Strong education commitments at UN climate summit in Madrid


Education is key to understand the challenges that climate change brings, and to be able to act upon them. This year’s UN Climate Conference COP25, which is taking place in Madrid, Spain from 2 to 13 December 2019, UNESCO and partners organized a series of side-events to raise ambition with respect to climate change education and encourage countries to include strong education commitments in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement.

Highlight of activities was a high-level event on ‘Action for Climate Empowerment’, co-organized by the UNFCCC Secretariat and the COP Presidency, in which Ministers of Education and of the Environment, youth leaders and civil society actors presented their commitments and calls to raise ambition.  

Opening the event, Miguel Clüsener-Godt, Director of Ecological and Earth Sciences at UNESCO recalled that “Climate change requires action at many different levels: political action, changes in the economy, technological inventions. But above all, as young people across the world keep reminding us, climate change requires a massive transformation in the way we all think and act. Education is key in bringing about this massive transformation and in helping everyone – policy-makers, business people, individual citizens in their daily lives – to learn to think and act differently.”

Martin Frick, Senior Director for Policy and Programme Coordination at UN Climate Change, stressed the importance of integrating education into climate change policies, especially in countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions that are up for review in 2020, and of fostering climate education in the broad sense, “not just for youth”: Youth around the world are actually “reversing the education pyramid, and now young people are educating their parents and grandparents,” he said.

Keynote speaker John Kerry, Visiting Distinguished Statesman at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former US Secretary of State, said “no country in the world is getting the job done” when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and action on climate change. “It is evident that education is essential – the kids here present are ahead of it all. But kids shouldn’t have to tell us adults what to do. Shame on us adults!”, he said. “Action for Climate Empowerment is key to win the war against climate change. I believe we can win it.”

Climate change education is key

Lorenzo Fioramonti, Italian Minister of Education, University and Research, reaffirmed the urgency of implementing climate change education, and made a very strong commitment for Italy: From September 2020, Italy will be the first country in the world to make climate change lessons compulsory in schools. “Sustainable Development will be the fundament of everything children will learn in school”, he said. He called for a disruptive, radical change, and promised Italian leadership: “We must make sure that education is no longer seen as a secondary tool.”

Mary Goretti Kitutu, Minister of Water and Environment of Uganda, spoke about her country’s efforts to foster change in attitudes and behaviours, by integrating climate change in the curriculum of Uganda’s primary education system, creating educational materials, awarding climate action grants and other means. She stressed the need for mobilizing funding to support the implementation of the education agenda.

María Isabel Celaá Diéguez, Spanish Minister of Education and Vocational Training, said: “We need a total change of paradigm and education should trigger that change. This is the time for action, and action must begin in schools” said Ms. Celaá, pledging that by 2025 all Spanish students will have acquired theoretical and practical knowledge of sustainable development.

Four young people from India, Zimbabwe, Samoa and Chile reminded governments of the urgency to act. Julieta Martinez from Chile, called on those present to “show that our actions are aligned with our speeches. The environmental crisis is also a social crisis. We have to be the action!” Chinese film star Zheng Shuang, who advocates on behalf of Youth Voices for Climate Action and Youth4Climate, offered to help spread the word on education and work with young people of all countries: “Now is the time for action.” Other strong commitments came from city mayors and teachers, through the world confederation of teachers’ unions, Education International.

Supporting countries to take action

UNESCO’s committed to continuing to support countries to implement the education articles of the international agreements on climate change; help them address education in their Nationally Determined Contributions; and to scale up a whole-institution approach to climate action, which has already been piloted by 260 UNESCO Associated Schools (ASPnet) in 25 countries over the past two years.

Other events of UNESCO at the COP with respect to education included a panel discussion, organized by the UN Alliance on Climate Change Education, Training and Public Awareness of which UNESCO is a member. It presented good practices on climate education from around the world, and addressed existing needs, challenges and opportunities to scale-up action and investment in climate change education, training and skills development. UNESCO was involved in a series of other education events throughout the conference. At a dedicated booth, COP delegates were able to meet UNESCO education experts and receive information and material with respect to climate change education.

On the occasion of the climate conference, UNESCO also launched a new study on countries’ progress in climate change education: It shows that there is still a big gap between the commitments put forward by governments, and their implementation.

UNESCO promotes Climate Change Education as part of its Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programme: ESD equips individuals, communities and the wider world with the understanding, skills and attitudes to engage in shaping green, low emission and climate-resilient societies. Education, along with training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and international cooperation on climate change, is specifically referred to in Article 6 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Article 12 of the Paris Agreement. The two articles are commonly referred to as ‘Action for Climate Empowerment’. UNESCO works together with 12 UN Agencies to support countries in achieving the implementation of these articles.