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Post date: Thursday, 4 February 2021

What does the Climate Change Commission’s report say about education?

By Rachel Bolstad

This week the Climate Change Commission released a draft report to advise the Government about what New Zealand needs to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and fulfil our international commitments to combatting climate change. 

I did a quick text search of “education” and other related terms to see what specific messages the Commission might have for our sector. Here’s what I found:

Education was mentioned on 10 out of the report’s 188 pages

This is a good start. Digging further, I’m pleased with what I’m seeing on first read. I’ve picked out a few key messages that resonate with themes emerging from NZCER’s research on climate change and education.

1) Education and training are identified as critical for a transition to a low emissions economy

The Commission’s report says (p.96):

The education system will need to ensure that New Zealanders are set up with the skills that are needed in the labour market. The system will need to focus not just on pre-employment training, but on lifelong learning. Young New Zealanders will need to be set up with the skillsets needed in the future, and workers that might be affected by business closures will need to be supported to upskill.

Although this should be obvious, I’m pleased to see education’s role clearly highlighted.  It is clear that industries and jobs will change as we transition away from our present high-emissions profile to a low and eventually zero-carbon economy. But what will those industries look like, what kinds of new jobs and industries will become important? Where are the pathways to support and inspire young people towards these new opportunities?

Our recent survey of secondary teachers suggests students may currently have few (if any) opportunities to learn about pathways and career opportunities in a low-carbon economic future. Here’s a huge call to action for our sector.  This raises another question: As educators, how can we be supported to build our knowledge and vision for a low-emissions future, so that we can do the same for young people? We need cross-sectoral knowledge, advice, and support, and we need it fast.

2) The Ministry of Education and the Tertiary Education Commission are specifically mentioned.

The report states (p.39) that “There will need to be coordination across a number of government departments and agencies”. Both MoE and TEC are included in a list of 17 government agencies specifically named.  The Commission’s report states that: “The roles and expectations of each of these, and other agencies in addressing climate change will need to be clearly set out. The accountability mechanisms for delivery will also need to be defined”.

This is great, and in my view, overdue. As I’ve written recently,  messages about education’s responsibilities and opportunities with respect to climate change are often vague or piecemeal. On one hand, global climate action agreements frame education and training as playing a key role responding to climate change, “by enabling society to be a part of the solution”. On the other hand, in New Zealand as in many parts of the world, education policies are often not aligned to this call (Bieler et al., 2017; UNESCO, 2019), and “the education sector remains underexploited as a strategic resource to mitigate and adapt to climate change” (UNESCO, 2015, p. 66)

Until now, I’ve seen little evidence of high-level plans around climate change within the education policy space – although there have certainly been some promising signals, and a few initiatives. What we need now is to connect the small pockets of activity and policy into a bigger, coherent and visible “whole”.

3) Innovation and problem-solving are mentioned

I was pleased to see this statement (p. 96):

Aotearoa is known as a country of innovators and problem solvers. Being an early mover in researching new technologies and adopting existing technologies will benefit not just the climate, but the economy and wellbeing of New Zealanders. This is particularly true in sectors where Aotearoa is traditionally innovative, such as agriculture.

This resonates with one of the themes we found when we interviewed a set of climate-informed key informants last year, that has strong implications for education: the importance of cultivating educational opportunities that harness the energy and creative capacities that diverse young people can bring to innovation and problem-solving in a low-emissions future. You can read more about the themes from our in-depth interviews, including vignettes of how some schools were creating these kinds of opportunities for their students.

4) Transport emissions tied to education is acknowledged, and the need for integrated urban planning and design is spelled out

School-related transport is a conundrum we’ve previously discussed in our NZCER research. There are some significant socio-economic and geographic challenges associated with downshifting emissions linked with school transportation. While walking busses and public transport are fantastic where they are possible, schools on their own may have limited ability to influence change in current transport patterns. Likewise, students and their families may have limited options due to other socio-economic factors. I was therefore very happy to see that page 117 of the Comission’s report states the importance of:

 “a coordinated approach to decision making … across Government agencies and local councils to embed a strong relationship between urban planning, design, and transport so that communities are well designed, supported by integrated, accessible transport options, including safe cycleways between home, work and education”. 

The Commission also recommends the Government:

“Develop a consistent approach to estimate the long-term emissions impacts of urban development decisions and continually improve the way emissions consequences are integrated into decision making on land use, transport and infrastructure investments.”

4) Equity and inclusion issues are signalled

One of the Commission’s recommendations is that:

"the Government develop an Equitable Transitions Strategy to support an equitable, inclusive and well-planned climate transition.  Government will need to work alongside people, and ensure they are including young people, regional Aotearoa, low-income communities, some Māori and Pasifika and people with disabilities to make sure they benefit from the opportunities and are not disproportionately impacted. (p.19)"

(Interestingly, that’s one of just three times children or young people are mentioned in the report. One other place is in the Climate Change Commission’s vision (p.9) “of a thriving, climate-resilient and low emissions Aotearoa where our children thrive.”)

The report briefly mentions particular equity issues for the education system to attend to, including existing and historical inequities. For example, as the education system moves further in supporting learners and communities towards a low-emissions future, it will need to be “more flexible, and address barriers that restrict all New Zealanders from participating in education and training – particularly for Māori”. There is additional discussion about specific Māori educational and workforce needs and considerations on pp. 97-98 of the report.

Our research strongly indicates that ideas of equity, inclusion, and social justice must underpin New Zealand’s responses to climate change, within education and across all other sectors.  The education sector, as well as all other sectors, needs to understand the complex intersectionalities that are inherently linked to climate change.  You can dig more into these ideas in our recent report.

5) Future generations are mentioned 16 times in the report

This is so important, it's hard to overstate. In climate change terms, the consequence of today's actions - or inactions - will be felt by those who inherit the planet after us. Yet our economy, and many parts of our governing structures and systems are poorly-equipped for genuinely long-term, deeply intergnerational thinking and planning.

The Commission's report notes "Climate change will disproportionately affect future generations" (p.80), that the way we approach and manage our transition must be done "so that future generations inherit a thriving, climate-resilient and low emissions Aotearoa" (p. 11) and the emissions reductions and targets we set now are critical  "to avoid pushing the burden to future generations" (p 17). The report also acknowledges the need to balance current needs, and the needs of those in the future, when mapping out what levels of action we can take now without causing undue hardship.

For the education sector, this is another call to action. Like so many sectors, we can feel the urgency and pressures of delivering to the needs of now, and to the learners in front of us today. But I think we also have a responsibility to think about the role and contributions that education can and should make, right now,  to ease the burden on future generations, and give them the best possible chance to inherit a future in which they can thrive.

What do you think?

This is my first pass at digesting this report, and I’m sure I’ve missed many other important ideas that we should be noticing and talking about within the education sector.

Let me know in the comments!


Bieler, A., Haluza-Delay, R., Dale, A., & McKenzie, M. (2017). A national overview of climate change education policy: Policy coherence between subnational climate and education policies in Canada (K-12). Journal of Education for Sustainable Development11(2), 63–85.

UNESCO. (2015). Not just hot air: Putting climate change education into practice. Author.

UNESCO. (2019). Country progress on climate change education, training and public awareness: An analysis of country submissions under the United Nations framework convention on climate change. Author.



A critical mission on enabling educations role in climate change will be the training and professional development of school principals and senior management as well as school boards, according to preliminary insights from my research. School culture is enacted top down and in schools were climate education is not recognized as fundamental from the top, teachers are isolated, frustrated, obstructed, and students left with no avenue to deal with the significant well being issues of future anxiety and structural inaction.

Kia ora Thomas, that's a great point. I agree, it's important for everyone at all levels of education, from policy, to school leaders, Boards of Trustees, teachers to be and become climate-informed so that we can act consciously to support students - and their communities. Thanks for sharing your research insights!

Thanks for your views on a quick digest of this report Rachel. I am left wondering where the growing (?) field of outdoor learning might fit into this...the education beyond the classroom and how the teachers 'on the ground' might start working in these spaces and what processes will help them to do so more in the future?

Education beyond the classroom - that's a great connection, Jonathan. One of many key ideas coming out of our research is the value and benefit of strengthening connection to climate change as it specifically connects to "your place" - your community and area, including its history, present, and possible futures. Our team has some views and insights on how schools might bring a climate change lense to thinking about "their place". We have also picked up some examples of the kinds of tangible engagements that students and teachers can make with climate responses in "their places". I can see outdoor learning having a valuable role to play here. I know there is some interesting thinking in this field that would resonate with some of our findings. Perhaps a subject for a future blog post!

Great summary Rachel, thanks for all your excellent, on-going mahi in this space. In line with Thomas's highlight of the need to train up school leaders, so is there a great need to provide on-going training and support to our teachers. We know teachers' confidence of learning disciplines/topics has a huge impact on what they teach and how deep they go. We will need to quickly come up to speed as to what does effective Climate Change Education entail. For example, highlighting cross-curricula 'Big Ideas', progressive learning pathways and a focus on building empowerment (rather than doom and gloom) will be paramount! What tools and resources will be needed to build/increase momentum for the understanding of and implementation of effective Climate Change/Sustainability curriculum? I would love to see a national roll-out of PD, as well as a digital platform dedicated specifically to the cause.

The CCC assumes economic growth as part of a resource and climate change constrained future. However, this should not be assumed. Hickel and Kallis conclude that "green growth is likely to be a misguided objective and that policymakers need to look toward alternative strategies" (Hickel & Kallis, 2019). Education for a climate constrained future must assume possible scenarios of no-growth or degrowth, hardship, and a re-evaluation of expectations. Social cohesion in such scenarios could be at significant risk. Education must be prepared to work towards engagement with future pathways that include alternatives to current neo-liberal growth predicated societal paradigms. Hickel, J., & Kallis, G. (2020). Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy, 25(4), 469–486.

Agreed - Envisioning Alternative Futures an important part of Climate Change Education too

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