In low- and middle-income countries, persisting gender discrimination and harmful gender norms mean adolescent girls living in poverty are often the most vulnerable to the least visible impacts of climate change. This includes disruptions to their education, increasing their time poverty, and increasing their risk of early and forced child marriage. Yet, while climate change is experienced most acutely by adolescent girls, ensuring that girls receive 12 years of quality education can be a powerful climate solution because it tackles underlying inequalities that both increase girls’ vulnerability to climate change and help perpetuate its root drivers.
Indeed, research suggests that girls’ education can strengthen climate strategies in three ways: by empowering girls and advancing her reproductive health and rights, fostering girls’ climate leadership and pro-environmental decision-making, and developing girls’ green skills for green jobs.
Empowerment through reproductive health and rights—albeit, with several major caveats—has helped to bring greater visibility to girls’ education as a viable climate strategy alongside more technical solutions like offshore wind turbines and electric cars. Indeed, a quality education that includes attention to issues of gender and power can be an effective pathway to empowering girls with control over their own bodies, potentially altering the course of a girl’s life by enabling her to determine how many children she bears, if and when. It also has the secondary benefit of helping to address an enormous unmet need for family planning by 217 million women. Estimates suggest that together with family planning, girls’ education has the potential of avoiding nearly 85GT of carbon emissions by 2050.
The impact of fostering girls’ climate leadership has been demonstrated by the majority female student climate strikers around the world. While there are many factors that influence women’s leadership, formal education plays an important role in putting girls on a leadership pathway. And once there, studies show that women’s political empowerment is strongly linked to better environmental outcomes, including the creation of more protected land areas, the ratification of environmental treaties, stricter climate change policies, and smaller climate footprints.
Providing girls with green skills enables adaptation to a world impacted by climate change as well as a changing world of work. In this case, one that is expected to become greener and to rely more heavily on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. But because girls are already underrepresented in STEM fields of study, a shift to a green economy threatens to further marginalize girls and women. By pursuing a new green learning agenda, however, girls can have the opportunity to develop the skills to not only participate in green jobs, but to redefine and transform our economic systems.
Despite these three powerful contributions to climate action, no country currently recognizes the contributions that an investment in girls’ education can have on their climate strategy. A study of 160 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) shows that only four NDCs mention girls at all, despite adolescent girls being among the most affected by the climate crisis. If developing countries are to empower their citizens for climate action, investing in girls’ education should be a top priority. And if countries like the United States are to make good on their Paris commitments, particularly with regard to international cooperation and assistance, they will also help developing countries invest in girls’ education.