By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


The UK has taken on the Presidency of the next G7 summit, which will run from 11-13 June 2021 in the seaside town of Carbis Bay, Cornwall. G7 is an annual meeting of seven of the most advanced economies in the world, during which they discuss major global issues. This year the summit is expected to focus on, among other things, climate change.

This should come as no surprise. The climate emergency has become a dominant issue across the world in recent years as the severity of the situation has escalated. UNESCO’s new Science Report, for instance, cites climate change and sustainable energy as being fields of research that are vital for our future, and which need to be better funded and made more accessible across nations.

Coverage of the climate emergency in the UK media has also increased accordinglyChristian Broughton, Managing Director of The Independent, told Press Gazette that the media went through three phases of climate journalism. The first two were a debate on whether to believe what scientists were saying about manmade climate change, followed by a third discussion on how much weight to put on specific data. According to Broughton, we’re now in the phase of discussing what we’re going to do about the crisis, the reality of which can no longer be debated away. “There is no more important story for the next 50 years than climate”, he stated.

At the British Science Association (BSA), we have taken an active role in contributing to the constructive public discourse about the climate emergency. Part of our mission is to increase the number of people actively involved and engaged in science, and there are few areas where this is more important than climate science. As recently as March of this year, the BSA hosted an online event, For Thought: Creating environmental prosperity, as part of the For Thought thought-leadership programme. Talking points included how the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as an opportunity for green investment, and that change needed to be affected at local, national and global levels. But what have the BSA’s other points of discussion looked like in recent years?  

For British Science Week 2018, the BSA commissioned a research project which asked 2,000 UK adults some questions about what materials can and can’t be recycled.

Recycling is one of the best ways that individuals can contribute to creating a more eco-friendly future; making products from recycled materials requires less energy than making products from raw materials, which therefore reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling also means less rubbish ends up in landfills, which are responsible for around a third of the UK’s methane emissions. But do people know how to recycle?

While the researchers found that eight out of 10 Brits believed that recycling makes a difference, none of the participants answered all the questions correctly, with some misconceptions occurring at an alarmingly high rate. In the face of these results, Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the BSA, called for “clearer guidance on recycling across all packaging and a move towards more consistent recycling policies between local authorities”.

Later in 2018, continuing the theme of how the packaging we produce and incorrectly dispose of is damaging the planet, Honorary BSA Fellow Liz Bonnin wrote a blog for the BSA website in which she explored how plastic is entering the world’s oceans and harming marine wildlife. Among other shocking statistics, Bonnin found that eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean each year, and that the UK only recycles 9% of its plastic. Bonnin concluded with a hope that this crisis will unite us as a species and encourage us to recognise the damage our behaviour is doing and make radical changes “through individual action and by demanding change where it matters most”.

It could be argued that future generations are those most in need of this change, to allow them to inherit a habitable planet. However, a 2020 academic study, which looked at how future generations were represented in the UK newspaper coverage of climate change from 2010 to 2019, found that “less than one in 10 climate change articles referred to future generations” and just one article was authored by a young person (Greta Thunberg, Anna Taylor and colleagues). The BSA, however, having a strong focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) school education, knows how important it is to encourage young people to take an interest in climate change, and to include their voices.

In 2020, Jane Dowden, Education Innovations Manager at the BSA, wrote a blog entitled Climate change, STEM and the next generation, in which she looked at the ways that educators can increase children’s interest in climate change and their engagement with ways to tackle it. The two primary areas for action she identified were ‘climate on the curriculum’ and project-based learning.

Luckily for parents and educators, these are areas where we can help. The BSA’s flagship educational programme, the CREST Awards, is all about project-based learning, with a wide range of investigative STEM activities for young people aged 5-19. We’re also keen for teachers to use CREST Awards in the classroom, and have recently released resources for both primary and secondary teachers explaining how to do this: Using CREST Awards to support the primary curriculum, and Investigative practical science in the curriculum: making it happen.

CREST Awards include a number of projects that explore issues around climate change. SuperStar learners, aged 7-11, can learn about why recycling is so important with ‘Recycle, reuse’, a hands-on activity that involves children making their own paper from old scraps. It’s a great introduction to the idea that reusing materials requires less energy than making products from raw materials 70% less in the case of paper!

For high school-aged children there are Bronze, Silver and Gold Grand Challenges packs which look at four key areas: aging society, artificial intelligence, clean growth and the future of mobility. These packs include more advanced activities that are designed to get young people considering innovations for a more climate-aware future, such as alternative flight fuels and solar energy ovens.

Within each age range there are additional climate change-related projects. Bronze students have ‘Waste-free lunch’, which encourages them to think about the non-recyclable packaging in their lunch boxes. Silver students have a ‘Climate science resource pack’, which includes several different projects, and Gold students can investigate harmful chemicals and their impact on the environment with ‘Monitoring lead pollution’.

The climate emergency is one the biggest challenges the world faces, and continued conversations, a united effort and inclusion of younger generations are essential to ensure an eco-friendly and habitable future.