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Environmental sustainability competence: Insights from international large-scale assessment

By Francesca Borgonovi (OECD), Helke Seitz (OECD) and Ottavia Brussino (J-PAL Europe)*

Climate change is a defining challenge of our time. The urgency to address climate change has never been more apparent: 2023 was on course to be the hottest year on record. The consequences of rising temperatures are profound.  

The Paris Agreement has been instrumental in increasing climate mitigation ambitions internationally: as of September 2023, 105 countries had pledged a net-zero target, with 90 aiming to reach this target by 2050. The rapid emergence of a new clean energy economy has led the International Energy Agency to conclude in its updated Net Zero Roadmap that a pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5 °C is difficult – but remains open. Investment in clean energy has risen by 40% since 2020. In 2020, of all cars sold, 1 in 25 was electric but this ratio was 1 in 5 by 2023, and more than USD 1 billion a day is being spent on solar deployment.

Strengthening initial education systems, providing upskilling and reskilling opportunities for adults over the course of their lives and ensuring that skills are effectively mobilized is critical to harness both the public support that is needed to take adequate action and the human capital that can effectively power the green transition.  

However, so far, the speed of environmental and digital transformations is outpacing the rate of change in our education and skills policies and their capacity to respond to emerging needs in society and labour markets. A key to building resilience in the face of environmental challenges and technological transformations is to empower young people with the skills they need to exert positive change in their societies both in the present and in the future. But skills alone do not guarantee meaningful action. Attitudes and dispositions, which are in large part shaped through education and training, play a crucial role in motivating individuals to use their skills for environmental sustainability.  

Recent results published in the Skills Outlook 2023 on Skills for a Resilient Green and Digital Transition show that, for example, as many as 78% of 15-year-old students in OECD countries achieved science proficiency level 2 or above. This means that they could, at the minimum, draw on everyday knowledge and basic procedural knowledge to identify an appropriate scientific explanation, interpret data, and identify the question being addressed in a simple experimental design, use basic or everyday scientific knowledge to identify a valid conclusion from a simple data set.  

However, only 33% of students had foundational levels of environmental sustainability competence, meaning they combined this level of achievement in science with taking part in concrete pro-environmental actions (such as engaging in energy saving), caring about the environment or being aware of climate change. This means that on average almost 45% of students had the ‘skill’ but not necessarily the ‘will’ component of environmental sustainability competence.  

Furthermore, large disparities exist in the extent to which education systems and societies equip children with environmental sustainability competence: only 21% of socio-economically disadvantaged youths, but 46% of their more advantaged peers, had mastered both the foundation skills and mindsets they will need to find employment in the new green economy and to act for environmental sustainability as consumers.  

International large-scale assessments of school-aged children are critical in providing the knowledge base needed to measure progress towards empowering young people with environmental sustainability competence. The science assessments administered to 15-year-old students participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and to 4th and 8th graders participating in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) contain questions aimed at gauging young people’s knowledge and skills of environmentally relevant phenomena.  

Results from these assessments have been used to map young people’s knowledge and skills in environmental science topics and whether they are more or less proficient in solving environmental science problems than other science problems. Looking forward, in 2025, ‘Agency in the Anthropocene’ will be a key dimension of the PISA science assessment. The assessment is designed to map young people’s ability to explain the impact of human interactions with Earth’s systems; to make informed decisions to act based on the evaluation of diverse sources of evidence and the application of creative and systems thinking to regenerate and sustain the environment; and to demonstrate respect for diverse perspectives, and hope, in seeking solutions to socio-ecological crises. The International Vocational Education and Training (VET) Assessment will also feature environmental knowledge and skills as a cross-cutting priority. 

At the same time, given the key role played by emotional, attitudinal and behavioural dimensions of environmental sustainability competence, since 2006 the PISA student questionnaire has asked students about their attitudes towards environmental problems and climate change – such as how much they care about the environment, or how optimistic or pessimistic they feel about solving environmental problems. Given the evidence on the role of school-level socialisation in shaping the attitudinal dimensions of environmental sustainability in children, the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) collects information from participating school leaders and teachers about the initiatives they took related to environmental sustainability – such as organising differential waste collection, recycling and waste reduction and energy-saving – and engagement in activities organised at school pertaining to the environment. 

Compared to children born in the 1960s, those born at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 may experience twice as many wildfires and 6.8 times more heatwaves across their lifetimes. However, should countries be successful in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, they will be able to reduce additional lifetime exposure to heatwaves by 45% and to wildfires by 10%. International large-scale assessments are an important tool to help us grasp how ready young people are to contribute to a greener tomorrow. 


*The piece reflects work that was conducted while Ottavia Brussino worked at the OECD. 


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