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Climate lesson in Cuban calamity

In August 2009, while the collective attention of the education community was focused on Curriculum for Excellence, one of the most significant pieces of legislation in recent Scottish history came into force.

The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 is among the most ambitious pieces of climate change legislation in the world. It sets a legally-binding target for Scotland to reduce its net emissions of greenhouse gases by 42 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.

But what do these cuts in emissions mean in practical terms? Well, we can make some reasonable predictions that our buildings will have to be much more energy efficient; car use and flying will decrease, while walking, cycling and public transport increase; and far more of our energy will come from renewable sources. But the experts agree that this alone will not be enough. More fundamental changes will be needed, yet there is little momentum behind them or public debate about what form the changes will take.

But the twists of international politics have given us one place we can look to see what happens when a country has to reduce drastically its fossil fuel use. In the early 1990s, the collapse of the USSR threw Cuba into turmoil. The most immediate impact was a loss of nearly all of the petroleum imports from the USSR, reducing Cuba's oil imports to just 10 per cent of their pre-1990s level. At the same time, the country lost around 80 per cent of its import and export markets, while gross domestic product fell by 34 per cent. The existing industrial and agricultural systems collapsed, and transport ground to a halt. Although there was no starvation, hunger and malnutrition were rife.

The decade that followed is euphemistically known as Cuba's "Special Period", during which Cuban society and the economy were radically transformed, leading to huge changes in agriculture, transportation, working patterns and diet. Long term, it was remarkable that this transformation improved health and well-being.

While no one would argue that Cuba is a post-oil paradise and few would seek to emulate its political model, it is certainly an instructive example. If you ask Cubans how they managed this transformation, they will proudly talk of the education initiatives, skill-sharing, co-operation and ingenuity that were key to their achievements. This should strike a chord with the aspirations of our own education system.

As Curriculum for Excellence, the teacher education review and the overhaul of the National Qualifications move us further into our own period of transformation, we should reflect more on how these will support learners to become confident individuals, successful learners, responsible citizens and effective contributors. And we should reflect on what it is we are preparing learners to confidently, successfully, responsibly and effectively contribute to.

We are fortunate that, unlike Cuba, which had one week's notice of the upheaval to come, our Climate Change Act gives us fair notice of what lies ahead. This gives us time to plan, but it certainly does not give us time to be complacent or procrastinate. We have a choice: we can either build the implications of these changes into our education system now, embedding sustainability in our learning, teaching and training, or we can stick our heads in the sand and hope that someone else will deal with this later.

If you asked your average Cuban which we should choose, I think he or she would be amazed that anyone with a choice would need to ask.

Morag Watson is education policy officer with WWF Scotland.

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