Educational courses that explore practical solutions to mitigate climate change could have more impact on cutting carbon emissions than a switch to electric cars or some forms of renewable energy, academics have claimed.
A study of such a university course in the US suggests that it changed graduates’ later behaviour to the extent that they substantially reduced their carbon emissions compared with the general population.
Undergraduates from across San Jose State University in California can take the one-year module, which allows students to “explore connections between their personal and professional lives and climate change” as well as take part in a project to find ways to cut emissions in the local community.
A survey of San Jose graduates who took the course between 2007 and 2012 found that a large proportion said they had made lifestyle changes as a result, such as recycling more often (90 per cent) and using energy-efficient light bulbs (86 per cent). A significant minority said they had also made choices that were potentially more expensive but were more impactful in terms of emissions, such as buying a more energy-efficient car.
An analysis of how these changes influenced their carbon footprint suggested that for the average course graduate, their individual carbon emissions dropped by 2.86 tons per year more than the average California citizen.
The authors calculate that if just 16 per cent of all secondary school children in wealthier nations received similar education by 2050, that could have a bigger effect on cutting emissions than the individual impact of many other measures, such as a large-scale switch to electric vehicles, widespread tree planting and the development of offshore wind farms.
Eugene Cordero, professor of meteorology and climate science at San Jose and a co-author of the Plos One paper, told Times Higher Education that funding bodies often thought it was much easier to put money into carbon-cutting measures that were more quantifiable.
Thus, they tend to say “it is easier to fund ]energy-efficient] light bulbs and give them out to the public”, according to Professor Cordero. “But if you say we have this education programme…[they argue that] no one has demonstrated that it is actually effective.
“That is what we see as our key contribution. We wanted to try to quantify that if you have a good education programme, then you are worthy of the same sort of funding.”
Although the researchers acknowledge that the study did not assess students’ behaviour or environmental attitudes before they started the course, Professor Cordero said the degree credits that were available for taking the module meant that a range of students enrolled.
He also accepted that the anti-green lobby might see such courses as an attempt at “brainwashing young people”, but he argued that the role of educators was to “provide a line of critical thinking so people can make decision themselves”.
Source: The World University Rankings