The Earth is looking for environmentally mindful students

by Alfonso Echazarra
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

During the 1970s researchers observed that the amount of ozone in the atmosphere was decreasing moderately and an ozone “hole” was visibly expanding around the polar regions. The idea of a rapidly-growing hole in the atmosphere – which could have fatal consequences for humanity – caught on with the public so strongly that people reduced their use of chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-depleting substances, and compelled companies and governments to take action. In 1987 the Montreal Protocol was signed, phasing out the use of some of these substances in industry. Researchers say that the ozone layer is now recovering, if slowly. This success story is exceptional – see, for instance, the challenges in addressing global warming – but it shows how important it is to increase our youth’s environmental awareness for the future of Earth.

Looking into the environmental awareness of 15-year-olds, this month’s PISA in Focus tries to answer some important questions: Are students increasingly aware of environmental problems? Have 15-year-olds become more optimistic about the future of Earth? And who are the environmentally aware students?

If we want to preserve the environment for future generations, it is essential that students become more aware of the threats to the environment.

Results show that environmental awareness is increasing moderately among 15-year-olds. In the nine years from 2006 to 2015, and for most of the environmental issues cited in both cycles of PISA, the share of students who reported that they are informed (“I know something about this and could explain the general issue”) or well-informed (“I am familiar with this and I would be able to explain this well”) increased moderately, on average across OECD countries. For instance, the percentage of students who stated that they are informed about the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rose from 57% in 2006 to 64% in 2015, and a similar percentage-point increase was observed when students were asked about the use of genetically modified organisms.

This overall improvement in environmental awareness was largely the result of increases in Israel, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey in the extent to which students reported being knowledgeable about environmental issues. Among OECD partner countries, similar increases were observed in Indonesia, Qatar and Tunisia. Meanwhile, environmental awareness deteriorated the most, though only moderately, in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong (China), Italy, Japan and the Netherlands.

However, students are not becoming more optimistic about the environment. On average across OECD countries, the share of students who are optimistic about the fate of the planet – those who reported that the problems associated with environmental issues would get better over the next 20 years – remained relatively stable over the same period. In 2015, 15-year-olds were slightly more optimistic than their counterparts in 2006 about the problems associated with the clearing of forests, nuclear waste and air pollution, but more pessimistic about the availability of water in the future.

That a greater awareness does not lead to greater optimism is hardly surprising given that students who reported being knowledgeable about environmental issues were considerably more likely to consider that these problems would worsen in the future. For instance, 15-year-old students who claimed to be informed about the increase of greenhouse gases, water shortages and air pollution were about 40% more likely to believe that these problems would get worse over the next 20 years.

Many characteristics of students and schools are positively associated with environmental awareness. For instance, scientifically-minded students – that is, high-performing students who participate in science activities, expect to pursue a career in science and are interested in broad science topics – and those in schools offering science activities showed greater environmental awareness. However, only a few characteristics were also positively related to optimism about the environment: the number of science activities in which students participate and students’ exposure to enquiry-based teaching.

Most people agree that the environment has deteriorated over the past few decades, even if there is an ongoing debate about the magnitude and consequences of this degradation. Fortunately, there are plenty of public and private initiatives to protect the environment, and students around the globe are increasingly aware of the most important environmental problems affecting the planet today. If we want to preserve the environment for future generations, it is essential that students become more aware of the threats to the environment and use this knowledge to adopt sustainable lifestyles, lower the cost of action and search for innovative solutions to environmental problems.

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