Green Academies teaching skills for our survival on a planet in crisis

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Deprived of air for three minutes, water for three days or food for three weeks, most people would perish. Planet Earth’s vibrant ecosystems provide these essentials but are being relentlessly subjected to unsustainable pressures. Unless there is a fundamental shift in mindset and behaviour, it is the future of humanity that hangs in the balance.

Humans are the cause of these problems – almost two-thirds of the impacts related to atmospheric and ocean temperature can be attributed to anthropogenic forces, according to the journal Nature. But humans can also be the solution by innovation and sustainable development. This is the basis of UNESCO’s Green Academies, which engage young people and their communities to transform existing buildings such as schools and offices into climate-resilient structures.

Across the world, 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services and 3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities; 940 million people do not have access to electricity; 821 million do not get enough to eat, according to data from WHO, World Bank and World Food Programme.

The climate crisis in tandem with population growth has already had major observable effects on the environment, with inevitable consequences for human communities. Glaciers have shrunk, species’ ranges have shifted and shrank, plants and trees are flowering sooner with serious consequences for interdependent ecosystems. Meanwhile, the careless waste of tremendous amounts of water, electricity and food is the hallmark of most people’s consumption patterns.

Young people did not cause this situation, but inevitably it is their responsibility to protect the planet for a more livable tomorrow. If 3 million schools are transformed into green buildings, and 1.5 billion students learn an environmental mindset, then the seeds for sustainable change will have been planted. Their awareness and behavior can have a multiplier effect on friends, parents and communities.

UNESCO Green Academies are designed to convey ideas about environmental protection to students at an early age, empower them to create a world they want to inherit, and propose practical, replicable and affordable changes to buildings to address imbalances and contribute to more sustainable ways of life.

The initiative focuses on water security, clean energy, biomass production and waste management, based on organizing youth clubs. The academies can improve sanitation and access to drinking water and reuse wastewater through sanitation. Locally generated energy such as biogas, biomass, wind, solar, hydropower and other renewable energy can replace polluting from centralized sources. Campuses can produce their own food, fodder, biofuel, and reduce, reuse and recycle to reshape waste management.

Through youth clubs, students can become the custodians of Green Academies, in which they learn how facilities function and how to maintain them. Students wake up to environmental issues such as loss of biodiversity, differences in temperatures and sea levels, deterioration of ecosystems, increasing extreme weather events and changing climate patterns. Those lessons can be applied to Academy premises, for example by informing which clean energy or biomass production is most appropriate.

Based on this methodology and a local gap performance analysis, in April 2016 UNESCO partnered with the local community to transform Beza Bezuhan Academy, in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve, into the first Green Academy. A rainwater harvesting system was installed to collect rainwater from the roof of the school, with an iron-cement, 100m³-capacity tank and a pump to divert the water to the school’s new organic vegetable garden.

A reed-bed wastewater treatment compartment, based on indigenous grasses such as papyrus and elephant grass, was constructed to purify greywater, with the water reused for the school garden and toilet flush. Solar panels produce stable energy even during power cuts, while a bio-gas plant, with a capacity of 10m³, was connected to school toilets to generate bioenergy.

The model can be implemented in schools across the world and tailored to local contexts. Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU) in Thailand is working to qualify for the UI GreenMetric World University “green” qualification based on the six indicators of infrastructure, energy, water, waste, transport and education. Since 2017, the university has been operating a new building covered in vegetation, with the roof covered in an on-grid solar system and rainwater collection pipes.

Looking to the future, UNESCO Bangkok is collaborating with partners including international organizations such as UN Habitat and SEAMEO, academic institutions such as STOU and the Asia Institute of Technology, schools and the private sector, and diverse companies such as the educational provider PAPINEE and major conglomerates such as Saudi ARAMCO, to build more Green Academies in the Asia-Pacific. New partnerships with UNESCO and the private sector are very welcome.

Environmental degradation is a shared issue affecting the entire world. Apart from educating future generations through Green Academies, UNESCO also established an open science platform quest4action.org to promote emerging green economies by augmenting knowledge, networking and necessary skills for science-based environmental management.

There is much more to do if we are to protect the planet. The challenges posed by the climate crisis and environmental degradation are major, but the solutions are within our hands if we choose to implement them.

* a version of this article was first published in SciDev.net

Kuanyi Shen & Benno Böer

Kuanyi Shen is a UNESCO Intern and Benno Böer is a Programme Specialist in UNESCO Bangkok’s Natural Sciences Unit

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