‘Education is the most powerful path to sustainability’

Jan 2015

Sustainability and environmental issues are now embedded in a significant number of educational institutions and their curricula across the globe – from infant school nature excursions to higher-education masters programmes to adult-learning and training courses. But sustainability in education is still piecemeal, regionally disparate and access inequitable. So, at the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development in 2002 it was recognised that education should be utilised and turned into a more effective facilitating force for sustainable development throughout the world – a chance for children and adults to address relevant environmental issues, discuss solutions and learn skills to tackle specific problems.

Education is the most powerful path to sustainability. Economic and technological solutions, political regulations or financial incentives are not enough. We need a fundamental change in the way we think and act. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, 2012

Based on the Agenda 21 report from Rio 2002, a UNESCO lead programme, the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), was launched in 2005. 2015 sees the end of this programme. So what has been achieved? Where does sustainable development stand in education now? What’s next? Here is a brief look at the outcomes of DESD based on the UNESCO publication ‘Shaping the Future We Want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014‘ (UNESCO, 2014).

What is ESD? Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is more than ensuring that sustainable development principles are taught throughout educational institutions across regions, cultures or educational phase. ESD is about creating a global educational ethos based on principles of ‘equality, justice, tolerance, sufficiency and responsibility’ (UNESCO, Bonn Declaration, 2009), alongside enabling educational institutions to teach and discuss critical environmental issues and their solutions; to address different priorities and problems such as ‘water, energy, climate change, disaster and risk reduction, loss of biodiversity, food crises, health risks, social vulnerability and insecurity’.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) empowers everyone to make informed decisions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society for present and future generations, while respecting cultural diversity. 

ESD requires participatory teaching and learning methods like critical thinking, imagining future scenarios and making decisions in a collaborative way in order to empower learners to take action for sustainable development. (UNESCO, 2009

Ultimately the UNESCO programme has been about ‘enabling communities to create sustainable local solutions to problems related to poverty and vulnerability’, and offering ‘national governments the chance to reorient education, training and even governance to enable everyone to view the world through a lens of concern for sustainability.’

What has been achieved? Primarily the agenda on sustainable development in education has been strengthened, widened and in some cases implemented into national educational policies. What has been learned is that – like the wider sustainable development agenda – adoption requires commitment and recognition of the importance as well as benefits of integrating sustainable development throughout the educational sector. (see end of article for a list of some of the key achievements of the ESD programme)

Education helps people understand and participate in democracy, empowers women and has a vital role in addressing and adapting to environmental change and degradation. 

What has been learned? According to UNESCO’s final report on ESD, implementing and embedding sustainable development effectively and successfully as a core issue in education requires the following to be considered: it is a life-long learning process; wide-scale system change requires connectivity, collaboration and partnership formation; it must take a ‘whole-institution’ approach – ‘embedding sustainability in curriculum and learning processes, facilities and operations, interaction with the surrounding community, governance and capacity-building’; but it must be contextual to local needs; and finally, it is not just about knowledge-generation and understanding but skills development – skills that can be applied to solve problems and that serve the new green business and economy agenda.

Key to the effective implementation of ESD is policy-orientation; if a nation’s sustainable development agenda is strong and pervasive, its education policy will reflect this stance. This is the ultimate challenge. Once policies are in place the capacity to implement them effectively must be improved.

The alignment of national sustainable development goals and strategies with education policy can drive the reorientation of education systems towards sustainable development.”

Where next? While the DESD is finalised, there is an impetus to maintain momentum post 2015. This year the UN Sustainable Development Goals will be agreed, and will direct the post-2015 sustainable development global agenda. Education has been noted as one possible SDG by the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals:

By 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development. 

Recognizing the need to sustain momentum on ESD, UNESCO Member States have endorsed the GAP, with a first phase of five years for continued work on ESD. The five top priorities of the Aichi-Nagoya Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development are: 1) strengthen education in sustainable development policy and sustainable development in education policy; 2) transform learning and training environments; 3) build capacity of educators and trainers; 4) empower and mobilize youth; and 5) accelerate sustainable solutions at the local level.

On 23rd January 2015, Denmark will be hosting a conference to mark the end of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development as well as the commencement of the next phase of the programme. For information on Denmark’s contribution and involvement read the country’s ESD strategy put int place in 2008: http://pub.uvm.dk/2008/ubustrategi/hel.html

What has ESD achieved in brief:

• process of reorienting education policies, curricula and plans towards sustainable development in most reporting Member States is well underway, although progress remains uneven.

• more and more countries are incorporating education strategies, tools and targets into national sustainable development strategies.

• important advances have been made to put national ESD strategies or plans in place, contributing to the integration of ESD into national education and sustainable development policies.

• growing capacity now in the education sector to work in alignment and collaboration with these long-standing sustainable development partnerships and networks,

• Increasingly whole-institution approaches encompass mainstreaming sustainability into all aspects of the learning environment.

• influencing learning pedagogies and advancing approaches that help learners to ask questions, analyze, think critically

• Member States report a wide range of actions with primary and secondary policy and planning to be among their greatest achievements during the DESD.

• national TVET (Technical and vocational education and training) advances sustainable development systems are beginning to recognize the need for change to support greener economic development.

Unless otherwise stated all quotes are extracted from the publication ‘Shaping the Future We Want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014′ (UNESCO, 2014).

By Philippa Shepherd