Hydrogen powered superyachts and donations from billionaires often grab headlines in the fight against climate change. Whilst more simple and potentially more effective ways to tackle the climate emergency get less attention. One powerful catalyst for rapid change is the education of girls. Access to education is a basic human right, yet across the world, girls continue to face multiple barriers based on their gender and its intersections with other factors such as age, ethnicity, poverty and disability. However research shows that for each intake of students, educating girls has multiple benefits that go far beyond the individual and any particular society. It can also result in rapid and transformative change that effects the planet itself, and do so better than, for example, any electric car.
A recent project brought together a broad coalition of researchers, scientists, business leaders and policymakers to look for ways to not just halt rising emissions and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but to cause an annual decline or “drawdown”. Project Drawdown came up with the top 100 activities that would contribute most to this goal – and at number six sat an initiative that is rarely talked about in environmental circles – educating girls. Just beneath it sat the interlinked issue of family planning at number seven.
Putting that in perspective, instantly recognisable, known, effective and highly promoted mechanisms for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and fighting climate change, rooftop solar panels and electric vehicles, come in at numbers 10 and 26 respectively. The team looked at dozens of methods before drawing up a list of 80 immediate and practical measures — along with 20 near-future concepts — to rank the 100 most powerful solutions to reversing global warming. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) data used, educating girls could result in a massive reduction in emissions of 51.48 gigatons by 2050.
This is because educating girls has an impact beyond the individual, cascading into her family and her community. Almost universally, research since the 1980s shows that women with higher levels of good quality education marry later and have fewer and healthier children, live longer and enjoy greater economic prosperity. For example, in Mali, women with secondary education or higher have an average of three children, while those with no education have an average of seven children. An increase to a woman’s income of $10 has the same beneficial impact on her children’s nutrition and health as an income increase to a man of $110. Hence, the global population outlook depends greatly on further progress in education, particularly of young women. The United Nations currently projects that the world’s population will grow from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050, with most of that growth being in developing countries, including regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. But recent research shows that if girls’ education continues to expand, that number would total 2 billion fewer people by 2045. Longer, better quality education for girls also matters for the human progress of communities, including health, economic development, and democracy.
When looking for solutions to climate change, this case reminds us that we sometimes already know what we should do, but are reluctant to choose options that involve cultural or behaviour change or challenge deep-seated social norms and practices. We would rather look to new technology or convenient bolt-ons that avoid the need for change and appear to offer business development opportunities. There is of course a big role for science and technology, as reflected in the list: the top spot went to managing refrigerants like HFCs, which are incredibly effective at trapping heat within our atmosphere, and a moderate expansion of solar farms (number eight), and onshore wind turbines (number two) were all calculated to save tens of billions of tons of equivalent carbon dioxide emissions. Much-discussed behaviour changes such as increasing the number of people on plant-rich diets also ranked high (number four) – as did reducing food waste.
It is not just politicians and the media failing to focus on this issue; the environmental movement rarely makes links between the education of girls and success in tackling climate change. One rare example of conservation work being tied successfully to educating and empowering women is the Andavadoaka clinic in Madagascar, which is funded by a British charity, Blue Ventures Conservation (BVC). The link between population growth, the lack of family planning facilities and the increasing pressure on fragile natural resources prompted the organisation to establish the small clinic. Today it has been going for over a decade and is part of a wider programme serving 45,000 people. Alongside the original clinic have grown projects that concentrate on specific economic and participative opportunities for women and girls.
This is vitally important in the context of global heating, because while it affects us all, it doesn’t affect us all equally. Climate breakdown exacerbates existing gender inequalities by affecting the most vulnerable and least skilled people – largely women and girls – most acutely. UN figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women and in times of extreme weather conditions such as drought, girls are vulnerable to being pulled from school to help their families make ends meet, either temporarily or permanently.
During such difficult periods parents struggling to feed families will arrange marriages for dowry as a source of income. Girls who completed their schooling are more likely to be able to use their knowledge and leadership to support their families during climate shocks by finding better-paying jobs. An educated girl is simply better equipped with the skills to withstand and overcome the shocks of extreme weather events and changing weather cycles. A 2017 Brookings Institute study suggests that for every additional year of schooling a girl receives on average, her country’s resilience to climate disasters can be expected to improve by 3.2 points (as measured by the ND-GAIN Index, which calculates a country’s vulnerability to climate change in relation to its resilience).
Women also make up almost half of the agricultural labour force in the least developed countries, giving them a huge role in feeding the future population. But there is a huge gap between men and women in their control over land, ability to access inputs and their rates of pay. Educated women make more productive agricultural plots and can be more effective stewards of food, soil, trees, and water, as the climate changes the balance of carbon and water cycles.
Around the world 130 million girls around the world do not recieve a formal education(although this figure is down from over 200 million in 1998). The reasons for this are complex: poverty, along with community traditions, tends to hold back girls as boys are prioritized. In some countries, there is simply insufficient money spent on creating an education system of quality. On top of this, women’s historic disadvantages – their limited access to resources, restricted rights, and a muted voice in shaping decisions – make them highly vulnerable to climate change. On a day to day level, women in developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they are often highly dependent on local natural resources for their livelihoods and have limited mobility in rural areas. Women charged with securing water, food and fuel for cooking and heating face the greatest challenges. In low- and middle-income countries, girls spend less time on education than boys, including time in school and studying outside of school, and more time on unpaid care work.
On the political level, women experience unequal access to resources and decision-making processes. This renders them less able to influence policies, programmes and decisions that impact their lives. Globally, only 17 percent of cabinet and 19 percent of parliament members are women; out of eleven Pacific island developing economies that were studied, five had no women members in parliament at all. A 2009 study found strong support for the idea that increasing womens’ political status in particular through representation in national government has a positive effect on state environmental protection efforts. But, despite the international community’s increasing acknowledgement of the different experiences and skills women and men bring to development and environmental sustainability efforts, women still have less economic, political and legal clout and are hence less able to cope with—and are more exposed to—the adverse effects of the changing climate.
Education alone, however, is not a panacea for equality. Socio-cultural norms can limit women from acquiring the information and skills necessary to escape or avoid hazards (for example, swimming and climbing trees to escape rising water levels). Similarly, dress codes imposed on women can restrict their mobility in times of disaster, as can their responsibility for small children who cannot swim or run. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, an Oxfam report found that surviving men outnumbered women by almost 3:1 in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. Men were more likely to be able to swim, and women lost precious evacuation time trying to look after children and other relatives.
Enormous strides have been made globally in increasing literacy in the last two hundred years globally, and in less developed nations across the last 30 years. This is largely down to increased understanding of the importance of education generally in achieving prosperity, both for the individual and for the wider society. Education was focused originally on boys alone, then on boys primarily, and is now widely accepted for everyone. Efforts are now being made to focus specifically on educating girls both at the national level and by global agencies. UNESCO declared in 2014 that gender parity has been achieved in education, but with some caveats. Although gender gaps in enrolment and attainment are declining in many countries, too many young people, especially girls, never enter school at all, and there continue to be gender gaps in key skills, such as literacy. This has had a direct effect on when and how many times a young woman gives birth. Where there are declines in spending on education, the effect of the stall in education was early fertility.
Individuals have also made a difference through history, campaigning for girls to receive an education in their own right. Today, examples include Malala, a remarkable young woman shot for trying to attend school in Afghanistan, who was given the Nobel Peace prize for her subsequent work to campaign for girls education. Women who have reached positions of unusual political power have often used this to ensure girls’ education is taken seriously. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president in an African country (Liberia), used her power to expand the quality of girls’ education in preschool and primary education by joining the Global Partnership for Education back in 2007. Despite dealing with the Ebola crisis in 2015, she worked to reopen schools and provide education for all students. The former US First Lady, Michele Obama, spearheaded the Let Girls Learn organization in March 2015 through the Peace Corps programme. Hilary Rodham Clinton, Erna Solberg and Julia Gillard have worked similarly from their leadership roles in the US, Norway/Malawi and Australia respectively.
Although this field is complicated by other social dynamics, it’s now clear that getting more girls into school, and giving them a quality education, has a series of profound, cascading effects: reduced incidence of disease, higher life expectancy, more economic prosperity, fewer forced marriages, and fewer children. Better educational access and attainment not only equips women with the skills to deal with the effects of climate change, but it gives them influence over how their communities militate against it.
This knowledge is now causing people in the developed world to consider their own choices around giving birth. Research from 2017 looked for actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions and found that having one child less reduced emissions by an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2 equivalent emission reductions per year. This means that a US family who chooses to have one fewer children would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who recycle for the rest of their lives. A movement has developed based on this understanding in which people pledge not to have children at all, to have fewer children or to adopt children, referred to by some activists as a ‘birth strike’. This remains a highly contentious issue, striking at the heart of decisions we make about our shared future.