The importance of education for sustainable development

The graduates leaving universities now are entering a very different world from that encountered by their forebears – even a decade or so ago. It is marked by uncertainty, complexity and rapid change, manifested through a bewildering array of global issues relating to economic instability, climate change, inequity, loss of biodiversity and migration, to name a few.

In response to this problem nexus, the world – led by the United Nations family – is looking towards the ‘post-2015 agenda’ and specifically the intended adoption of a group of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, currently in draft. These concern areas such as poverty, food and energy security, inequality, consumption patterns, climate change, protection of ecosystems and so on.

Yet, however desirable such goals are, and however wide the consensus around them that may emerge, the SDGs beg a critical question. How are they to be implemented and achieved?

Clearly, policy-makers have several instruments at their command. These include policy, information and assistance, monitoring, finance and incentives, and legislation and regulation.

However, I have argued in a paper developed from an initial piece of research commissioned by UNESCO, that unless stakeholders, policy-makers, legislators, businesses, agencies, NGOs, the media and civil society are involved in learning processes, the proposed SDGs will not be achieved. This is because such change cannot happen without learning.


The last 10 years have seen a global effort, led by UNESCO, to advance ‘education for sustainable development’, or ESD – a broad movement concerned with identifying and advancing the kinds of education, teaching and learning policy and practice that appear to be required if we are concerned about ensuring social, economic and ecological viability and well-being, now and into the long-term future.

Mid-November saw UNESCO and the government of Japan mount the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Nagoya, where over 1,000 participants and more than 70 government delegations endorsed the critical role that education has in bringing about a more stable and sustainable society in the face of pressing global challenges.

At the conference, UNESCO launched a roadmap for implementing its ‘Global Action Plan’ on education for sustainable development over the next five years.

This roadmap includes a considerable challenge to the higher education sector to develop ‘whole institution approaches’ reflecting the reorientation of teaching and the curriculum as well as campus and facilities management in line with the principles of sustainable development.

It is interesting that recently, the International Alliance of Research Universities, or IARU, launched a comprehensive Green Guide for Universities, echoing UNESCO’s call and reflecting the trend that sustainability is moving from the margins to the mainstream.

Education for sustainable development

However, there is still a long journey ahead.

In anticipation of the Nagoya conference, UNESCO asked me to write a position paper on the relationship between the sustainable development community and the education for sustainable development community.

This was published in an abridged form in a journal and I presented the paper at the International Conference on Higher Education for Sustainable Development, or ICHESD – which ran just before the UNESCO gathering.

The paper is based on desk research looking at some of the high-level reports on sustainable development as representing an authoritative voice on the state of sustainability issues. In particular, I was looking at how the role of education was regarded.

Some of the key points from the paper follow:
  • • The quality of the human and biospheric future depends on our collective capacity and ability to learn and change.
  • • Sustainable development is not itself sustainable (that is, lasting and secured), unless relevant learning among all stakeholders is central to the process.
  • • While sustainable development can be promoted through policy instruments, these tend to be effective for only as long as they are applied.
  • • Education can enhance the effectiveness of each of these instruments through developing informed engagement, agency and empowerment among all affected stakeholders. Further, education can build lasting change – that is, sustainable change, because it is owned by the learner and reaches hearts and minds.
Yet in the sustainable development debate, the key role of education in realising sustainable development is often ignored, downplayed and underestimated – or viewed in isolation from the other instruments of change. In this debate, education is rarely regarded as a major factor in making the world more sustainable, and its potential is overlooked.

Thus, despite the successes of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, we are in an undesirable situation where much sustainable development discourse and policy underplays the role of education, whereas much education discourse and policy underplays – or ignores – sustainable development.

Education for sustainable development means and implies far more than those working outside the field often perceive it to mean. It offers a renewed vision for educational policy and practice fully in tune with the needs and issues of the 21st century.

The fundamental challenge is this: how can education more strongly impact on sustainable development – and sustainable development be embedded at the heart of education and learning – so that there is both mutual benefit and accelerated positive effect, sufficient to win breakthrough towards an economically secure, ecologically stable and socially just world, way into the future?

In higher education, there is now increasing interest and debate in education for leadership for sustainability – not before time – while the ICHESD conference in its closing declaration affirmed the “essential role and responsibility of higher education institutions towards creating sustainable societies”.

Is the sector listening?

* Professor Stephen Sterling is head of education for sustainable development at the Centre for Sustainable Futures, Plymouth University in the UK.