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Study: Educating Poor People Increases Global CO2 Emissions

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

A chilling study which potentially opens the door to questioning the benefits of the ubiquitous drive to raise global education levels.

Education May Increase Emissions but Mitigate Human Cost of Climate Change 

Increasing education in the developing world could lead to a modest increase in carbon emissions due to economic growth, but education could also reduce the negative impact of climate change on vulnerable populations.

What They Found

The study found that in the slow to stalled educational attainment scenarios, net emissions through 2100 actually decreased.

More rapid growth in educational attainment, on the other hand, is likely to produce increased economic activity and an eventual net increase in emissions of around 5% to 25% by 2100, depending on the region. That’s despite the counterbalancing impact of education and economic growth on the fertility rate (lowering it), which slows population growth and emissions.

Researchers note, however, that higher levels of education also correlated with much better scores on the Human Development Index, indicating that better educated people are more resilient in the face of the negative impacts of climate change.

Read more:

The abstract of the study;


The effect of education on determinants of climate change risks

Brian C. O’NeillLeiwen JiangSamir KCRegina FuchsShonali PachauriEmily K. LaidlawTiantian ZhangWei Zhou & Xiaolin Ren

Increased educational attainment is a sustainable development priority and has been posited to have benefits for other social and environmental issues, including climate change. However, links between education and climate change risks can involve both synergies and trade-offs, and the balance of these effects remains ambiguous. Increases in educational attainment could lead to faster economic growth and therefore higher emissions, more climate change and higher risks. At the same time, improved attainment would be associated with faster fertility decline in many countries, slower population growth and therefore lower emissions, and would also be likely to reduce vulnerability to climate impacts. We employ a multiregion, multisector model of the world economy, driven with country-specific projections of future population by level of education, to test the net effect of education on emissions and on the Human Development Index (HDI), an indicator that correlates with adaptive capacity to climate impacts. We find that improved educational attainment is associated with a modest net increase in emissions but substantial improvement in the HDI values in developing country regions. Avoiding stalled progress in educational attainment and achieving gains at least consistent with historical trends is especially important in reducing future vulnerability.

Read more (paywalled):

One of the authors, Shonali Pachauri, is the daughter of the late Rajendra Pachauri, former head of the IPCC, who resigned in 2015.

The study authors are keen to emphasise the benefits of education to those who receive a better education. They obviously don’t want their work to be used to justify cutbacks in international education aid programmes.

But that frightening alternative policy prescription of denying education to those who need it most still lingers. The idea that education is a net global harm in terms of overall CO2 emissions may yet have consequences, so long as policy makers believe reducing total global CO2 emissions is a priority.