Funding Education will save the planet – why is it so often a second priority?

In a collection of transcribed speeches published in 2019, entitled No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, Greta Thunberg laments that young people must participate in school strikes (and miss out on vital hours of education) to campaign for action on the issue of climate change – an issue about which scientists are well-informed, but about which children are rarely taught. 

Thunberg’s predicament encapsulates the dual funding pressures facing decision-makers, including the immediate need to cut emissions and, secondarily, the need to cultivate the learning habits that will create a better future for those who will grow up to see and shape it.

Wangari Maathai’s 2006 autobiography, Unbowed: One Woman’s Story, points to a different variation on the relationship between education and climate change. Fighting for the right to an education, receiving a Kennedy Scholarship to study in America and eventually becoming the first woman to earn a PhD in East Africa provided the educational foundation which enabled Maathai to combat climate change by setting up The Green Belt Movement.

Thunberg, in the second decade of the century, speaks from the Swedish/European perspective that all the education in the world has not prompted a widespread change in a developed society. Wangari Maathai, in the first decade of the century, voices her Kenyan/American perspective that when the outcomes of a quality education are directed towards local action the results are transformational for communities, and ultimately for the planet.

These two behemoths of the climate-change-campaigning world agree that both the long-term funding of education and short-term investment in green policy and practice are important. But is one being neglected for the other?

The Worldwide Funding Context

Both access to a quality education and to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment are human rights to be provisioned by states, according to the UN.

However, the private sector is responsible for 85% of all investments worldwide and supports public sector spending in significant ways.

Using search terms, such as ‘private sector’, ‘funding’, ‘education’ and ‘environment’ reveal two key narratives surrounding the current direction of finance flows. Firstly, private sector investment in the environment is expanding as new climate-change, resilience and adaptation initiatives are being developed that will benefit companies financially. Secondly, the continual underfunding of education has necessitated private sector involvement.

Climate change initiatives remain the key attractor of ESG and CSR funding which deigns to improve the environmental, social and economic wellbeing of the societies that businesses impact.

Within the ambit of impact investing, education typically comes second to health or climate change. As such, responding to crises repeatedly usurps the importance of educating a generation.

The propositioning of £26bn to facilitate the UK’s transition to Net Zero as compared to £4bn of extra funding pledged to its schools in the Levelling Up Executive Summary reflects the prioritisation of environmental policy by governments, too. Are these reasonable and just responses to shifting threats and changing opportunities for growth?

Environmental Funding: a profitable new direction in developed contexts

Greta Thunberg, for one, is increasingly cynical about the capacity of governments and businesses to act on their promises when it comes to hitting targets to reduce emissions.

Surprisingly perhaps – given the feeling that green finance is on the rise – climate adaptation gained only 2% of all investments in 2018. Only a minor part of the private sector’s hundreds of trillions of dollars in assets is dedicated to climate investments, states the Green Climate Fund. And the estimated $579 billion annually dedicated to the cause is well below what is needed to limit the global temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees.

Nevertheless, the impetus to support climate change initiatives is growing. The risk of not acting to combat climate change is deepening due to the potential cost of environmental damage to markets and supply lines, the threat of full disclosure targets being mandated by governments and the growing importance of brand image in an age of ethical consumerism. The commercial reward for climate change investments is also expanding and enthusiasm is burgeoning.

But when such investments are primarily (sometimes exclusively) commercial in aim, as the UNDP indicates is the case, the developing world is neglected. The Climate Action Network conclude, in their paper on ‘Climate change adaptation and the role of the private sector’, that the private sector is not best poised to invest in the environment in a way that will help developing countries. Accusations of ‘greenwashing’ take these conclusions to their pessimistic extent.

An apparent willingness to invest in climate change initiatives erodes in contexts where a lack of data on climate risks, a lack of financially viable and bankable projects and the high-risk profile of business ventures deters for-profit companies from getting too involved. We may be experiencing a sea-change in the level of investment achieved, but likely not a change in its end destination.

Enacting a solution for climate change has to be collaborative on a grand scale due to its global implications. Investment cannot afford to ‘leave out’ or place the blame at the door of developing nations.

Education Funding: A prerequisite for environmental progress in developing contexts

Wangari Maathai’s story is a reminder of the hope provided by a long-term investment in education that produces heroic, local green initiatives which release funding in the shorter term.

Unfortunately, since 2010 (and the funding fervour produced by the agreement of the Millennium Development Goals), development assistance to support education has stagnated.

It is a knowledge and skills gap, as well as an infrastructure gap, that prevents developing nations from implementing the projects and securing the available funds to develop sustainably.

It is also easy to overlook the truth that education is a sector in crisis and one in need of capacity building to increase its resilience in the face of new health and environmental threats. Funding is required to improve distance learning solutions, to increase the sustainability of bricks-and-mortar teaching and to develop a curriculum that prepares the future workforce to be adaptable to ever-changing priorities, including tackling climate change.

Funding education will mobilise the minds that will drive climate change policy and practice and allow developing nations to lead the way in innovating sustainable ways to grow. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Balancing Educational and Environmental Priorities in the Private Sector

It remains of fundamental importance that education is not sacrificed in the bid to combat climate change – being, after all, a part of the solution.

Killing two birds with one stone, the private sector should look to invest in projects that improve the quality, durability, scalability and sustainability of learning, thereby reacting appropriately to immediate threats as well as preparing for the future.

Developing nations must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to respond to their unique climate crises through educational opportunities.

The private sector must be encouraged to invest with the long-term understanding that responding to moments of crisis, such as the likelihood of the degradation of supply chains due to an increased prevalence of natural disasters, becomes more difficult when training and teaching is neglected. Failing to invest in all territories is a dereliction of the duty to attempt to save the planet.