Popular discussions of climate change often center on the brute geophysical facts of warming—melting glaciers; rising, acidifying seas; the increasingly ice free summer Arctic—and the most direct response to it: reducing carbon emissions.
But as a global phenomenon, climate change and its impacts are entangled with a wide variety of interacting behaviors and factors that people care about. It’s not just reducing emissions that matters. How you reduce emissions and how those reductions relate to economic growth and efforts at reducing global poverty are crucial factors as well.
A new paper in Nature Sustainability homes in on one of those complex factors, how we educate the next generation, and asks what happens over the next 80 years as educational attainment increases across the developing world. Researchers found that higher levels of education may actually increase emissions slightly because of economic growth, but the benefits of increased education outweigh this, in terms of education both as a good in itself and as way to build resilience in the face of negative impacts of climate change.
“We think these results help inform discussions of policies aimed at fostering sustainable development,” said Shonali Pachauri, one of the paper’s authors and a senior research scholar with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. “Those policies are intended to improve human well-being while also preserving the environment.”
The study’s analysis uses several sets of shared assumptions and models often used by climate researchers attempting to project the impacts of climate change on human lives and the impact of human behaviors on emissions and climate change. The first of these is the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), five internationally agreed upon scenarios that explore climate change and societal responses projected through 2100. The scenarios range from a hypothetical very “green” global response that shifts rapidly to renewable energy and drastic reductions in carbon emissions (pathway 1) to a scenario with high use of fossil fuels (pathway 5).
“The SSPs define different baseline worlds that might occur in the absence of any concerted international effort to address climate change, beyond those already adopted by [individual] countries,” said Brian O’Neill, an Earth systems scientist at the University of Denver and first author on the paper.
For this study, the researchers chose SSP 2 as the starting point to model the impact of varying rates of educational attainment using the integrated Population-Economy-Technology-Science (iPETS) model, which provides projections of economic growth, energy, land use, and emissions. SSP 2 is a middle-of-the-road scenario that mostly continues historic trends with regard to growth and emissions. By starting with SSP 2 and assuming either rapid, middle-of-the-road, or stalled rates of growth in educational attainment in the developing world, the researchers were able to project how education could impact those iPETS projections.
Researchers also measured the iPETS-projected impacts against the Human Development Index, a broad measure of social vulnerability, according to Pachauri. “It is a function of three subindices for life expectancy, education, and income,” she said, allowing the researchers to further gauge the effect of different rates of educational attainment on human vulnerability to other impacts of climate change—a measure of resilience.
What They Found
The study found that in the slow to stalled educational attainment scenarios, net emissions through 2100 actually decreased.
More rapid growth in educational attainment, on the other hand, is likely to produce increased economic activity and an eventual net increase in emissions of around 5% to 25% by 2100, depending on the region. That’s despite the counterbalancing impact of education and economic growth on the fertility rate (lowering it), which slows population growth and emissions.
Researchers note, however, that higher levels of education also correlated with much better scores on the Human Development Index, indicating that better educated people are more resilient in the face of the negative impacts of climate change.
The finding that education can be crucial for increasing the adaptive capacity of people to climate change expands on studies of some earlier researchers, including Raya Muttarak, a demographer at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis who was not involved with the new study. Muttarak’s academic work has focused on climate adaptation, and she has argued that a push for universal education—rather than investments in engineering answers to climate change, such as seawalls—could provide more bang for the buck in the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund.
“I think the paper is convincing given its strong theoretical base,” Muttarak said. Because education is an important factor in a wide variety of life outcomes, “we can expect the future societies, where younger cohorts who are better educated due to educational expansion will have replaced the older ones, to be more resilient and maybe also more environmentally sustainable.”
“The only area where the evidence is still inconclusive is on the effect of educational expansion on emissions,” Muttarak continued. “I think this is the area where we need more research, perhaps at the microlevel that looks at overall consumption of an individual.”
Pachauri and her colleagues emphasize that their work is quite preliminary and that it suggests many paths for future inquiry. “The analysis of synergies and tradeoffs between goals is an area of increasing research,” she wrote. For example, “we did not explore in detail impacts of changes in labor force participation (especially for women), which could have multiple synergies and some tradeoffs with sustainable development goals.”
Erich Striessnig is a professor of demography and sustainable development at the University of Vienna who joined Muttarak in her call for focusing United Nations’ climate funds on education, building on work he published in 2013 in the journal Ecology and Society. His takeaway from the new study is that although there are many factors that simply cannot be modeled in a comprehensive way and that there are endless synergies and trade-offs to be examined, these factors in no way imply that effective policy actions are not possible.
“When reading a study like this one here, we certainly have to bear in mind that it describes a future that can still unfold in many different ways,” he said. “The important lesson to be learned is that by not doing anything, we sure make things much worse when indeed we would have options.”
—Jon Kelvey (@jonkelvey), Science Writer