Education unionists strategise action against fossil fuels

published 22 September 2023 updated 21 March 2024

The 9th meeting of the Education International Climate Network took place online on September 20. Fossil fuel subsidies and their impact on education, as well as education union strategies for fossil fuel divestment, and the continued mobilisation for climate education were on the agenda.

Strong education union response to climate change

Education International’s Climate Network brings together union leaders and staff who drive their union’s work on climate change. The Network was formed in 2021 to guide EI’s Teach for the Planet campaign that calls for quality climate education and a just transition to a green economy for all.

The campaign is informed by Education International’s Manifesto on Quality Climate Change Education for All – a policy instrument that outlines the teaching profession’s vision for quality climate change education and the policy framework necessary to implement it.

With members across all continents, the EI Climate Network continues to grow. New members join as more and more education unions make climate action a union priority.

Fossil fuel subsidies undermining sustainable development

Researcher Zeynep Clulow from the University of Cambridge joined the 9th meeting of the Climate Network to introduce the findings of an upcoming study commissioned by Education International on fossil fuel subsidies and their impact on education. While the study will be published ahead of COP28, Climate Network members had the opportunity to preview the main findings and discuss their implications.

Supporting the production and consumption of fossil fuels with taxpayer money, fossil fuel subsidies amounted to nearly 6 trillion US dollars globally in 2021, according to the International Monetary Fund. Yet fossil fuel subsidies are detrimental to various aspects of sustainable human development and impact several Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 1 on eradicating poverty, Goal 3 on health and well-being, Goal 4 on quality education, Goal 5 on gender equality, Goal 7 on affordable and clean energy, and Goal 12 on responsible production and consumption.

Clulow’s upcoming research analyses the impact of fossil fuel subsidies on selected SDG indicators with a specific focus on education, finding that fossil fuel subsidies are most detrimental to education completion in lower income countries.

The researcher also proposed a series of recommendations for education union action which were discussed by members of the Climate Network.

Strategies to divest from fossil fuels

Climate researcher and EI consultant Alanah Torralba advanced the discussion on fossil fuels by presenting some of the highlights of her upcoming guide to fossil fuel divestment for education unions.

Having conducted interviews with education unionists from around the world, Torralba underscored the key role unions can play in dismantling the social license fossil fuel companies continue to enjoy despite causing irreparable damage to the planet.

Torralba revealed various ways in which the fossil fuel industry influences the education sector, from setting the agenda of science education and promoting a neo-liberal understanding of education, to funding academic research that changes the agenda to the benefit of fossil fuel interests. These efforts have resulted in the promotion of false solutions that prolong the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, such as biofuels, the rebranding of natural gas as a bridge fuel, or legitimising carbon capture storage technologies.

Explaining the implications of concerted fossil fuel divestment, Torralba stressed that the brunt of the effects will not hit pension funds, as previously argued, but only the top 1% wealthiest people whose wealth might contract insubstantially.

Torralba also shared some of the union strategies that emerged from the interviews she conducted with union leaders and climate leads. These include:

  • Investigate where union, pension, and other funds are being invested.
  • Present alternative and sustainable (re)investment opportunities.
  • Use the union’s democratic processes such as a congress resolution to formalise fossil fuel divestment commitments.
  • Empower a just transition champion in the union.
  • Build your union’s fossil fuel divestment talking points and arguments.

The study on fossil fuel divestment will be published in the coming months.

Sustained Teach for the Planet advocacy

Members of the Climate Network discussed the next key moments in the Teach for the Planet campaign, including EI’s participation in the Greening Education Partnership and opportunities to advocate for climate education around COP28.

The Greening Education Partnership is a global initiative to achieve quality climate change education for all and ensure education systems are adapted to be resilient and sustainable. The Partnership is governed by an advisory group which includes rotating UN member states, international organisations, and civil society. Education International is part of the advisory group.

The Partnership is working to establish a new Multi-Partner Trust Fund on Greening Education, aiming to mobilise 50 million USD in its first year, doubling it in three years’ time, and growing further by 2030. The new financing instrument will act as a centre for thematic financing in greening education.

The Partnership’s work is focused around 4 pillars:

  1. Greening schools – to be climate proof and sustainable institutions.
  2. Greening curricula – to ensure that all countries provide climate change education at all levels.
  3. Greening teacher and system capacities – to ensure education systems and ministries have the capacity to deliver on sustainability and teachers receive quality initial teacher training and continuous professional development on climate.
  4. Greening communities – to ensure climate education is accessible to all.

Education International is the joint lead of the working group on teacher and system capacities alongside the Global Partnership for Education and UNICEF. The working group’s objectives include enhancing educator capacity to teach for climate action, improving cross-sectoral coordination and enhancing support for ministries, and increasing political will for climate change education.

To achieve these objectives, the working group will focus on organising capacity building and networking activities and engaging in advocacy to increase financing for climate change education. Importantly, the working group also aims to develop a set of principles to define what ‘quality’ means for teacher training on climate. This will be done through a participatory process, including consultation with EI member organisations.

Call to action for COP28: Adapt, mitigate, invest!

For COP 28, to be held in December in Dubai, Education International has joined forces with key partners such as the Global Partnership for Education and others, to put forward a joint advocacy position paper for education and climate. The three key demands are:

  • Adapt - Countries must develop national education adaption plans and conduct risk assessments in the education sector, with a focus on marginalised groups.
  • Mitigate - Countries must include education in their nationally determined contributions, meet national targets for greening education as part of SDG benchmarking, and set national targets for net zero emissions in the education sector.
  • Invest – Countries must invest sufficiently in climate change education through domestic budgets, unlock further climate finance for education, fund multilateral organisations such as the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait, fund the multi-partner trust fund, and fund loss and damage.