Published on Let's Talk Development

A review of human development and environmental outcomes

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Elementary schoolgirl holding recycle container in school. | © Elementary schoolgirl holding recycle container in school. | ©

As we witness the increasing evidence of climate change and its effects on the environment, there is a growing interest in understanding how human development is connected to these environmental changes.  While many researchers have explored how the environment influences human capital, literature on the impact of human capital on the environment remains scarce.

Is there a link between human development outcomes and environmental outcomes? If so, are there ways to establish a cause-and-effect relationship? What role does education play in shaping climate-related attitudes, behaviors, and results?  Our paper attempts to answer these questions by examining existing literature on how human development affects the environment, while assessing the strength of these connections.

Most studies of this relationship are either theoretical, based on correlations, or observational. Our review of 32 studies finds that a majority – 84% – of them rely on observational data, while only a few use quasi-experimental methods to establish causation. The few causal studies suggest that higher levels of education are associated with pro-environmental behaviors and preferences for environmentally friendly policies. We also explore methods for causally measuring the impact of education on climate-related outcomes.

Adaptation and Mitigation Measures to Reduce the Impact of Climate Change

A wide range of strategies aimed at enhancing human development have been proposed in academic literature to lessen the impact of climate change on people. These strategies include adaptation measures, which aim to boost behaviors that help people adapt. Examples of such short-term interventions include disaster-proofing infrastructure, adapting to seasonality changes, or introducing innovative policies that can change human behaviors through nudges and increasing awareness.

Mitigation measures on the other hand may include updating curriculum and assessments, teacher education reforms, orientation towards new ‘low carbon’ technologies, and promoting sustainability, which can have a positive impact on the environmental in the longer term.

While the education sector can play an important role in adapting to and mitigating climate change, more research is required to understand how these interventions can impact climate change and establish causality.

The Linkages between Education and Climate Change: Toward a Conceptual Framework

Various researchers have previously established the role that increased schooling can play in changing a person’s cognitive skills. Others have suggested that improved cognitive skills, especially attitudes and behaviors gained through schooling help people better understand and respond to information about climate change. This suggests a link between education and pro-environmental behavior.

In addition to cognitive factors, emotions, and beliefs also play a role in promoting responsible environmental behavior. Feelings and beliefs, along with a person’s confidence in their ability to make a difference, are critical in determining their actions. Education can foster critical thinking and action skills that empower people to make informed decisions. Situational factors, such as economic conditions and access to information or resources, also influence environmental action. Better education often leads to higher earnings, improved access to information, and greater access to resources that enable people to take steps to mitigate climate change.

Our conceptual framework (Figure 1) illustrates potential connections between education and climate change. Determining the direction of causality requires more evidence from large-scale studies an analytical model that considers environmental behavior as an outcome variable and variations in educational attainment.

Figure 1: Direct and Indirect pathways from improved education to pro-environmental behavior

A diagram showing Figure 1: Direct and Indirect pathways from improved education to pro-environmental behavior

Establishing Causality in Educational Research

While there is substantial evidence supporting the beneficial effects of education, caution has been exercised in attributing a direct causal relationship between schooling and these positive outcomes, particularly in the absence of experimental data.  Econometric methods such as instrumental variables, regression-discontinuity, propensity score matching, difference-in-difference, and various fixed-effects specifications, have been employed to establish causality. However, the generalizability of these findings is still constrained by the limited availability of comprehensive panel data.

Using compulsory schooling laws as a source of exogenous variation is one way to address this limitation especially because many countries have historically introduced or made changes to their compulsory schooling laws at different times. Consequently, a wide body of research has utilized the introduction and amendments to compulsory schooling laws as a natural experiment to analyze the impact of educational attainment on various aspects of human development.

Use of Compulsory Schooling Laws to Study the Impact on Environmental Behaviors

There is an emerging body of literature using changes in compulsory schooling laws to analyze whether more increased educational attainment schooling enhances climate change awareness and fosters pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors (Table 1).

Table 1: Studies using Compulsory Schooling Laws to Study Impact on Climate Outcomes


Dependent variable




Climate change literacy; pro-environmental behaviors


(+) willingness to change behavior for environment

No effect on behaviors


Pro-environmental behaviors


(+) pro-environmental behaviors


Pro-climate beliefs, behaviors, policy preferences, and voting outcomes


(+) pro-climate beliefs, behaviors, most policy preferences, green voting


Environmental attitudes; willingness to pay environmental tax


(+) knowledge based pro-environmental actions

No cost-saving action; no impact on concern for global warming; no impact on pay


Pro-environmental behaviors


(+) increased knowledge; some effect on behavior

In Europe, laws requiring students to attend school have been used to demonstrate that when more schooling is available, people tend to become more aware of climate issues, develop positive attitudes towards protecting the environment, engage in eco-friendly actions, express preferences for pro-environment policies, and vote for green initiatives. have been used to show that expansion of schooling leads to increases in climate literacy, pro-climate beliefs, behaviors, policy preferences, and voting outcomes. A recent study, which uses unique data on these schooling laws, data from the European Social Survey, and a new dataset on voting, finds that each additional year of education is associated with increases in pro-climate beliefs, behaviors, most policy preferences, and a significant increase in green voting by 35% increase.

In addressing climate change, it is crucial to encourage people to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviors and to gain support from voters for policies that address climate issues.  Surprisingly, there is limited knowledge on how to achieve these goals. A broader study involving more countries and considering both primary and secondary education reforms may offer more widely applicable insights.


Harry A. Patrinos

Senior Adviser, Education

Diego Ambasz

Senior Education Specialist

Anshuman Kamal Gupta

Consultant, Education Practice Group

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