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Educating for sustainable development

May 23,2015 - Last updated at May 23,2015


This year marks a turning point for the world, with the international community adopting a new global development strategy in September and negotiating a universal deal to combat climate change in December.

To succeed, policy makers must recognise that today’s global imperatives — to eradicate poverty and improve well-being, while restoring the Earth’s balance — form a single agenda, and that the most effective means of achieving it is education.

The good news is that the proposed set of Sustainable Development Goals, which will underpin global efforts for the next 15 years, reflect this recognition.

Likewise, Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) stipulates that education, training and public awareness on climate change must be pursued.

But with negotiations on these global agreements far from complete, it is vital that policy makers’ emphasis on education continues to be reinforced.

To this end, the world’s education ministers must take the opportunity offered by this month’s World Education Forum in Incheon, South Korea, to highlight the role that education can and should play in advancing sustainable development.

A strong education system broadens access to opportunities, improves health and bolsters the resilience of communities — all while fuelling economic growth in a way that can reinforce and accelerate these processes.

Moreover, education provides the skills people need to thrive in the new sustainable economy, working in areas such as renewable energy, smart agriculture, forest rehabilitation, the design of resource-efficient cities and sound management of healthy ecosystems.

Perhaps most important, education can bring about a fundamental shift in how we think, act and discharge our responsibilities toward one another and the planet.

After all, while financial incentives, targeted policies, and technological innovation are needed to catalyse new ways of producing and consuming, they cannot reshape people’s value systems so that they willingly uphold and advance the principles of sustainable development.

Schools, however, can nurture a new generation of environmentally savvy citizens to support the transition to a prosperous and sustainable future.

Some schools are already becoming learning labs for sustainable development, where young students are being prepared to adapt to and help mitigate the consequences of climate change. 

Guided by the UNFCCC — as well as related initiatives like the UN Alliance on Climate Change Education, Training, and Public Awareness — governments are increasingly integrating education strategies, tools and targets into national development policies.

The UNESCO-led UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, which began in 2005, was explicitly intended to instil in every human being “the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future”.

Together, UNESCO and the UNFCCC are not only promoting climate-change education in schools; they are also giving teachers the tools and knowledge they need to provide that education through online courses.

Already, more than 14 million students and 1.2 million teachers in 58 countries have been engaged in such learning, and 550 business schools have signed on to the Principles for Responsible Management Education, developed by the UN Global Compact.

This progress, though important, is just the beginning. What is needed now is a global movement, with every student in every country learning about sustainable development from well-trained teachers, equipped with the appropriate curricula and resources.

An ambitious sustainable development agenda, together with a legally binding global climate deal, could go a long way towards catalysing such a movement.

Of course, we cannot secure a sustainable future in a matter of months. But with a well-designed set of commitments and targets, we can move onto the right path.

And with effective educational programmes that instil in future generations the importance of restoring Earth’s balance and delivering a prosperous future for the many, rather than the few, we can stay on that path.

That is the message that education ministers must emphasise at their upcoming forum, and that policy makers should heed as they negotiate this year’s two critical global agreements.


Irina Bokova is director-general of UNESCO. Christiana Figueres is executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. ©Project Syndicate, 2015.

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