The Power of School: Improve Lives & Climate Change

15 minute read

Updated on Mon Mar 29 2021

Education can reduce poverty, help stop climate change and improve lives at the same time! Quality education for all is a Sustainable Development Goal in its own right: let’s look at why.

Education and poverty

Poverty is more common in countries with poorly developed education systems.

Lack of education as a poverty trap

In many parts of the world, it is hard for children from poorer families to go to school. This limits their job prospects when they get older, meaning they are more likely to stay poor, and less likely to be able to send their children to school. And so the cycle goes on: lack of education traps people in poverty.

On the flipside, education can help people escape poverty because better educated people can access better paid jobs.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than half of the world’s poorest people, each additional year of education makes a large difference to people’s earning prospects.

By how much do you think hourly wages increase (on average) for each additional year of education?

Through increasing incomes, education helps people and their families escape poverty.

Educating girls

Education empowers people; by understanding the world around us we can have more control over our own lives. Ensuring that all children get access to high quality education is an important goal but, too often, girls are being left behind.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, women have, on average, 18% fewer years of education than men.

Take a look at this map. It shows the average number of years of schooling for boys and girls in different countries in Africa (2010).

Gender gap in years of schooling in Africa

As well as reducing gender inequality, losing this gender gap in schooling can benefit the environment by reducing population growth.

Educating girls consistently leads to women, on average, having fewer children:

Women’s educational attainment vs fertility

But, why?

Educated women have better career prospects and often choose to use family planning methods to delay having children, allowing them to pursue their careers.

Furthermore, with better education women make better health choices for themselves and their children, such as choosing to leave longer gaps between births. This leads to lower child death rates. As death rates fall, women tend to have fewer children as they no longer expect to lose their children early in life.

What does this mean for climate change?

Educating women slows a country’s population growth. This means that, in the future, its population will be smaller than it would have been if the population growth rate had remained high. So, can we assume that the country’s total emissions fall?

Often it’s not quite that simple because several changes happen at once. Higher education is also linked to economic growth of countries, so it is likely that, as the population growth rate falls, the emissions produced per person will rise. This means that the total emissions produced by the country will probably rise too.

Crucially, however, the rise in emissions will be smaller than if the country had maintained its high population growth rate and become richer at the same time.

Take a look at this highly simplified diagram:

Population growth and emissions

By providing education for girls in low- and lower-middle-income countries, the subsequent fall in population growth could prevent 51.48 Gt of emissions (CO₂eq) by 2050! That’s 93% of the total greenhouse gas emissions (CO₂eq) in 2018.

And it gets better: educating girls is a surprisingly cheap and highly effective way of fighting climate change!

How do you think this compares to other opportunities to reduce carbon emissions? Choose which of the following you think are more expensive than education for girls:

As shown by the plot below, girls’ education is cheaper than all these emissions reduction strategies except adding insulation to existing residential buildings.

Adding insulation to existing homes ends up saving money because they decrease the amount spent on energy bills in cold countries.

How much do emissions reduction strategies cost?

Education for sustainability

Another way education can help stop climate change is by increasing awareness and encouraging informed and sustainable choices. Let’s look at an example from Europe:

Which of the following personal actions do you think reduces the CO₂ emissions of a European person most effectively?

This is how a sample of 1500 Germans responded to that question, alongside the true CO₂ emission reductions from each action. How did you do?

What people think is effective vs. what is really effective

If people only knew these facts, they could know how best to decrease their personal emissions.

Finally, countries with a poorer public understanding of climate change are less likely to adopt policies to address it.

This is because the long-term measures needed to stop climate change can have short-term disadvantages, such as being expensive. Politicians fear that these short-term disadvantages will make them unpopular with their voters and climate laws are less likely to be passed before elections for this reason.

We cannot say for sure that better public understanding of climate change encourages stronger climate policies. There is evidence, however, that education strengthens democracy and it is possible that education about climate change could help voters see the importance of strong policies and vote for candidates that will implement them.

Voting for climate


Improving access to high quality education benefits society by improving gender equality and reducing long-term poverty. It could also help stop climate change by empowering people to make informed decisions everyday.

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