twin green and digital transition as we cannot achieve one without the other. Furthermore, financial literacy is needed to help tomorrow’s green entrepreneurs conduct research before making decisions, weighing alternatives, understanding intertemporal trade-offs and identifying and seizing opportunities. More can and should be done to equip young people with these additional skills to ensure that they will be able to work with others to solve complex environmental problems and have the capacity to put new technological innovations to the service of the green transition.

What can education systems do for a greener and more sustainable tomorrow?

The appreciation and protection of our environment needs to be made a shared cultural and social norm that is taught from an early age. This requires a whole-school and interdisciplinary approach, encompassing teaching and learning, active participation from students and parents, and partnerships with local communities. Early and comprehensive career advice and educational orientation is also critical to ensure that students will make choices that will enable them to make the most of this competence.

To achieve a sustainable tomorrow, education systems should promote more equitable learning of environmental sustainability competence for all students, ensuring that today’s socio-economic divide in environmental sustainability competence is mitigated. Simultaneously, gender stereotypes and biases should be addressed as they affect the way students perform at school and build their educational and professional aspirations, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Robert Kneschke