In the words of Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, we are living in “a complex, uncertain and anxious world”. Challenges are steep across the board – from coming to grips with the fourth industrial revolution to strengthening effective multilateralism, to ending poverty and building more open and cohesive societies.

In 2015, the world came together to chart a new course for the next 15 years, embodied in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and also the Paris Climate Agreement. In turbulent times, these agreements are the most ambitious, universal and comprehensive the world has ever defined to craft a better future for all, leaving no woman or man behind.

Education stands at the heart of this new agenda – as a basic human right, as a transformational force for poverty eradication, as the engine for sustainability, and as a driver of dialogue and peace. This is embodied in the fourth Sustainable Development Goal, to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”.

A threat to all societies

The stakes are high. UNESCO’s most recent figures indicate that some 263 million children and youth, aged between 6 and 17 years old, are not in school today – most of them girls. Exclusion is breeding exclusion. The poorest children are four times more likely to be out of school, and five times more likely not to complete primary education, than the richest. In just two out of 90 low and middle income countries have the poorest young people attained at least 12 years of education. Children in conflict-affected countries are hit hardest, with 50% of refugees having no access to secondary education. Let me be clear: uneducated generations place the future of all societies in jeopardy.

We need political commitment, coordinated action and resources to match the magnitude of this task. We must never tire in making the case for education as a global priority. This is the importance of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, chaired by UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown. We need a bold financing compact to bridge the $39 billion external funding gap, including through new, innovative and inclusive partnerships.

UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report publication on Partnering for Prosperity: Education for Green and Inclusive Growth is clear – we must not only transform our economies, but also our education systems to encourage critical thinking, initiative and new competences. Only then will we manage to make production and consumption sustainable, to provide new skills for greener industries, and to orient higher education and research towards sustainable innovation. This calls for a new focus on recruiting, supporting and training teachers across the board.

Education needs to keep up with the changing face of work and to build sustainability in the face of climate change. Estimates show that by 2030, global warming could cast 122 million more people into poverty. Creating green industries will rely on high-skill workers with specific training – yet, by 2020, the world could have 40 million too few workers with tertiary education relative to demand.

This means green and transferable skills must be taught in schools, higher education institutions and the workplace. Existing green industries already employ large numbers of workers – 3.5 million in Bangladesh, 1.4 million in Brazil, 2 million in Germany – and the net impact of green growth on employment is positive. Yet we need to be realistic that the continued growth of green industries means that lower-skilled workers stand to lose jobs. We must support the transition by investing in on-the-job training for low and medium skilled workers; lifelong learning and training will be key.

Increasing investment in research and development is essential to grow green industries, and yet neither public and private research nor development expenditure as a share of GDP have grown discernibly since 2007.

Public research and development spending in energy and the environment remains a small fraction of total public research and development budgets: less than 12% in OECD countries, and less than 6% in the EU. In 2012, OECD public spending on military research and development was more than double that spent on energy and environment. Our people and planet demand that we realign our priorities with sustainable, inclusive growth in mind.

Higher education systems also need to provide enough researchers to help develop and disseminate the innovative new technologies that will help to save our planet. These researchers need to have specialist knowledge and skills in a wide range of fields, with cooperative study programmes across different sectors so we can all work better together. Major emerging economies such as Brazil and China are expanding their tertiary education systems with this in mind.

Enabling people to learn new skills on the job, scaling up tertiary education opportunities globally, and increasing public investment in research are just three of the ways we can ensure our economies support sustainable growth that is inclusive and green.

Klaus Schwab said that the world seems engulfed in a “sea of pessimism, negativity and cynicism”. Education is our deepest source of hope – we must plant the seeds now for a better future tomorrow.