Sustainability Education Is Critical To Mitigating Environmental Damage
According to Plan International, a survey of 37 countries was conducted where 86% of respondents reported they did not get enough information about climate change, nearly half said they did not know anything about the Paris Agreement, and only 20% learned about climate activism in school.
Due to similar statistics, education is sometimes referred to as the neglected child of the climate movement. Perhaps that is because climate change is an emergency that needs immediate solutions whereas education is often seen as too slow where a lot of time is needed to see results. Time we may not have.
On the other hand, climate-related problems and challenges aren’t going anywhere. As noted by HE Daryll Matthew, Minister of Education, Sports and Creative Industries, Antigua and Barbuda at the RewirEd Summit, even if we find a new technology today that would completely eliminate any more carbon from reaching the atmosphere, we will still need time to remove all the excess carbon that is already there and deal with the problems already created by it. In other words, though we need urgent solutions we also need long-term ones. Not only would we need to deal with the consequences of today, but we need to also find new ways of doing things that will not recreate these problems once again.
To remedy this dilemma, we need both long-term education programmes as well as programmes that are designed to deal with the urgency of the situation. Sustainability in Education or as it is more commonly known, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), is an educational approach that aims to raise awareness and build capabilities among students and the community at large in sustainability issues.
We ought to look at short courses and programmes as a way to educate people quickly not only about climate but more importantly to reskill people to be able to adapt and work in jobs that are needed. “Something unique is happening to the labour market”, says Stefano Colli-Lanzi, Chief Executive and founder of human resources company GI Group Holding. “The speed of this revolution is much faster than the school systems and the ability of the companies to follow these trends. We need to change the actors who are responsible for this upskilling process.”
The article goes on to analyse the shifts happening in the education sphere, with boot camps and short courses being preferred for adult education to reskill and upskill adults quickly so they could re-join the workforce, with the UK government now looking to shift the default mode of adult learning from 3-year degrees to what it calls modular learning. The article also references Singapore’s SkillsFuture programme which was established in 2015 and focuses on continuing education and links all streams of education under 1 umbrella increasing the percentage of adults participating in continuing education in the country from 30 to 48%.
Closer to home, we find that the MENA region is one of the youngest regions in the world with nearly half the population aged below 24 years. Youth unemployment rates (15-24 years) in MENA are also the highest in the world were close to one-third of youth in North Africa and more than one out of five youth in the Arab States are estimated to be unemployed as of 2018. The education system in the region needs a major overhaul to upskill and reskill its youth quickly. The MENA region desperately needs to look at models similar to the ones adopted in the UK and Singapore to help bridge the skills gap and create employment opportunities.
In a region characterized by political turmoil and instability, climate change impacts and poor environmental practices further exacerbate the problems faced. For example, in 2021 Syria faced the worst drought in over 70 years. In a country already weakened by 10 years of conflict with agricultural infrastructure destroyed in many parts, this drought has put a further strain on people. People feared that the drought may lead to further migration and socioeconomic tensions.
Farmers need education and training to enable them to grow food under such conditions or to reskill youth into other professions. Understanding climate change leads to a better ability to adapt agricultural practices, react to extreme weather events, and understand nutrition. “Education can create virtuous circles, ignorance vicious ones” according to the Economist’s article Climate Change is harder on less educated people.
A public opinion survey carried out by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development in 22 Arab countries revealed that a vast majority, exceeding 60 percent, believe that the environment has deteriorated in their countries over the last 10 years. This shows that young Arabs are aware of climate and sustainability issues, though this may be attributed more to their lived experiences than to the education system.
In Lebanon for example, due to electricity shortages and power cuts, people are now turning to solar energy in a “desperate search for a long-term fuel-free sustainable energy source” according to Chihab Merhi, a mechanical engineer specializing in sustainable energy.
This trend reflects a critical component of renewable energy. In the past, energy has typically been supplied through large, often state-owned, energy companies. Renewable, and particularly solar energy, offers democratization of energy which means that new smaller players could enter this market, stated Samah Elsayed, Programme Officer – Renewable Energy Education and Skills, International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) at the RewirEd Summit. This trend results in a need for entrepreneurship skills and large-scale skilling related to the entire energy ecosystem from vocational to professional development programs that are needed as more renewable energy jobs become available and fewer fossil fuel-related jobs are created.
The renewable energy sector is not alone in this trend. The skills needed are largely related to climate change and sustainability as the only hope we have for the future is for the future to be green. It is a paradigm shift and the only way, not forward, but the only way to survival. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “a green economy is defined as low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive. In a green economy, growth in employment and income is driven by public and private investment into such economic activities, infrastructure and assets that allow reduced carbon emissions and pollution, enhanced energy and resource efficiency, and prevention of the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”
The green economy and the jobs created by it are not only those that could clearly be seen as green such as renewable energy or ESG but almost all digital jobs would also be considered seeing that the digitalization of services is a much more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional services.
Despite this obvious skill gap, high unemployment, and desperate need for green alternatives, the MENA region scored below the world average in the Education International Climate Change Education Ambition Report Card, which is a tool developed to measure the level of ambition of countries on climate education and the extent to which they prioritise education as a tool for climate action.
The situation is not all bleak though with some key players guiding the way for a greener and more sustainable MENA. The UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment already runs 2 initiatives that integrate sustainability in the UAE’s school curriculum, Sustainable Schools and Our Generations initiatives, which are designed to provide students with ample opportunities to have a strong environmental consciousness and eco-friendly culture. Many other non-profits, NGOs, and international organizations are also taking a lead on environmental education in the region with a total of around 312 organizations across the region.
In summary, we do not only need education for sustainability to be able to adapt to the problems caused today or to find creative ways to mitigate further environmental damage; but rather that education must evolve drastically today to be able to bring upcoming generations that will not find themselves graduating from a system that is completely disconnected from the reality that they will find themselves in. Similar to Singapore, all these different education pathways need to be developed and linked together to provide their people with an easier way to navigate and a way to continuously learn, upskill and reskill themselves.
In addition to those points, there are also 5 key points related to the Middle East in specific. Education and specifically sustainability education is critical as it is also deeply connected to other extremely important issues globally and in the MENA region in particular.
About the Author:
Mai Shalaby is an educator and sustainability professional with more than 10 years of work experience in both fields. She has worked in Egypt, India, Kenya, and now the UAE on education programmes with people of almost all ages from kindergarten to adults and everything in between. The programs she worked on span various fields such as environmental conservation, cultural exchange and diplomacy, business management and consulting, agriculture and food security, and natural resource management. She is passionate about both education and the environment and sees their confluence as key to a sustainable future