Net zero challenges and opportunities for education

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

Late last year, I moderated a panel discussion in an on-line workshop organised by NAAEE /GEEP.

Net zero challenges and opportunities for education.  How can climate change education help achieve global net zero goals and work towards a just transition to a sustainable future?

This is what I said by way of introduction:

“I don’t think that an education that pays attention to net zero fundamentally changes the purpose of what we’re trying to do.  Rather, it brings a new focus that firmly grounds our work in public policy both national and international.

Net Zero first came to public attention with the 2015 Paris Agreement.  Although, whether the public was paying attention is open to some doubt.  But that’s exactly why educators need to address it.

It’s worth asking though what has actually changed with Net Zero.  After all, we’ve known about the enhanced GH effect and global warming since at least the 1970s, and the first IPCC report was over 30 years ago.

Most significantly, perhaps, Net Zero brings a timetable for the reduction of greenhouse gases.  But we’ve known for a long time that this would need to happen at some point.  And as environmental educators, we’ve been teaching about it for decades.  As Alan Reid put it, there is a “long pedigree” of taking climate change and its causes seriously.

In countries that have enshrined Net Zero in law, as the UK has done, there are now timetables and targets.  Net Zero by 2050 for example; or 2045 if you want to be seen on the right side of history.

And there are interim targets.  For example, a fall in national greenhouse gas emissions by some percentage by 2030 – then more by 2035, then 2040, and so on.  These put immense pressure on governments and other organisations.  But that’s exactly the purpose.

Uniquely, perhaps, schools and colleges can both feel that pressure, and help apply it through their work with students.  This is a powerful position to be in, and taking Net Zero seriously might come to be seen as a key marker of an appropriate climate change education strategy.  This might be wherever that strategy applies: from the whole system, a nation or to a school of college.

But what about the most important people here – the students?  Well, young activists in the UK say they want to be properly prepared by schools to be able to play their part in the huge shifts needed to get us to Net Zero.   Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they are particularly interested in social justice issues.

But not every aspect of these shifts is straightforward, and some of the policy already in place is now seen as controversial as awareness spreads.   There is now considerable push back in many European countries.

UK Schools are not well placed to deal with such controversy as it’s political by its nature with contested values in play.  Research suggests that teachers are themselves uncertain about how to approach it, and don’t feel well prepared.”

The questions I prepared for discussion were:

  • How soon do you think young people should begin to learn about net zero? And what insights are there into how such learning can be introduced and built on?
  • If schools are to have a role in helping achieve global net zero goals and work towards a just transition to a sustainable future, what is the best way that policy professionals can support them?
  • Are you concerned that all this emphasis on greenhouse gases is taking the focus away from the vitally important conservation learning that’s necessary? Is there a good way of ensuring that this doesn’t happen?
  • If schools are to have a role in helping achieve global net zero goals and work towards a just transition to a sustainable future, what’s the best way that teacher education programs and policies can support them?
  • Given the climate and eco-anxiety that we see, how might we ensure that a net zero education is both truthful and not depressing?
  • Thinking of schools, what’s the most important thing that they can do to best help achieve global net zero goals and work towards a just transition to a sustainable future?
  • Does the idea of a school (as an individual organisation) trying to achieve Net Zero make sense?
  • Is a consideration of Net Zero issues in a school setting likely to be controversial?


The whole session can be listened to here.

The Panel members were:

Nicole Ardoin
Associate Professor, Stanford University, United States

Nicole is an associate professor in the Social Sciences Division of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, and Sykes Family Faculty Director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER).

Kathayoon A. Khalil
Associate Vice President of Conservation Learning at New England Aquarium, United States

Kathayoon is a conservation psychologist and education professional with over two decades of experience working in zoos, aquariums, museums, and nature centers. She is the Director of Engagement for Zoo Advisors, the Associate Vice President of Conservation Learning at New England Aquarium, a proud alumna of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders program, a current fellow at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, and an instructor for Project Dragonfly at Miami University of Ohio. Her in conservation began as a teen volunteer at the Oregon Zoo, where I quickly developed a passion for wildlife.

Christina Kwauk
Research Director, Unbounded Associates, United States

Christina works as an education consultant and is Research Director at Unbounded Associates. She also serves on the Cosmos of Stars for RegenIntel, Girl Rising’s Advisory Council, the International Jury for the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education, and the Judging Academy for the World’s Best School Prizes. Formerly, Christina was a Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, Associate Director of the Monitoring and Evaluation of Climate Communication and Education (MECCE) Project, and Head of Climate and Education at the Education Commission.

Ginger Potter
Senior Education Specialist, Office of Environmental Education (OEE), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, United States

Ginger is responsible for environmental education program design, implementation, and management as well as research, evaluation, and program assessment and strategic planning in the Office of Environmental Education. She serves as the Project Officer for the National Teacher Training and Professional Development Program (ee360+) and is the Co-Chair of the Global Environmental Education Partnership (GEEP).

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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