Decarbonising education.

The climate emergency is a global reality and the large scale catastrophic weather events we face on a regular basis remind us that it is affecting us in the here and now, while also threatening far more serious impacts in the future.

Such a crisis calls for urgent action on a global scale, going well beyond what is currently planned. There need to be more ambitious targets and more rapid progress in reducing CO2 emissions and our dependency on fossil fuels.

Around the world, young people have been central to the campaign for change. Within the UK student movement, two of the key organisations are the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) and Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK). UKSCN and SOS-UK have jointly drafted a Climate Emergency Education Bill which outlines how education policy could start to address the climate crisis.

The campaign for this Bill, called ‘Teach the Future’ ( is led by students, supported by Nadia Whittome MP and other members of parliament across the main political parties. I attended the launch of the proposed Bill a couple of weeks ago on behalf of the Association of Colleges and heard from some of the student campaigners who helped to shape it. Many of them are college students who are active across a range of environmental issues, working to raise awareness within their communities as part of programmes such as Friends of the Earth’s excellent ‘My World My Home’. They told me that the message is being well received by their peers. Their clear understanding of the scale of the problem and their commitment to bringing about change are impressive. But while 68% of students say they want to learn more about these issues, only 4% overall feel that they know enough about climate change.

The Bill combines urgency with pragmatism, calling for:

  • A review of how the English education system prepares students for the climate and ecological crises.
  • The inclusion of the climate and ecological crises in teacher training and development.
  • A national climate emergency youth voice fund and a youth climate endowment fund.
  • A commitment that all new education buildings will be net-zero from 2022 and existing education buildings to be net-zero by 2030.

Given the scale and impact of the climate crisis, these measures would be a modest contribution to the kind of transformative change which is necessary. Many other countries have already given climate education a higher priority within the curriculum.

The Teach the Future campaign is a great example of young people engaging constructively with the democratic process and prioritising one of the most pressing issues of the day with a high degree of scientific and political literacy. The call for a curriculum which prepares students to tackle this global challenge puts young people at the centre of a wider debate about the purpose and values of their education. Learning more about the causes of climate change and the environmental impact of human activity will lead to a better understanding of other major global challenges we face. It also raises questions about the sustainability of a social, economic and political model which depends on ever growing production and consumption but fails to meet the human needs of so many and tolerates stark inequalities.

The campaign has moved to its next phase with a meeting scheduled with the Education Secretary and it is in all our interests that the Bill’s proposals are taken seriously and lead to positive action. As the UK prepares to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, we need this campaign’s sense of urgency to be sustained and to help shape a more ambitious agenda for change, in education and across society.

See also:

A global crisis requires a global politics (March 2017)

The habits of democracy (May 2017)

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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