Toward a National Framework for Environmental Learning: Discussion Paper

Spring 2024


“Toward a National Framework for Environmental Learning” is offered as a starting point to spark dialogue and ideas on environmental learning and its role in helping Canadians deal with biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change. The information gathered through this consultation process will shape an ambitious and inclusive national framework (“the framework”) for environmental learning in Canada.

In this paper, we offer a high-level look at best practices in environmental learning, together with an overview of key issues, guiding principles, challenges, and opportunities to increase access to high-quality environmental education and learning in Canada. The paper was developed with input from a variety of stakeholders and partners who were consulted over the past year (see Appendix A). It is not intended to capture all perspectives, but to stimulate discussion and gather new ideas, information, and perspectives.

As you read this discussion paper, please consider the following questions. Input provided on this document from the public comment period, and through youth- and Indigenous-led engagement activities, will help Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) shape an ambitious and inclusive draft strategy. You will be able to provide your feedback by completing the linked questionnaire at the end by July 3, 2024.

For reader context, while climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss are all environmental threats of national concern, public education in Canada falls under provincial jurisdiction. This underlines the importance of horizontal and intergovernmental collaboration to develop an effective national approach that prepares students for our changing environment with high-quality environmental education.

Why environmental literacy?

Climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution are among the most complex challenges facing the world today. These challenges form what the United Nations calls a triple planetary crisis. Together, these impacts multiply threats to nature, wildlife, and all areas of human activity, from health to built infrastructure. Addressing these issues will require changes in the way we do things in all sectors of our lives. The successful transition to a net-zero, nature-positive, circular, and sustainable Canada is a challenging one that is guided by policy, economics, science, technology, innovation, and many other sectors and disciplines. The contribution of education to this transition is not always discussed, but it is a key element and cannot be overlooked.

Environmental literacy is one of the principal goals of environmental education. It refers to the capacity to comprehend and critically assess the intricate interplay between human activities, ecological systems, and the changing climate. Environmental literacy involves an understanding of climate science and environmental dynamics, together with sustainable practices and the ethical and social dimensions of environmental challenges. Enhanced literacy empowers individuals to make informed decisions and adopt responsible behaviours. This work in education is crucial because it equips individuals to engage more effectively in developing and contributing to solutions. It will also prepare the citizens and workforce of the future to be innovative, responsive, and resilient.

Environmental education: a cornerstone to shape resilient societies

For children and youth, it is the space where they can begin to explore answers to a common question: what can I do? Education is crucial to influence environmental action. It helps people understand and address the environmental impacts , empowering them with the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes needed to act as agents of change. Education is key to empowering all people, but it especially motivates the young to take action. Footnote 1

The 2023 Galway and Field study found that young people are seeking honesty about the risks and uncertainties they see in the world around them. Galway and Field sum up the message from young people as “Just teach it.”

Environmental education helps children and youth better understand environmental challenges and their role in contributing to solutions; it fosters environmental literacy. Daily actions adopted by children and youth to advance several sustainable practices, or just one, can inspire change within their households and help them realize their own power to influence change. Youth also become consumers and engaged in the economy over a longer timeframe than older adults; they can influence their peers and younger generations toward more sustainable behaviours. The environmental literacy ladder sets out five key dimensions of the development of a more environmentally literate person:

Environmental education can significantly influence the first three dimensions of developing environmental literacy, while learning will continue through the outcomes from responsible decisions and action. Environmental literacy will spark empowerment. Not every child or youth will become an environmentalist but empowering them to make decisions and take actions can resolve feelings of environmental distress, prepare them for a changing economy, and contribute to the emergence of a more sustainable culture.

Long description

An iceberg with one-third seen above water and two-thirds underwater is labelled with 5 aspects of environmental learning. This illustrates that there are multiple elements to environmental learning, of which some are more visible than others but are all important to achieving environmental literacy. The tip of the iceberg, which is the smallest and only portion seen above water, is labelled “Environmental Knowledge”. The lower and larger portion of the iceberg, beneath the water shows 4 other elements of environmental learning. From the surface break of the water down: first is “Academic Achievement”, second is “Critical Thinking”, third is “Civil Engagement”, and fourth (at the bottom tip of the iceberg) is “Personal Growth”.

Image source: North American Association for Environmental Education

Knowledge is only one part of education. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2021 report, “Beyond Academic Learning”, underlines that educational success involves more than building cognitive and technical knowledge. Social and emotional skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, compassion, and curiosity are also necessary to help children and youth navigate a future defined by climate change, nature loss, and waste and pollution. Education equips learners with the knowledge they need to make real change, but it also inspires the cognitive skills to make connections between environmental issues and their impact on the learner’s everyday reality. This is the junction where emotion invokes a desire to take the necessary action to make those changes a reality.

Experts at Stanford University systematically searched the academic literature and analyzed 119 peer-reviewed studies published over a 20-year period that measured the impacts of environmental education for K–12 students. The review found clear evidence that environmental education programs provide a variety of benefits. In studies reviewed, environmental education was shown to improve the following:

  • Knowledge in science, mathematics, reading, writing, and more.
  • Emotional and social skills, such as self-esteem, character development, teamwork, and leadership skills.
  • Environmentally friendly behaviour, such as reducing water use, increasing recycling, and participating in community cleanups.
  • Academic skills (21st century skills), such as critical thinking, oral communication, analytical skills, problem solving, and higher-order thinking.
  • Motivation to learn, including enthusiasm for and interest in school.
  • Civic interest and engagement, including feelings of civic responsibility, feelings of empowerment, and ability to take action.

Children and youth: The main stakeholders

Children and youth are a particularly vulnerable group with respect to protecting their right to a healthy environment. They will inherit environmental damage and turmoil and must be properly equipped with the knowledge and appropriate resources to address environmental challenges.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, a 20-year-old United Kingdom national, Phoebe Hanson, gave a rousing speech underlining the importance of education for youth when it comes to climate action:

“Young people are scared. Young people are seeing headlines in the news that are terrifying and make them feel powerless – our education needs to give us the skills, the knowledge, the coping mechanisms, to turn those feelings into agency and action. Young people are the future, and we need to be treated like we are.”

People are worried about our changing natural environment. The Mental Health Commission of Canada explains that when worry about the well-being of the environment becomes severe enough to cause distress and dysfunction, it is called “eco-anxiety.” The 2022 State of Public Health in Canada report emphasizes that climate change and eco-anxiety are looming public health crises that all governments must play a part to address. Of note, a 2021 study published in a top medical journal found that among 10,000 youth in 10 countries, there was a higher level of climate anxiety than ever seen before. In one Canadian study, at least 58% of youth reported feeling afraid, sad, anxious, and powerless in the face of climate change (Galway and Field, 2023). Nearly 40% said that feelings about climate change negatively affect their daily life.

In recent years we have seen a global rise of various social issues that work against democratic and scientific responses to our triple planetary crisis. Those issues include distrust in government and media, as well as misinformation, Footnote 2 which highlights the necessity for the public to have enhanced access to information and education on matters critical to their well-being. Many young people fear that public education is becoming unresponsive and untrustworthy, and they are turning to social media rather than their school classrooms for information. Citizens of the world increasingly need to be empowered with the knowledge and literacy to take action independently. Individual lifestyles and efforts are essential components of our collective response to our most pressing environmental issues.

Environmental education: What is happening around the world?

Climate change education—a key part of environmental education—is recognized as a priority in many international agreements and declarations. Among those that Canada is jointly committed to advancing are the following:

These international commitments and calls to action underline the major role of education in moving toward more sustainable ways of living. UNESCO’s “Getting every school climate-ready report found that only half of the national curricula in the world refer to climate change and only 23% of teachers can explain well how to act on climate change. In another survey done in 166 countries with 17,000 young people in 2022, UNESCO found that 70% of youth cannot explain climate change. In response to these gaps, UNESCO has called for environmental education to be a core curriculum component in all countries by 2025.

These poor results were echoed in Education International’s Climate Change Education Ambition Report Card that was released for COP26. Experts examined levels of ambition on climate education and the extent to which countries prioritize education as a tool for climate action. The research analyzed 133 updated, revised, or new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)—national climate action plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change—as of March 27, 2022. The results were not good: most countries received an “F.” This presented an opportunity for improvement among nations that seek to be ambitious in the fight against climate change. In response to the global lack of ambition in promoting environmental education and helping to move education up the policy agenda, Italy and the UK organized the first ever meeting between education and environment ministers at COP26. In so doing, they led the call to increase commitments among the international community for better environmental education.

The schoolyard greening movement is a recent example of international developments influencing environmental learning. Given the sheer amount of time young people spend in school, greening schoolyards and learning spaces is a key approach to forming and sustaining critical connections to nature. It aims to transform asphalt-covered schoolyards into park-like green spaces that improve children’s well-being, learning, and play while contributing to their communities’ ecological health and climate resilience. It is a strategic, cost-effective, and thoughtful approach to better protect young people and the general public from the impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat and flooding in urban centres that lack tree canopy cover to provide cooling shade on hot days and soil to absorb excess rainfall.

The work of bringing together the education and environment sectors was advanced at the UN Transforming Education Summit in New York in fall 2022, where the Greening Education Partnership was launched by UNESCO, in partnership with several major educational organizations. In response to the important work of the Partnership, Canada is engaging interested stakeholders to learn more, including provincial education ministries and other environmental education organizations. From Canada, Nova Scotia has joined the Partnership, with other provinces showing interest.

Canada: The need to move beyond awareness

Canada has positioned itself with the ambition to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, and to accelerate climate mitigation efforts to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This includes taking steps to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the establishment of a National Biodiversity Strategy, and national agendas to limit plastic waste and other forms of pollution, while pursuing a more circular economy.

As stated in the mandate letters of all federal ministers, the Government of Canada is taking a whole-of-government approach to address the climate-related challenges communities are facing. From shifting production methods to more sustainable practices to finding opportunities for a circular economy, there are many examples of government working with industry to achieve our global targets. In the past year, the Government of Canada, with input from stakeholders, released a National Adaptation Strategy and an Emissions Reduction Plan as part of our collective climate action response.

Most recently in Canada, on June 13, 2023, Royal Assent was granted for Bill S-5, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada , to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA). The bill recognizes that every individual in Canada has the right to a healthy environment with respect to the administration of CEPA. This is the very first recognition of such a right in the history of Canadian federal environmental law. While interpretation of this right is still in the developmental stages, consultation and engagement are underway to determine where and how environmental education connects to upholding every Canadian’s right to a healthy environment. As we prepare to realize that ideal, we must recognize that enhanced environmental learning and education are critical as driving factors to achieve greater environmental literacy.

While global polls Footnote 3 indicate that the public overwhelmingly accepts these realities, the average Canadian is still at a loss regarding how to reduce their environmental impacts. Citizens cannot play a substantive role in addressing environmental issues when they do not fully understand them. Effective action to tackle our environmental challenges requires knowledge. People need to understand the issues so that they can work toward making a difference. At the same time, they also need to be inspired with an understanding of what they can do, how they can do it, and the impact of such actions on themselves and their communities.

The Program of Applied Research on Climate Action in Canada (PARCA) has identified multiple barriers to effective climate action among Canadians, including the following:

It is clear that more needs to be done to empower and enable Canadians to act on environmental issues.

How is Canada doing on environmental education?

As mentioned earlier in this paper, Canada has several international obligations to deliver high-quality environmental education to its population.

Following Canada’s appearance at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in May 2022, the Committee’s Concluding Observation Report made several recommendations to Canada on awareness-raising, including the following:

Despite these international commitments, Canada is not performing as well as it should to advance environmental education.

Research demonstrates a significant gap between Canadians’ high level of concern about climate change and their lower levels of knowledge. Footnote 4 This signifies a crucial opportunity for early childhood and K–12 education, a “pass-through effect” whereby students share the ideas and values they have acquired through their learning experiences, and thereby influence their families, communities and other individuals. Footnote 5 Footnote 6 Education and learning can empower individuals and encourage daily practices that help to achieve the following: 

In 2019 and 2022, Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF) conducted two surveys Footnote 7 exploring Canadians’ perspectives on climate change and how the education system should respond to it. Responses were received from seven provinces, with Quebec accounting for almost one third of responses and Ontario accounting for one quarter. The population segments included parents (34%), students (30%), educators (10%), and the general public (32%). Among the 2022 findings were the following:

Between the 2019 and 2022 surveys, awareness of climate science knowledge improved slightly among respondents, but one third still failed a basic test on the subject. While there are improvements around public awareness, there is still an evident need, and call, to enhance environmental education and learning in Canada. Awareness without understanding is just awareness.

Although an important issue for Canadians, environmental education in Canadian classrooms remains limited. From the viewpoint of educators, as highlighted in the 2022 LSF report,

Despite global advocacy for incorporating environmental education in all grades and subjects, 35% of educators report not covering climate change topics in any subject that they teach. 41% of educators provide only between 1–10 hours of instruction per year or semester. Of the educators who do integrate climate change content, most address the content in science class. Half of the educators agreed that a lack of time within the curriculum to teach the topic of climate change is a barrier when attempting to include climate change education within the classroom. Footnote 8

We are arriving at a consensus where both educators and citizens understand the value of environmental education, yet there has been no significant shift to integrate more of it. What is preventing Canadian educators from teaching students about some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time? The task before us now is to identify what support is needed and the role of the federal government in responding to the increasing needs and demands for environmental education and learning.

There are currently no cohesive programs or policies in Canada for enhanced environmental education at the federal level. Education researchers have found that in Canada, school curricula are inconsistent across the country, and most do not include sufficient focus on climate change. Hence, we arrive at a key question of this paper: what steps can we take to foster educational approaches inside and outside the classroom that promote environmental learning and action? To effectively assess the possibilities for enhancing environmental learning in Canada, collaboration and inclusion are key to understanding the varied interests and perspectives of key stakeholders across the country.

Moving toward a sustainable economy

Skills development

The way we work and do business is changing. The RBC Green Collar Jobs 2022 report Footnote 9 shows that over the next decade, around 3.1 million Canadian jobs (15% of the workforce) will be impacted as Canada shifts toward a net-zero economy. Eight out of ten major economic sectors will undergo changes, with transportation, energy, and manufacturing being most affected initially. These shifts will demand enhanced skills, with the potential to create new jobs. The RBC report goes on to emphasize that a highly skilled workforce could position Canada as a top destination for green investment, but a robust skills strategy is crucial for the success of the $2 trillion net-zero transition.

All industries will be impacted. Recent examples of industry adaptation include the following:

The Canadian Climate Institute suggests that the current Canadian workforce is not prepared for the growth expected in the net-zero economy. Footnote 12 But it’s not too late. A key function of education about the environment and sustainability is to strengthen workforce preparedness and ensure that Canada stays competitive for the changes ahead in the transition to a net-zero, nature-positive, circular economy. The Future Skills Centre, with the Diversity Institute and the Smart Prosperity Institute, forecasted that the net-zero transition in Canada will lead to the creation of many green jobs and that it will require a variety of non-technical skills like communication and problem-solving, which are as important as, or more important than, technical skills. Footnote 13 The shift toward net zero will be disruptive, and Canada will need a prepared and skilled workforce capable of delivering results that will drive economic growth, while minimizing environmental degradation.

Circular economy

The economy of tomorrow will be different than the economy of today. Preparing and empowering today’s youth with the knowledge and skills needed to engage in the economy of tomorrow will be critically important. A key component of this is an awareness of solutions and frameworks that can allow us to prosper and meet the needs of our communities. The circular economy offers a systemic approach to production and consumption for living within planetary boundaries that conserves material resources, reduces energy and water use, and generates less waste and pollution. Education that embeds principles of circular economy to eliminate waste, circulate products and materials in use for as long as possible, and regenerate nature will equip Canadians with the knowledge to shift their lifestyles and habits toward more sustainable patterns.

Engagement and reconciliation

Indigenous peoples have deep relationships with nature and have successfully stewarded their environment since time immemorial. Currently, they are on the front lines of the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, feeling the impacts both early and disproportionately. This uniquely positions Indigenous peoples to lead Canada in developing high-quality environmental education opportunities.

The National Framework for Environment Learning will seek to reflect First Nations, Inuit, and Métis voices and is an opportunity to advance reconciliation, which in turn is an opportunity to build and implement a stronger strategy.

First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in Canada are at the forefront of efforts to address climate change and adapt to the impacts of our changing climate. Many Indigenous leaders are taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, serve as guardians and stewards of ecosystems, manage water and air pollution, and improve the ways in which the natural environment is respected and protected. Indigenous leadership and knowledge are critical to achieving the foundational changes required to address climate change and ensure a healthy environment.

In 2016, the federal government committed to strengthening its collaboration with Indigenous peoples as partners in climate action. Following joint commitments made by the Prime Minister and the national leaders of the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the Métis National Council, the federal government and First Nations, Inuit and Métis partners established three distinctions-based senior bilateral tables.

Based on the recognition of rights, cooperation, and partnership, these tables support the participation of First Nations as full and effective partners in the implementation of Canada’s national climate plan and the implementation of self-determined climate change strategies.

On June 21, 2021, the  United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (the Act) received Royal Assent and came into force. This Act provides a roadmap for the Government of Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis to work together to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples based (UNDRIP) on lasting reconciliation, healing and cooperative relations.

On June 21, 2023, the  UN Declaration Act 2023-2028 Action Plan, developed in consultation and cooperation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis from across Canada, was released. The action plans present priorities shared between Canada and the three indigenous groups, as well as priorities between Canada and each of the Indigenous groups.  Section 29 of the action plan identifies the environment as a shared priority area, with the goal of ensuring a Canada where:

Environment and Climate Change Canada has been identified as the Government of Canada's lead partner for implementing this priority area through a series of specific actions identified in the plan (actions 46 to 49).

Education is also an important part of the action plan and is one of the specific priorities identified by First Nations, Inuit and Métis.  It is in keeping with these commitments that Environment and Climate Change Canada wishes to collaborate with Indigenous organizations to develop a National Framework for Environmental Learning.

The Assembly of First Nations National Climate Strategy

After four years of in-depth consultation with First Nations people from all backgrounds (two national gatherings, two surveys and more than 15 webinars), the Assembly of First Nations launched its National Climate Strategy in October 2023.

Among other things, the strategy intends to uplift First Nations’ knowledge systems, rights, and self-determination within federal climate action. It also promotes First Nations solutions to the climate crisis, grounded in their knowledge systems, rights, and self-determination. Key to this is the understanding that First Nations are inseparable from the lands, waters, and air. In line with this thinking, the strategy advances seven priority areas that each have a goal, a series of objectives, and a list of strategies and actions.

Many of these proposed courses of action bring a First Nations perspective to the discussion of environmental learning. Certain trends stand out in this respect, notably the importance of developing appropriate public awareness and education programs on climate change and educational initiatives, specifically for First Nations youth, related to the importance of restoring and maintaining traditional food diets; the protection of watersheds, source water, and oceans; and the relocalization of First Nations–led energy systems to combat climate change. Last but not least, we must also mention the need to increase capacity training, both in First Nations knowledge systems and in Western science, for First Nations to deal with a wide range of emergencies.

The National Inuit Climate Change Strategy

Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland in Canada, is recognized as a global climate change hotspot, garnering national and global concern. Inuit have an intimate understanding of how climate change is impacting the physical environment and the wildlife and ecosystems that sustain them.

In 2019, the National Inuit Climate Change Strategy was launched. The strategy reflects the vision of the Inuit of Canada, the majority of whom live in Inuit Nunangat, encompassing communities across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador). Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) is the national representative organization for the 65,000 Inuit in Canada.

In this vision, for climate actions to be effective, appropriate, equitable, and sustainable for Inuit Nunangat, they must be in line with the collective Inuit views on building the sustainability, prosperity, and well-being of communities in the face of a changing climate. The strategy aims to foster opportunities for shared learning of climate solutions that support resilient and sustainable Inuit communities, and to shape national climate policies that recognize the diversity of the climate realities that exist in Inuit Nunangat.

It identifies the coordinated actions that are necessary within five priority areas to meet adaptation, mitigation and resilience-building needs in the face of rapid climate change, and a quickly evolving climate policy environment. The strategy lays out practical objectives to advance Inuit-driven climate actions, as well as guidance on how to work with Inuit to protect their way of life and support the sustainability of their communities in the face of our changing climate reality.

As with the Assembly of First Nations strategy, many of the proposed actions interconnect with the intentions of a national environmental learning framework. This highlights the significant potential for collaboration with the federal and other levels of government to keep working on implementing these priorities. The second priority area, which aims to improve Inuit and environmental health and wellness outcomes through integrated Inuit health, education, and climate policies and initiatives, is particularly relevant in this respect. One important deliverable under that priority is to ensure that Inuit organizations are working with public health and education authorities to incorporate Inuit-led and Inuit-coproduced health adaptation research and policy into public health messaging and educational curricula.

Métis Nation Climate Change and Health Vulnerability Assessment

Climate change poses serious risks across the Métis nation, the health and well-being of the Métis being among the most serious. Métis people are sensitive to the impacts of climate change due to their dependence on the land for their identity, culture, livelihoods and resource-dependent economies. These impacts could affect their physical, mental and spiritual well-being, as well as increase vulnerability to the associated health risks of climate change.

In 2020, concerned about these risks, the Métis National Council published a report entitled Métis Nation Climate Change & Health Vulnerability Assessment. This report, as its name suggests, identifies the main risks of climate change on the Métis Nation and represents a first step toward a Métis Climate Change Strategy.

The risk analysis presented makes abundant reference to the importance of education in fostering the resilience of the Métis Nation in the face of the challenges posed by climate change. Although it does not present a strategy, the report concludes with a series of key areas of action. Among the latter, which are relevant to the establishment of a national environmental learning framework, we should mention the need to develop capacity building at the local level. Many locals in each of the regions need to understand the risks that climate change poses to their citizens. The report also calls for establishing a dedicated fund for the Métis Nation that can be used to assist locals in developing health and climate change adaptation and/or mitigation plans. This would include, without being limited to, training young people; supporting the transmission of knowledge by Elders; enhancing community-based monitoring efforts; identifying health risks; developing food and traditional medicine programs to reduce risks; and providing capacity supports to work with federal and provincial agencies to monitor/report health risks.

Here again, we see clear connections between these recommendations and certain priorities for action in strategies developed by First Nations and Inuit. These points of convergence are not limited solely to the actions proposed, but also to the underlying principles and visions. These represent a sure source of inspiration for building a national environmental learning framework that will be effective and relevant for all Canadians, everywhere.

Beyond formal education: literacy through learning

Non-formal learning initiatives serve as an important complement and alternative to formal education. Nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations play a major role in advancing environmental learning in Canada. Often, such organizations are trusted sources of information and have close working relationships with the communities they serve. They are well positioned to identify areas of need and learning interest, as well as how to best deliver programming. They provide opportunities for Canadians to access valuable programming outside of formal education systems.

Many of these organizations compete for funding to deliver programming and are often limited in their capacity based on access to consistent funding. This can result in organizations serving niche communities or limiting the extent of their impact. There are few organizations of size and influence to facilitate dedicated environmental learning initiatives and campaigns.

Zoos, museums, aquariums, and science centres across the country present exhibits every year to help visitors better understand environmental issues and the actions they can take to help address them. These spaces and activities facilitate opportunities for citizens to have unstructured conversations about environmental topics with family, friends, classmates, or colleagues. They help Canadians incorporate environmental learning opportunities into their daily life at work, with family, or during leisure activities, increasing their environmental literacy. Learning does not just happen in the classroom. Effective environmental education requires as much experiential learning as academic learning.

Informal learning experiences can also be effectively supported by organizations, school boards, local governments, and community groups. Programming that brings people in communities together through the development of green alleys, community gardens, urban greening projects, and more promotes several of the above-mentioned practices to build responsive and resilient communities: preserve and restore biodiversity, promote sustainable practices and mindsets, strengthen community relationships, and build green skills for the future. Such programs—of which there are many examples—not only teach and inform, but they also help communities learn to work together and create greener, healthier, and more resilient spaces for everyone to live in and enjoy.

As we work to establish a strategy for environmental learning, it will be important to consider what a holistic approach looks like. Leveraging existing networks of those already working on the issue including educators, scientists, Indigenous partners, professional associations, unions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other advocates is key to advancing learning and education as a systemic strategy for tackling environmental challenges. Such collaborative initiatives are an attempt to start answering the question: How do we arrive at a national framework that enhances formal environmental education, encourages informal learning opportunities, and supports environmental literacy that inspires action?

Navigating a path forward

As an initial response to the call for more support for environmental learning, ECCC announced an investment of $12.5 million, funded in an innovative partnership with the philanthropic community, to help grow environmental literacy across Canada. The funding cycle is among the first of the significant steps taken by the Government of Canada to advance environmental learning and support community initiatives in doing the same.

Integrating environmental education in all areas of Canadian learning is critical to developing informed communities and empowering Canada's youth and children. This goes beyond science, as environmental learning extends to other matters of everyday concern for Canadians, such as justice, health, economic opportunity, mental well-being, lifestyles, and quality of life. Engaging children, youth, families, educators, and their communities through high-quality educational learning experiences can help develop knowledge and skills for the future. Effective environmental learning will foster reflective and meaningful connection with, and appreciation for, the natural world and the need to take action to protect and preserve it.

There are dedicated educators and well-known organizations doing the work and developing a solid foundation to advance environmental learning in Canada, but there is still more to be done and strength in numbers. The need and urgency are great for children and youth who will be most affected by current and future climate and environmental impacts. There is a great need for support of educators and families in order to ensure that learning and sustainable practices continue beyond formal spaces.

Knowledge and education are not finite; they organically shift, grow, expand, and change under various circumstances. The ideas for enhancing environmental learning outlined in this discussion paper are not meant to be the final word, but rather an invitation to all Canadians to share their ideas. This paper is the foundation and starting point for navigating the path ahead. It is important that all stakeholders, influencers, recipients, and educators engage actively in seeking high-quality possibilities for environmental learning and education. In the words of the eminent Senegalese forester Baba Dioum, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” The goal is environmental literacy to achieve the greater goal of protecting our environment. The task now is to collectively find the best approach to achieve it.

Thank you for reading this discussion paper. We encourage you to share your thoughts on the development of a National Framework for Environmental Learning by completing this survey.

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Appendix A

What we’ve heard to date: feedback on what a national strategy on environmental learning might look like – key issues and considerations, by sector

Over the past year, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) engaged leaders from the education, environmental non-government organization (ENGO), youth, and academic sectors about the state of environmental learning in Canada on three occasions:

These consultations were held in addition to informal exchanges with youth, scientists, teachers, non-governmental organizations, Indigenous communities, and provincial and territorial officials, who all expressed concern about the state of environmental learning and commitments to advancing better practices. These discussions highlighted the importance and need for greater dialogue and collaboration (see Appendix B for a full summary). Stakeholder and partner feedback overwhelmingly called for greater support for educators who teach complex environmental subject matter, and for the federal government to play an important role in convening, coordinating, and supporting diverse voices across the country.

The following key insights were harvested from the reports we have received on four principal stakeholder engagement activities: 

The overarching goal of these engagement sessions was to explore best practices to assess the potential role governments and other partners can play to rapidly advance climate and biodiversity education by 2030. 

Key considerations regarding the formal education sector 

Provincial jurisdiction: Environmental education varies across regions due to policy differences. 

Teacher challenges: Many educators lack the time, resources, and knowledge to teach environmental topics, and they feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problems. Those with sufficient knowledge  feel uncertain about how to act and hesitant to touch upon controversial topics. The few dedicated teachers who lead environmental projects often lack adequate financial and administrative support. High-quality educational programs are thus dependent on a few sustainability champions and vulnerable to disappearing when the lead organizers change schools or burn out. 

Teachers don’t know where to turn for high-quality educational materials: They need a curated resource hub that is locally relevant and vetted by experts.

National framework or strategy: To enhance professional development opportunities for educators and the quality of environmental learning across the country, a national strategy or framework is vital for partners to develop and implement their strategies, report on outcomes, and harmonize with existing provincial or sectoral strategies.

Interdisciplinary, cross-cutting, transversal: Climate change, when taught, is often limited to science classes. Environmental, climate, and sustainability education are wide-ranging issues and span science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), arts, humanities, and physical education. This does not mean putting more things in the curriculum. It means looking at all subjects through a climate and environmental lens and building supporting environments and ecosystems to help teachers and children. 

Key considerations from youth 

A Lakehead University study highlights the finding that 60% of youth want more climate education, and many are angry and feel abandoned by government responses. Youth Climate Lab heard from their 130 respondents that the formal education system needs transformation to foster increased environmental literacy in students. This could include more land-based learning, a national baseline for environmental education, and educator training and capacity-building. Other key points from YCL’s youth engagement sessions were as follows:

Solutions-based approach: Education needs to shift from problem-centred to solutions-oriented, hands-on, and place-based pedagogies that incorporate traditional knowledge and community-led action. Teachers should not lecture with doom and gloom scenarios but empower students, giving them hope, critical thinking skills, and agency. 

Strengthening the connection with nature and integrating it into daily life can boost people's motivation to protect the environment.

Environmental literacy is too exclusive: Young people believe that environmental knowledge is limited to those in the environmental sector, and they advocate for making it accessible and relevant across all sectors and disciplines.

Policy ideas to enhance environmental education and support better climate and environmental policy outcomes: 

Outside formal education, young people stressed the need for improved, publicly available, and low-barrier access to environmental literacy, such as culturally relevant and multilingual resources, green job information, and opportunities to be involved in local climate action. 

Overall, connecting with the land and incorporating nature into the everyday will strengthen the public's motivation to protect the environment and change their behaviours and habits in ways that align with Canada’s climate and biodiversity targets. 

The 3 dialogue days that ECCC funded over the past year have sought to foster collective impact for environmental literacy in Canada. Some key insights and recommendations that emerged from these sessions are as follows: 

In summary, advancing environmental literacy in Canada requires a collaborative, inclusive, and multi-sector approach, with a focus on empowerment, data enhancement and alignment with international obligations. Strong collaboration between education authorities and the federal government can lead to meaningful progress in environmental education. 

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Footnote 1

Education is key to addressing climate change,” United Nations [website], (accessed November 1, 2023).

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Footnote 2

Council of Canadian Academies, “Fault Lines: The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation,” Council of Canadian Academies, January 26, 2023, (accessed November 1, 2023).

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Footnote 3

Jacob PoushterMoira Fagan, and Sneha Gubbala, “Climate Change Remains Top Global Threat Across 19-Country Survey” (Pew Research Center, U.S.A., 2022), (accessed November 1, 2023). 

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Footnote 4

E. Field, P. Schwartzberg, P. Berger,  and S. Gawron (2020), Climate Change Education in the Canadian Classroom. Retrieved from EdCan Network.

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Footnote 5

K. Hayes, T. Barocas, and S. Levy (2021), Anxious for Action: Channeling Children’s Environmental Concerns Into Empowerment. Retrieved from Earth Rangers.

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Footnote 6

D.F. Lawson, K.T. Stevenson, M.N. Peterson, S.J. Carrier, R.L. Strnad, and E. Seekamp (2019), “Children can foster climate change concern among their parents,” Nature Climate Change 9, 458–462.

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Footnote 7

Learning for a Sustainable Future (2022), Canadians’ Perspectives on Climate Change & Education: 2022. Retrieved from Learning for a Sustainable Future.

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Footnote 8

PowerPoint Presentation (, p. 12.

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Footnote 9

RBC. (2022), “Green Collar Jobs: The skills revolution Canada needs to reach Net Zero.” Retrieved from RBC website.

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Footnote 10

Bank of Canada, “Bank of Canada Disclosure of Climate-Related Risks 2022.”

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Footnote 11

K. McCaffery (2022), “Climate change is transforming the insurance industry.” Retrieved from Insurance Portal.

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Footnote 12

J. Forman and S. Harding (2022), “Net Zero Workforce: The role of skills training in Canada’s climate transition.” Retrieved from the Canadian Climate Institute website.

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Footnote 13

M. Atiq, A. Coutinho, A. Islam, and J. McNally (2022), “Jobs and skills in the transition to a net-zero economy: A foresight exercise.” Retrieved from Future Skills Centre.

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