In 1987, the Brundtland Commission released a report called ‘Our Common Future’, the Brundtland Commission had set out to investigate the numerous concerns that had been raised in previous decades, namely, that human activity was having severe and negative impacts on the planet, and that patterns of growth and development would be unsustainable if they continued unchecked. The report concluded that humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland Commission, 1987). This has since been adopted as the definition of sustainable development. This definition acknowledges that while development may be necessary to meet human needs and improve the quality of life, it must happen without depleting the capacity of the natural environment to meet present and future needs.  At first the sustainable development movement emphasized the environment in development policies however, since 2002, it has evolved to encompass social justice and the fight against poverty as key principles of sustainable development.

Principles of Sustainable Development

There are three pillars of sustainable development- economy, society, and the environment. The ideals and principles that underlie sustainability include broad concepts such as equity among generations, gender equity, peace, tolerance, poverty reduction, environmental preservation and restoration, natural resource conservation, and social justice.  The principles of sustainable developed were first coined after the United Nations Conference on environment and development, held at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At the end of the conference, the Rio Declaration (Agenda 21) was agreed on, and thus the 28 principles of sustainable development came to be. The principles include:

  • Human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.
  •  The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.
  • Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.
  • The creativity, ideals and courage of the youth of the world should be mobilized to forge a global partnership in order to achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all.

Agenda 21 is also very significant because it ushered the education for sustainable development movement. Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 clearly states that ‘promoting education, public awareness and training are linked to virtually all areas in Agenda 21.’ This signaled an important change in thinking related to environmental education and the start of merging various forms of education (i.e. environment, population, development, etc.) into a single, unifying concept, that of education for sustainable development (UNESCO 2018). Since Agenda 21, the UN has continued to make strides towards including sustainable development in education. In 1994, the Environmental and Population Education and Information for Human Development project (EPD) was launched. The project was designed to achieve ‘people-centered equitable and sustainable development through an integrated approach to environment, population and development issues’ (UNESCO, 1994).

In 2012, the Earth Summit 2012, or Rio + 20 was held, this conference highlighted the commitment of governments to bring sustainable development to the mainstream by promoting ESD.  The Earth Summit 2012 outcome document ‘The Future We Want’ contained strong commitments to education as important for a green economy, for work and social protection, and for sustainability in general. Post 2012, several discussions and consultations were made to ensure that education was central to the sustainable development goals. As such SDG4 was created, that is, a goal dedicated to education and the integration of education into other development goals to support their implementation.

So just what is Education for Sustainable Development?

Education for sustainable development (ESD), also called education for sustainability (EFS) in some parts of the world, is commonly defined as education that encourages changes in knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to enable a more sustainable and just society for all. ESD is not just teaching sustainability principles and concepts. It is more about ensuring we achieve education for social transformation with the goal of creating more sustainable societies. ESD is very wide-reaching and affects all aspect of education including planning, policy development, program implementation, finance, curricula, teaching, learning, assessment, administration (UNESCO 2012)

ESD promotes the integration of critical sustainability issues such as poverty, climate change, and sustainable production in local and global contexts into the curriculum to prepare learners to understand and respond to the changing world we live in.

According to UNESCO, there are four thrusts of ESD, each one is key for sustainability to be taught and learned properly:

  1. Improving access and retention in quality basic education: This first area means that globally we must ensure that enrollment of children in good schools continues and that the quality of the education they receive is of a good standard.
  2. Reorienting existing educational programs to address sustainability: Reorienting education means revising education from early childcare and up through higher education. It requires rethinking what is taught, how it is taught, and how learning is assessed, sustainability will have to take a central position in learning. This form of education is future-oriented because the pupils of today will need to be able to address the challenges of tomorrow.
  3. Increasing public understanding and awareness of sustainability: If the sustainable development goals are to be achieved, then people around the world must have at least basic knowledge about sustainability. For more people to know about sustainability a widespread community education and responsible media that are committed to encouraging an informed and active populace to learn throughout life is required.
  4. Providing training to all sectors of the workforce: If the global goals are to be achieved then even those already involved in the world of work will have to be educated about sustainability and how to live more sustainably.

It is obvious from the key pillars of ESD that it is not confined to just formal education, but also applies to all levels non-formal and informal education as an integral part of lifelong learning. Formal education is carried out in school, college and university systems and is based on an established curriculum and on approved teaching and assessment methods. Non-formal education occurs outside the formal system, but through other organized learning settings (e.g. youth groups, women’s associations, community organizations and adult literacy classes).  Informal education results from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure, and is provided within families, religious organizations, community groups and traditional culture, as well as by news organizations, social media and various forms of entertainment. Lastly, training involves organized activities aimed at imparting information and/ or instructions to improve the recipient’s knowledge and skills.

Key Competences in Education for Sustainable Development

ESD’s main aim is to develop competencies that empower and enable individuals to reflect on their own actions by taking into account their current and future social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts from both a local and a global perspective (UNESCO, 2018).  For this to happen, individuals have to have the required knowledge to act in a sustainable manner in complex situations. Therefore, institutions around the world need to accept the responsibility to address sustainable development, and to foster the development of competencies related to sustainable development.

The ESD key competencies necessary for sustainable development include:

  • Systems thinking competency: the ability to recognize and understand relationships, to analyze complex systems, to perceive the ways in which systems are embedded within different domains and different scales, and to deal with uncertainty;
  • Anticipatory competency: the ability to understand and evaluate multiple futures – possible, probable and desirable – and to create one’s own visions for the future, to apply the precautionary principle, to assess the consequences of actions, and to deal with risks and changes;
  • Normative competency: the ability to understand and reflect on the norms and values that underlie one’s actions and to negotiate sustainability values, principles, goals and targets, in a context of conflicts of interests and trade-offs, uncertain knowledge and contradictions;
  • Strategic competency: the ability to collectively develop and implement innovative actions that further sustainability at the local level and further afield;
  • Critical thinking competency: the ability to question norms, practices and opinions; reflect on own one’s values, perceptions and actions; and take a position in the sustainability discourse;
  • Self-awareness competency: the ability to reflect on one’s own role in the local community and (global) society, continually evaluate and further motivate one’s actions, and deal with one’s feelings and desires;
  • Integrated problem-solving competency: the overarching ability to apply different problem-solving frameworks to complex sustainability problems and develop viable, inclusive and equitable solution that promote sustainable development – integrating the above-mentioned competencies.

This list is not exhaustive of all competencies required for education for sustainable development, it is however highlights competencies that are particularly essential for sustainability and which have not been the main focus of formal education. ESD is not just a matter of teaching sustainable development to the public and adding new content to courses and trainings at schools. For ESD to be more effective and achieve long-term changes, the educational institution as a whole has to be transformed. Sustainable learning environments, such as eco-schools or green campuses, which allow educators and learners to integrate sustainability principles into their daily practices and facilitate capacity-building and competence development must be established. Only then can we be sure of a future in which global citizens all understand what sustainability is, and how they should act to ensure that the worlds future is secure.

Jemima Adejo
Jemima comes from an economics background, however, during an exchange year to Malaysia, she was introduced to Asian economic development, which created an interest in International Development. She is particularly interested in sustainable agriculture and food security, poverty reduction and education.