Opinion: Girls’ education as a solution to climate change is about more than fertility

A girl at a youth leadership camp for climate change in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by: UN CC:Learn / CC BY-NC

When it comes to strategies to “drawdown” carbon emissions, investing in the education of girls — coupled with family planning — has been identified as one of the most powerful climate solutions. Increasing the years of schooling for girls helps to delay the first age of birth, increase spacing between births, as well as decrease desired family size.

If universal secondary education for girls were achieved tomorrow, by 2050 the planet could have 1.5 billion fewer people — equivalent to more than 85 gigatons of carbon emissions avoided — than if girls’ access to education remained the same as today. The argument for girls’ education as a climate solution is both simple and powerful.

However, it isn’t as it appears. Here are three reasons why:

First, while population and climate change are inextricably linked, this relationship isn’t only influenced by the sheer number of emitters, but also by their patterns of emissions. For example, research suggests that a smaller but more educated and urban population could actually emit higher emissions per capita, compared to a larger but less educated and rural population. At the same time, analysis has demonstrated how populations can decrease their direct emissions while increasing their consumption of high-carbon goods. This exacerbates what some are calling “carbon colonialism,” where carbon emissions are offshored to countries in the global south through production chains of certain goods.

Merely focusing on the number of emitters on the planet distracts us from attending to how we are contributing to overall emissions.

Second, the relationship between education and fertility is complicated at best and inconsistent at worst. For instance, changing a girl’s desired family size through education is different than changing her ability to achieve that desired family size. Moreover, fertility is influenced by a number of factors, including whether a woman has control over her reproductive life, access to comprehensive family planning, and equal decision-making power in an intimate partnership.

Beyond this, studies suggest that fertility decisions are informed by things such as social norms, employment prospects, paid maternity leave, or social services like affordable child care. Simply getting girls into and staying in school does not guarantee reduced fertility.

Finally, while it makes sense to assume schooling leads to learning and that knowledge leads to power, this is not often the case. More than half of children in low- and middle-income countries around the world remain illiterate by the time they finish primary school.

For a girl in this context, such learning poverty is exacerbated by the effects of being taught that her future is in the marriage market rather than the labor market. While research shows that the quality of education is a more powerful predictor of economic returns to education than years of schooling, this is especially the case for girls and women. And when that education is empowering — meaning that it attends to the political issues of gender and power — the kind of social change required for gender, social, and climate justice is possible. Focusing on schooling without attending to issues of quality undercuts the transformative potential of getting more girls in school.

Ignoring these three caveats when promoting girls’ education as a climate solution risks placing an outsized emphasis on girls’ and women’s wombs. Not to mention, such an approach creates an enabling environment for coercive neocolonial measures of population control — especially since current investments in girls’ education typically flow from countries in the global north to the global south where the population is projected to experience the fastest growth this century. Such an approach also avoids addressing the structural barriers and harmful gender norms preventing women from having the number of children she wants, when she wants them, if at all.

However, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Despite the issues above, there are other reasons why we should be investing in girls’ education for climate action that do not have anything to do with fertility.

Here are two:

First, quality education plays a critical role in fostering girls’ leadership and women’s capacity to participate in climate decision-making. I’ve summarized elsewhere the research that illustrates how female leadership is good for the environment. For instance, countries with higher proportions of women in parliament are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties, create protected land areas, and have stricter climate change policies. And, countries where women have greater social and political status produce fewer carbon emissions and have lower climate footprints.

Second, quality education plays a critical role in ensuring girls are equipped with the “green skills” needed to ensure a just transition to a climate-resilient economy. However, with women in less than 20% of occupations in the clean energy sector, education as usual, will ensure women continue to occupy space at the margins of a green economy just as they have in our present fossil-fuel-driven economy. But an investment in girls’ STEM education — where green industries will inevitably emerge — and life skills education, can help ensure girls not only participate but also lead innovation in climate-resilient and green technologies.

What the climate, gender, and education communities currently understand about girls’ education as a climate solution may be a sliver of what is actually possible. If researchers were to factor into their models 12 years of quality, empowering, and gender-transformative education — one that transforms harmful gender norms and relations of power between women and men — the impact of investing in girls’ education could be even greater than the carbon emissions avoided from 1.5 billion fewer people on the planet.

Regardless, the bottom line is that advocates and decision-makers must understand that education is a girls’ right. Reduced population is a positive outcome. Increased numbers of women in climate-relevant decision making positions or increased numbers of women in green sector jobs are both positive outcomes for society and the planet. Any approach to girls’ education as a climate solution must start from this understanding.

About the author

  • Christina Kwauk

    Christina Kwauk is a fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. Her current research focuses on gender equality in education, 21st-century skills and youth empowerment, and education and climate change. Kwauk is a co-author of "What Works in Girls' Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Investment," and also manages the Echidna Global Scholars Program. She previously served as chair of the Girls CHARGE initiative.