Increased educational attainment is a sustainable development priority and has been posited to have benefits for other social and environmental issues, including climate change. However, links between education and climate change risks can involve both synergies and trade-offs, and the balance of these effects remains ambiguous. Increases in educational attainment could lead to faster economic growth and therefore higher emissions, more climate change and higher risks. At the same time, improved attainment would be associated with faster fertility decline in many countries, slower population growth and therefore lower emissions, and would also be likely to reduce vulnerability to climate impacts. We employ a multiregion, multisector model of the world economy, driven with country-specific projections of future population by level of education, to test the net effect of education on emissions and on the Human Development Index (HDI), an indicator that correlates with adaptive capacity to climate impacts. We find that improved educational attainment is associated with a modest net increase in emissions but substantial improvement in the HDI values in developing country regions. Avoiding stalled progress in educational attainment and achieving gains at least consistent with historical trends is especially important in reducing future vulnerability.