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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2012

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Sustainable Development: A Case for Education

Over the last quarter of a century, the world economy has quadrupled, benefiting hundreds of millions of people and lifting millions out of poverty in an accelerated process of globalization, including production, consumption, trade, and investment, as well as an expansion in the number of countries reaching middle-income status.1 In contrast, 60% of the world's major ecosystem goods and services that underpin livelihoods have been degraded or used unsustainably.2

In addition, not all have benefited equally and many have benefited little or not at all from this process. The growing economic shift into middle-income countries (MICS) hides the reality that MICS are home to three-quarters of the world's poor people.3 Indeed, the economic growth of recent decades has been accomplished through increasing consumption and production patterns, drawing down on natural resources and allowing for widespread ecosystem degradation and widening inequity gaps.

Compounding this situation is climate change, which threatens to undo and even reverse the progress made toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Climate change poses one of the most serious challenges to achieving sustainable development. As a key causative factor, climate change has already changed the magnitude and frequency of some extreme weather, increasing the length, frequency, and intensity of heat waves, flooding, droughts, intense tropical cyclones, rising sea levels, and loss of biodiversity.4 These hazards increase vulnerability to disasters and result in widespread human, material, economic, and environmental losses.5 These impacts will increase in the future and are exacerbated for poor people and countries with limited resources for adaptation.6 The effects of climate-related changes are severely undermining food security, efforts to eradicate poverty, and other existing pressures on these societies. Over the long term, these effects, combined with factors such as population pressure, are likely to lead to environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, and to exacerbate existing socioeconomic tensions and create new ones. This will have implications for migration, stability, and security at local, national, regional, and global levels.7

Therefore, the challenge facing humanity is to sustain the process of poverty eradication and development while shifting gears so as to avoid greater damage to our environment, including from climate change. Developed countries must preserve development achievements while focusing more on sustainable development and shrinking environmental impacts. Developing countries must continue to raise their people's living standards and eradicate poverty while containing increases in their ecological footprints. Both must adapt to the impacts of the damage already done. This is a shared challenge with a goal of shared prosperity and sustainable development.

There is a clear education agenda in this process in terms of providing a foundation for the shift in the global demand away from resource- and energy-intensive commodities and toward green products, the production of such commodities, and in sustainable lifestyles. While this change will not happen overnight, the education sector has a critical role to play in imparting the knowledge and skills that lead to behavior change for sustainable development. Specifically, education can enable individuals and communities to make informed decisions and take action for climate compatible sustainable development. For this shift to take place, the international community must champion a learning for sustainable development agenda that is focused on learning not only basic literacy and numeracy but also the relevant knowledge and skills to equip individuals for green growth and sustainable consumption and lifestyles.

This article makes a case for and defines an agenda for learning for sustainable development. It highlights promising practices in formal and nonformal education contexts that have the potential to change consumption patterns and lifestyles. The article concludes by making recommendations for policymakers working on sustainable development and poverty alleviation beyond the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 (Rio + 20) to the post-2015 agenda.

The Case for a “Learning for Sustainable Development” Agenda

The United Nations Secretary General's High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability recently wrote that “sustainable development is not a destination, but a dynamic process of adaptation, learning and action. It is about recognizing, understanding and acting on interconnections—above all, those between the economy, society and the natural environment.”8 Similarly, addressing the climate challenge requires individuals and institutions to be able to assess and understand climate change, design and implement adequate policies, and, most important of all, take action toward low-carbon, climate-resilient, and sustainable growth. Therefore, climate change education is an integral part of learning for sustainable development (see box at right).

To achieve sustainable development, which is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, individuals need to adopt sustainable lifestyles. Everyday, millions of choices are made by individuals, businesses, and governments—all of which influence society and impact the planet. These choices connect and differentiate individuals evolving within a global society of seven billion people (see box below). Unsustainable collective choices have led to major environmental crises, from climate change to resource scarcity, while failing to improve people's well-being. However, sustainable lifestyles, enabled by both efficient infrastructure and individual actions, play a key role in minimizing the use of natural resources, emissions, wastes, and pollution while supporting equitable socioeconomic development and progress for all. This requires rethinking ways of living, purchasing, and consuming, altering the organization of daily life, of socialization, exchange, education, and the building of identities. Equally important is understanding the interlinkages between the three pillars of sustainable development—economic growth, social development, and environmental protection—and the consequences of choices.

It is also critical to understand the ways in which these three pillars of sustainable development are dependent upon education. In our knowledge-based world, economic development and poverty reduction depend upon an educated and skilled workforce. For instance, in developing countries, one additional year of education adds about 10% to a person's earnings.9 However, it is the cognitive or learning skills of a population, and not simply the number of years in school, that is correlated to individual earning and economic growth.10 Social development is also dependent on education to empower learners and to maximize their capacities, resources, and opportunities to fully participate in society.11 Education is critical to environmental protection through teaching and learning environmental stewardship. This includes environmental and climate change education, which promotes new attitudes and skills for environmental protection and diversity and also helps people change consumption and production patterns. Access to quality, relevant education that empowers all, including the marginalized, to utilize environmental resources sustainably is essential to equitable social development and is a necessary foundation for sustainable development.

On another level, a strong case can be made for a “learning for sustainable development” agenda based on current gaps in young people's understanding of their own role. In 2009, UNEP and UNESCO launched the first global in-depth qualitative and projective Global Survey on Sustainable Lifestyles (GSSL). The overall objective was to listen to young adults—voices—more than 8,000 people from 20 different countries—to reach a better understanding of their everyday life, expectations, and visions for the future with regards to sustainability.12 The results reveal a great need for better information on global challenges and the ways in which these challenge relate to lifestyles and individual actions. While the majority of respondents stated that poverty and environmental degradation were the most important global challenges, they also demonstrated a lack of understanding about the ways in which individual actions and benefits are linked with collective actions and benefits. Many reported being well informed about global challenges such as climate change, but demonstrated a striking lack of information about local-level issues related to global challenges.13 While environmental damage and degradation were cited as among the worst elements within a vision of the future, sustainability was still not considered as a factor for progress. Hence, the benefits of integrated environmental, economic, and social development need to be better communicated, particularly in terms of how they relate to sustainability within one's individual lifestyle. Education provides a unique opportunity to inform and empower young people—and all people—to create their own sustainable lifestyles and communities.14

Defining a “Learning for Sustainable Development” Agenda

Conceptualizing the role education can play in creating sustainable and resilient futures has been an ongoing debate over three decades. In 1992, governments adopted Agenda 21 at the first Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, committing to reorient education programs and systems toward sustainable development. In 2005, the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) was launched to strengthen government commitments to embed sustainable development into all education systems, strategies and public awareness by 2014. Despite these advances, the role of education continues to be seen as secondary to other priority issues such as the green economy, natural disasters, climate change, and energy. However, given the world's limited natural resources, rising population, and the looming challenge of climate change, sustainable development cannot be attained without education that equips learners with the skills needed to live healthy, safe, and productive lives in the 21st century, while also safeguarding the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (see box below).

What is missing is a holistic, compelling, and pragmatic vision of what a sustainable society consists of and how it can be translated at the national, local, and individual level. Governments have a key role to play by creating the appropriate frameworks and infrastructures to enable citizens to change. Information and education are essential, as is the full participation of civil society in shaping innovative solutions for sustainable lifestyles and development.

Education must be made climate compatible and linked to sustainable development in order to meet the needs of the 21st century and beyond. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is an approach to teaching and learning based on the ideals and principles that underlie sustainability. As such, ESD promotes multi-stakeholder social learning; emphasizes the empowerment of communities and citizens; engages with key issues such as human rights, poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods, climate change, and gender equality in an integral way; and encourages changes in behavior that will create a more sustainable future.15 However, education within the context of the United Nations Decade for Education for Sustainable Development, as it exists today, continues to struggle as an international policy priority, in part due to lack of funding but also due to a lack of evidence-based policymaking brought on by its own failure to integrate assessment, monitoring, and evaluation into the agenda.

If the international community is to set an achievable strategy for sustainable development, the following five priorities of learning for sustainable development must be championed:

  1. Support quality early childhood development and learning opportunities for girls and boys.

  2. Ensure that basic literacy and numeracy are learned in school.

  3. Enable young people to make the transition to and complete relevant postprimary education.

  4. Equip young people with relevant skills for 21st-century lives and livelihoods.

  5. Make learning spaces safe, climate compatible and sustainable.

Achieving quality education for all remains a pivotal goal for global development. While there has been considerable progress in increasing primary school enrollment around the world over the last decade, children too often leave primary and even secondary school without acquiring the basic knowledge, skills, and competencies needed to grow into healthy adults and lead safe, productive, and sustainable lives. In short, there is a global learning crisis underfoot, which affects children and youth who are out of school with limited learning opportunities and also those who are in school but not learning the skills needed for their future. Marginalized groups like girls from poor, rural households and children and youth living in conflict-affected areas are particularly missing out.

The Brookings Institution Center for Universal Education's Global Compact on Learning has identified the following three priority areas and concrete strategies, which, if given the international community's collective attention, would help to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for and build the resilience of children and youth:

  1. Support quality early childhood development and learning opportunities for girls and boys. High-quality early childhood development activities have long been shown to have a lasting impact on learning. These activities—which include health, nutrition, and stimulation—can also lead to cost-saving efficiencies in primary school by increasing overall retention, reducing attrition, and raising primary school completion rates. Returns are often greatest for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Across countries, access to preprimary programs is highly uneven; within countries, attendance patterns typically show that children from the poorest and most marginalized households are least likely to attend preprimary school.

    Ensuring that all girls and boys, particularly the most marginalized, start school at an appropriate age has been and can be accomplished through public policies on early childhood development; availability of high-quality early childhood development opportunities; financial incentives such as cash transfers; public campaigns about the importance of “school readiness”; and tracking that encourages age-appropriate school enrollment. Developing and supporting multigrade and multi-age teaching approaches is also important.16

  2. Ensure that basic literacy and numeracy are learned in school. Literacy and numeracy skills are foundational skills for all future learning. It is crucial to learn these skills early because failing to learn to read is associated with falling further behind each year or dropping out altogether. This link is particularly important for low-income girls and conflict-affected young people who remain the most educationally marginalized. Children whose mother tongue differs from the language of instruction are further disadvantaged in acquiring these foundational skills.

    Strategies to ensure basic literacy and numeracy include prioritizing these skills in the curriculum, through mother tongue-based multilingual education where appropriate, in the lower primary grades. This can be accomplished by maximizing the amount of time spent on learning, including addressing teacher absenteeism, providing training to teachers in effective methods of reading instruction and numeracy, providing appropriate-level reading materials to children and communities, creating a culture of literacy and learning, and implementing a comprehensive local language policy.17

  3. Enable young people to transition to and complete relevant post-primary education. Despite considerable evidence of the many social and economic returns from secondary school, too few girls and boys continue beyond primary school. For those who do, many are not learning the skills they need for their future lives and livelihoods.

    Enabling girls and boys to transition and complete postprimary educational opportunities requires the provision of well-targeted, appropriately structured subsidies for educationally marginalized groups; safe learning environments; and girl-friendly school policies. Furthermore, cultivating community support, offering second-chance learning opportunities, and providing flexible postprimary models that utilize innovative modes of delivery enhance continued learning for both girls and boys. Reforms must not only focus on academic skills but also ensure healthy lives, productive work, and civic participation. Examples include strengthening the link between postprimary education and improved life and labor opportunities, and facilitating school-to-work and school-to higher education transitions.18

    There is growing consensus in the education community to embrace an “access plus learning” agenda in order to move these priorities forward. Ensuring that every child is in school and learning is an important step toward sustainable development, but it is not enough. Achieving sustainable development requires a change in the way people think and act; education can catalyze this transformation. As the discussion around the transition to a green economy accelerates and climate change looms, it is critical to prioritize relevant global citizenship skills and safe, climate-resilient, and sustainable learning environments. The following two priorities are critical for developed and developing countries alike:

  4. Equip all people with relevant skills for 21st century lives and livelihoods. A central function of education is to foster learning about new subjects. Twenty-first-century livelihoods require critical thinking, problem solving, and relevant content knowledge like environmental and climate change education, disaster risk reduction and preparedness, sustainable consumption and lifestyles, and green technical and vocational education and training.

    Empowering learners to contribute to sustainable development helps to make education more relevant and responsive to contemporary and emerging challenges. For instance, Rio+20's focus on a green economy calls for seizing opportunities to advance economic and environmental goals simultaneously. Education can assist in the process of shifting the global demand away from resource- and energy-intensive commodities and toward greener products and technologies, less pollution, and sustainable lifestyles. Moreover, restructuring toward a green economy will require transferable skills, those that are not necessarily linked to specific occupations. Thinking critically, solving problems, collaborating, and managing risks and uncertainty are core competencies that are critical for employment in a green economy and living together peacefully in a sustainable society.19 The education sector plays a critical role in teaching relevant skills for successful climate change adaptation and mitigation. Teaching and learning should integrate environmental education, climate change and scientific literacy, disaster risk reduction and preparedness, and education for sustainable lifestyles and consumption. Learners need a basic understanding of scientific concepts; knowledge of and ability to distinguish between certainties, uncertainties, risks and consequences of environmental degradation, disasters, and climate change; knowledge of mitigation and adaptation practices that can contribute to building resilience and sustainability; and understanding of varying interests that shape different responses to climate change and the ability to critically judge the validity of these interests in relation to the public good. Evidence shows that educational interventions are most successful when focused on local, tangible, and actionable aspects of sustainable development, climate change, and environmental education, especially those that can be addressed by individual behavior.20

  5. Ensure that learning spaces are safe, climate compatible and sustainable. To help adapt to climate change, learning spaces should be made safe, disaster resilient, and climate compatible through the incorporation of disaster prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery strategies for individuals, educational systems, and communities. Disaster risk reduction strategies ensure the safety and continuity of education, helping the system to adapt to climate change and reduce the vulnerability of learners. Safe school sites can be selected through participatory risk assessments geared at ensuring that every new school is climate-proofed and multi-hazard resilient. This requires prioritizing replacement and retrofitting of unsafe schools and minimizing nonstructural risks. A critical element in enhancing resilience is the ability to prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change. Students, teachers, parents, and communities must be involved in practicing early warning, simulation drills, and evacuation for expected and recurring disasters. Education systems also need to work with parents and the wider community to understand and adapt as necessary to the seasonality changes caused by climate change through strategies such as adapting the school year, exam calendar, and textbook distribution.

    To ensure adaptive and safe learning environments, schools can develop contingency plans for continuity of learning in the event of unexpected disasters and/or displacement caused by impacts of climate change. The Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) provides a framework through its Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery on how to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters in ways that reduce risk, improve future preparedness, and lay a solid foundation for quality education. Moreover, safe and adaptive schools are models for the communities in which they sit. Likewise, contingency planning within schools provides a positive example that can spread to the broader community.

    Additionally, schools and education institutions should be made sustainable through environmentally sound and carbon neutral policies that promote mitigation through building and site design and maintenance. This requires design, building, management, and maintenance practices geared toward carbon neutral and environmentally sustainable learning spaces, which integrate green technology to reduce energy consumption. For example, climate change can increase water stress caused by erratic rainfall patterns and create a need for alternative sources of water. Programs for harvesting rainwater can be integrated into schools so that children have a safe and ready supply of drinking water and basic sanitation facilities at school. School-based water and sanitation programs also have the benefit of encouraging parents and the community to support children going to school. Such schools not only are a contribution to sustainable development itself, but also contribute to the “whole school approach,” as they act as a resource and good practice model for teaching and learning about sustainability and sustainable consumption.

If these five priorities are moved forward within the larger efforts of education system development in local context-specific manners, the international community will make an enormous contribution in addressing not only the learning crisis that affects the world's poorest communities, but also the challenges of teaching future generations about the importance of sustainable development and climate change facing both developed and developing countries alike.

Promising Practices

There is a wide range of learning and education for sustainable development, lifestyles, and consumption activities and projects underway around the world. However, in spite of the growing interest at international, national, and local levels about sustainability, evidence-based research about the impacts of sustainability-related education remains very limited. The majority of evidence that exists is anecdotal, often in case-study format without monitoring and evaluation processes in place that could lead to quantitative as well as qualitative data.

The following is a selection of promising practices that have innovated from standard programs by seeking to maximize partnership and awareness-raising; provide capacities and skills; enhance teaching and learning, including through the learning environment; and empower individuals and communities to create more sustainable futures through sustainable development, consumption, and lifestyles. While there are common components to these promising practices (see box at right), given the lack of rigorous assessment, monitoring, and evaluation of such practices, it is not possible to brand a given initiative a “best practice.”

Promising Practices in Teaching and Learning Sustainable Development

The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC) is an international organization implementing sustainable development projects, including education and capacity-building programs. The Green Pack, REC's flagship program on education for sustainable development, is a multimedia environmental educational kit for schoolchildren between the ages of 11 and 15 years in Central and Eastern Europe. Since the pilot in 2001, the Green Pack has been introduced in 18 countries in the Western Balkans, Europe, and Asia, and approximately 30,000 teachers and more than 3 million students have been educated, changing the way in which the teaching of sustainability is approached. Each project has been developed in cooperation with businesses, governments, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in order to foster community support across a broad spectrum of society.

The Green Pack project goals are to build capacities, transfer know-how, and establish the basis for further developments in the field of education for sustainable development. It covers 22 topics related to sustainable development, divided into five chapters:

  • Environmental components: air, water, soil, and biodiversity.

  • Threats to the environment: urbanization, noise, waste, and chemicals.

  • Human activities and impacts: energy, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry, and tourism.

  • Global challenges: climate change, ozone depletion, acidification, and issues affecting seas and oceans.

  • Values: consumerism, human health and the environment, citizens—rights, and responsibility for the earth's future.

Specific challenges are presented in their global, national, and regional contexts, as well as at the individual level in terms of the role of each citizen in supporting the sustainable development of society. The challenge of sustainability is conveyed in a compelling, accessible way and in multiple formats through text, pictures, photos, maps, tests, interactive tables and illustrations, and film clips. Students follow lesson plans that are accompanied by complementary videos, role-playing exercises, and interactive games. There are 22 case studies, each focusing on a particular environmental problem, which is presented in the form of an interactive dilemma game. The game offers a number of possible ways of addressing the problem, as well as comments on the positive and negative aspects of each response. By working through the dilemmas, teachers and students are able to engage in in-depth discussions on particular aspects of the conflict between environmental protection and economic development and train themselves to understand and respect different opinions and build consensus.

Emphasis is placed on the formation of new values and the establishment of new models of behavior at school, at home and in society, rather than simply on the accumulation of knowledge. Students are encouraged to take a proactive approach to environmental challenges and are asked to share their newfound knowledge and skills with members of their family. Discussions are also initiated with local community stakeholders on ways to achieve sustainable development.21

In Serbia, teachers evaluated the Green Pack as very applicable to natural science classes, as well as geography, informatics, and civic education classes. Teachers confirmed that the Green Pack filled a gap in adequate literature and tools and reported that students became more motivated to learn, interested in the topics, and concentrated more effectively in the class when using the Green Pack. Teachers also reported that the quality of the knowledge not only improved, but was longer lasting. In particular, teachers reported that the dilemma game effectively encouraged pupils—development of critical thinking, debate and compromise.22

Eco-Schools, an international program of the Foundation for Environmental Education, is another example of a promising practice in teaching and learning sustainable development. Becoming an eco-school requires child-centered leadership throughout seven consecutive steps, such as establishing an Eco-Schools Committee to encourage and manage the program; providing environmental curriculum; and developing an eco-code outlining the school's values and objectives alongside student goals. Initiated in 1994, 156 schools worldwide have joined Eco-Schools, which includes more than 9 million students, 600,000 teachers, and 5,000 local authorities as of 2012.23

South Africa joined the Eco-Schools program in 2003 and includes 1,200 rural and urban schools. In South Africa, the international Eco-Schools model has been adapted to align with the South African national curriculum, which includes environmental learning outcomes for each grade level and subject area.24 Through this integration between Eco-Schools objectives and national curriculum standards, Eco-Schools South Africa fosters changes in sustainable environmental attitudes and behaviors among students, teachers, and community members. Schools can focus on any of the five themes: Resource Use, Nature and Biodiversity, Local and Global Issues, Healthy Living, and Community and Heritage.25 Through these themes, students and communities empower themselves to take steps toward being part of a solution. For example, several schools are addressing sustainable development by adapting the energy sources used for cooking. In Mpumalanga, The Tenteleni Primary School's clay stove project engaged students in experiential learning: They built a traditional fuel-efficient stove and now use recycled paper bricks to cook school meals. The Diklobe Primary School in Limpopo similarly taught students how to build and use solar cookers as an alternative to using indigenous trees for firewood. In addition, students are encouraged to take solar cookers to their homes and teach their families how to utilize renewable energy for cooking. Finally, students at Wykeham Collegiate in Kwazulu-Natal have adopted the “My Carbon Footprint” toolkit to improve knowledge of sustainable consumption, climate change, and carbon footprints and to reduce their carbon emissions by 90% over 20 years.

Promising Practice in Teaching and Learning About Sustainable Energy Through Infrastructure

The Global Action Network for Energy Efficiency Education (GANE) works to expand the use and impact of energy efficiency resources within education programs and training institutions around the world. The focus within GANE is on teaching and learning how to change energy consumption behavior through a multi-disciplinary academic approach. For instance, GANE's Green Schools Program in the United States provides training and tools that make students the focus of green schools by placing them in leadership positions to carry out energy diagnostics in their school building. The green building becomes a learning lab for students to apply science, math, and language arts to solve local sustainable energy and climate change challenges. Through basic changes in operations, maintenance, and individual behavior, schools participating in the GANE Green Schools Program have reduced their energy consumption and equipped students, teachers, and administrators to promote energy efficiency in their homes and communities.

Promising Practices Within Higher Education

A Higher Education Initiative launched in March 2012 by five UN agencies targets universities and business schools in an effort to create an “enlarged understanding of sustainable development and its implications for how we live work and do business.”26 The initiative calls on leaders of Higher Education institutions to sign a Declaration of Commitment to Sustainable Practices of Higher Education Institutions. The declaration commits universities and business schools to, among other things, reducing their ecological footprints by practicing the three Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle) and proper waste management; instituting energy and water use policies; greening their transport systems, supply chains and procurement policies, and campuses, including their buildings; and teaching and promoting sustainable development as a core module across disciplines so that every graduate has an understanding of issues such as climate change, sustainability, and natural resource capital and protection as they relate to his or her area of learning. The initiative notes that because Higher Education institutions educate and train decision makers, they play an important role in building more sustainable societies and have a special responsibility to provide leadership on education for sustainable development. This is an admirable effort but should not be confined to higher education.

On the African continent, there are more than 351 public and private institutions of higher learning educating thousands of young men and women, providing a unique opportunity to influence knowledge, behaviors, and career choices toward sustainability. Since 2004, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has led the Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability into African Universities (MESA) partnership, which provides a continent-wide platform for discussions on sustainable development innovations in different African contexts and universities.27 The MESA partnership, an African network developed and maintained by African professors and partners, includes a course within universities to strengthen capacities around ESD innovations. The course provides a broad orientation to environmental issues in the context of sustainable development, and introduces university teachers, managers, and students to innovations in teaching, research, services, and management practices. The partnership also includes seminars for university leaders, and biennial conferences providing opportunities for universities to share ESD innovations and learn directly from others.

The partnership thus far has resulted in the initiation of a number of change initiatives in participating universities and has introduced a stronger systems-focused approach to change in the participating universities. While no formal evaluation has yet been undertaken, more than 90 universities in 40 countries have joined the partnership, creating the first network of African universities on environment and sustainability, in partnership with UNESCO, the United Nations University, the Association of African Universities, the Southern Africa Development Commission, the Horn of Africa Regional Environmental Centre and Network, and the African Network for Agriculture, Agroforestry and Natural Resource Education.

Promising Practices in Awareness Raising, Communication, and Nonformal Learning

The UNEP/UNESCO YouthXchange Initiative (YXC) was created in 2001 to promote sustainable lifestyles among youth aged 15–24 years. The YXC initiative contributes to the creation of sustainable culture by promoting alternative behaviors and lifestyles and supporting the mainstreaming of resource-efficient and environmentally friendly products and services through awareness-raising campaigns, communication, and education. YXC works with young people, educators, NGOs, trainers, and youth leaders in more than 45 countries. At the national and local levels, YXC capacity development activities move through a diverse network of partners, ranging from youth NGOs, Eco-Schools, and consumer organizations to Ministries of Environment and Education.

YXC has gained momentum in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Arab States, Asia, and the Pacific due to the commitment of national and regional partners. Initially a printed training kit on responsible consumption, which has since been translated in 20 languages through partnerships, and a bilingual website (French/English) made up the content of the initiative. However, growing partnerships in sustainability education have catalyzed the development of thematic YouthXchange guidebooks, which explain complex issues in accessible language, supported by practical tips, suggested activities, relevant case studies, and best practices and web links for more information. The YouthXchange guidebooks enable educators and young people to better understand how global challenges are connected to their everyday lifestyle choices. For instance, there are thematic guidebooks focused on climate change, on biodiversity, and on green skills and lifestyles. Additional guidebooks will focus on water, cities, energy, and mobility.


As world leaders consider the next steps in the wake of Rio+20 in the coming years to secure renewed political commitment on sustainable development and influence the post-2015 agenda, the five-point learning for sustainable development agenda presented in this article should be promoted as one that addresses the three pillars of sustainable development. Policymakers should call for the integration of these five priorities into all countries—development plans:

  1. Support quality early childhood development and learning opportunities for girls and boys.

  2. Ensure that basic literacy and numeracy are learned in school.

  3. Enable young people to make the transition to and complete relevant postprimary education.

  4. Equip young people with relevant skills for 21st-century lives and livelihoods.

  5. Make learning spaces safe, climate resilient and sustainable.

These five education priorities, focused on learning the skills, knowledge, and competencies needed to live healthy, safe, and productive lives, will enable the education sector to have a head start in thinking about how the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the post-2015 discussions complement each other through the merging of the sustainable development and poverty eradication agendas.

A well-coordinated effort is needed to move this agenda forward. It will also require better facilitated collaboration at the global level for information sharing and building the evidence base. While there are information-sharing networks geared toward education and sustainable development, none successfully combine both a facilitated global network or mechanism for sharing information and a user-friendly website that catalogues good practices, resources, and tools. Facilitated collaboration is also needed to bring together key actors together in advance of global meetings to develop a common strategy for influencing the conference text, which will ultimately influence on future government action and, potentially, funding.

There is far too little evidence-based research that demonstrates the ways in which education is an effective tool for sustainable development, in terms of both cost and outcomes. National governments and donors would be more likely to focus political will and technical and financial resources on an education and learning for sustainable development agenda if there were evidence on the most effective sustainable development strategies through education and their impact at individual, school, and society levels. Without such evidence, and beset by serious fiscal challenges and an uncertain global economic outlook, policymakers will continue to prioritize initiatives and strategies with strong evidence behind them.

In examining the success of the Education for All (EFA) agenda, which has spearheaded the progress on MDGs 2 and 3, one important component has been the EFA Global Monitoring Report (GMR). The GMR is produced annually to assess how well countries and regions are doing in reaching EFA goals and uses both qualitative and quantitative measures to do so. Comparatively, there is no such global monitoring report for the education for sustainable development agenda. In fact, the indicators that have been produced since the launch of the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development in 2005 have been process indicators, such as setting up national ESD commissions and policies. While these are important, outcome indicators are essential in order to evaluate what works and use that information to revise strategies and raise global awareness of what can and should be done through education to ensure sustainable development.

The following recommendations require stronger collaboration amongst researchers, NGOs, UN agencies, governments, networks, and civil society across the education and sustainable development communities to strengthen the evidence base on the most effective sustainable development measures through education and their impact at individual, school, and society levels:

  1. The development of a standardized framework of objectives, knowledge, skills, and measurable outcomes of learning for sustainable development is essential in order to evaluate what works and use that information to revise strategies and raise global awareness about what can and should be done through education to ensure sustainable development.

  2. More, and more rigorous, evidence-based research on education as an effective tool for sustainable development, consumption, and lifestyles is needed. Moreover, the location of evidence-based research should be varied; most evidence-based studies have been carried out in Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States and Australia. In addition, more longitudinal studies are needed to determine a correlation between positive behavior change and exposure to sustainable lifestyles and consumption education programs and activities. Future research should focus on what specific tools produce positive educational outcomes in numerous and diverse settings.

  3. A myriad of education for sustainable development resource guides and policy toolkits exist; their use needs to be tracked and educational outcomes evaluated.

Given the world's limited natural resources, rising population, and the climate change challenge, sustainable development cannot be attained without education that equips learners with the skills needed to live healthy, safe, and productive lives in the 21st century, while also safeguarding the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The learning for sustainable development agenda presented here will equip individuals with this new knowledge and the skills needed to reduce vulnerabilities and change behavior, ultimately creating more resilient individuals and societies.

Education and Climate Change

In many countries, the changing climate is making it harder to deliver education and to keep learners safe while doing it. Climate-related disasters damage or destroy school facilities and educational systems, threatening the physical safety and psychological well-being of communities and interrupting educational continuity. Furthermore, the economic impacts of disasters reduce school enrollment, as children are kept out of school to help with livelihoods.

Despite these threats, the education sector offers a currently untapped opportunity to combat climate change and achieve sustainable development. Education can impart the knowledge, skills, and behavior change that are necessary for mitigation: reducing greenhouse gas emissions through sustainable consumption patterns in lifestyles, livelihoods, economies, and social structures that are currently based on excessive greenhouse gas production. Education can enable individuals to play a critical role in redefining their lifestyles to address the current sustainability issues that humanity is facing. Education is also a critical component of adaptive capacity: The way that people are educated and the relevance of education can provide the knowledge and skills needed for making informed decisions about how to adapt individual lives and livelihoods, as well as ecological, social, or economic systems in a changing environment. Additionally, schools play a role in mitigation in terms of becoming carbon neutral and energy efficient and reducing their own ecological footprint.

“Sustainable lifestyles are patterns of action and consumption, used by people to affiliate and differentiate themselves from others, which: meet basic needs, provide a better quality of life, minimize the use of natural resources and emissions of waste and pollutants over the lifecycle, and do not jeopardize the needs of future generations.”

—Kate Scott, “Literature Review on Sustainable Lifestyles and Recommendations for Further Research,” Stockholm Environment Institute, March, 2009

Education in Relation to Rio's Priority Thematic Issues

Education is a critical cross-cutting issue for many of Rio+20's priority thematic issues, from the green economy to climate change and disasters. For example:

  • Education can impart knowledge and spark behavior change to shift global demand away from resource-and energy-intensive commodities, especially those that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Education can help reduce the vulnerability of communities to the impacts of disasters and also enable them to adapt to climate change though integrating disaster risk reduction and environmental and climate change education into curricula. Schools can be made climate-proofed and multi-hazard resilient.

Common Components to Promising Practices for Learning for Sustainable Development initiatives

  • Projects are developed within a diverse network or alliances of partners in order to foster community support across a broad spectrum of society.

  • Projects go beyond the accumulation of knowledge to behavior change behavior through active, participatory and experiential learning at school, at home, and in society.

  • Active learning should be connected to local problem solving. Hands-on educational activities with a local focus create successful learning outcomes.

  • Governments and/or ministries of education and the environment not only buy into learning for sustainable development initiatives, but provide leadership and resources

1. International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (Washington, DC: 2006),

2. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis (Washington, DC: 2005), p. 1,

3. A. Sumner, “Global Poverty and the New Bottom Billion: What is Three-Quarters of the World's Poor Live in Middle-Income Countries,” Institute of Development Studies no 349 (2010): 46.

4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,” IPCC Special Report on Extreme Events (November 2011), and Climate Change 2007: Fourth Assessment Report (2007). See also J. Lubchenco and T. R. Karl, “Predicting and Managing Extreme Weather Events,” Physics Today (March 2012): 31.

5. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (Geneva, Switzerland: 2011),

6. Ibid.

7. U.S. Climate Change Science Program, Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science, U.S. Global Change Research Program/Climate Change Science Program (Washington, DC: 2009). See also United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, Monitoring Disaster Displacement in the Context of Climate Change: Findings of a study by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (Geneva, Switzerland: 2009), p. 15.

8. United Nations, United Nations Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing (New York, NY: 2012).

9. G. Psacharopoulos and H. A. Patrinos, Returns to Investment in Education: A Further Update, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 2881 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2002).

10. E. Hanushek and L. Woessmann, The Role of Education Quality in Economic Growth (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2007). See also IBS International, Pathways to Learning in the 21st Century: Toward a Strategic Vision for USAID Assistance in Education, USAID Educational Strategies Research Paper 2 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2009); E. Jamison et al., The Effects of Education Quality on Income Growth and Mortality Decline (Washington, DC: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2006).

11. United Nations, Report of the World Summit for Social Development (New York, NY: 1995).

12. United Nations Environment Programme, Visions for Change: Recommendations for Effective Policies on Sustainable Lifestyles (Paris, France: 2011).

13. Ibid., p. 7.

14. Ibid., p. 74.

15. United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organization, Characteristics of ESD, (accessed 24 July 2012)

16. Brookings Institution, Global Compact on Learning (Washington, DC: Center for Universal Education, 2011), pp. 17–22.

17. Ibid., pp. 23–29.

18. Ibid., pp. 30–41.

19. Partnership for 21st Century Skills, A Framework for 21st Century Learning, (accessed 8 May 2012). Twenty-first century learning, or the “21st Century Skills” movement, is a growing global movement to redefine the goals of education, transform how learning is practiced each day, and expand the range of measures in student achievement in order to meet the new demands of the 21st century. The Framework for 21st Century Learning has been developed to describe the skills, knowledge, and expertise students must master to succeed in work and life; it is a blend of content knowledge, specific skills, expertise and literacies.

20. A. Anderson, “Climate Change Education for Mitigation and Adaption,” Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, September 2012.

21. Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Green Pack: Turning Innovative Education Into Action for a Sustainable Future (Szentendre, Hungary: 2000).

22. Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, “Evaluation of Green Pack Training of Teachers Seminars, May–June 2010,” unpublished evaluation, 2011. See also Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, “Summary of the Feedback From Teachers Who Went Through the Training on How to Use Green Pack, May and June 2010,” unpublished report, 2010.

23. Foundation for Environmental Education, Eco-Schools Programme Celebrating 15 Years (Copenhagen, Denmark: 2010).

24. Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, WESSA/WWF Eco-Schools Programme (KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: 2011).

25. Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa & the World Wildlife Fund, Eco-Schools South Africa Handbook (KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: 2001).

26. United Nations, Higher Education Sustainability Initiative Concept Note, Office of the Executive Coordinators of the Rio + 20 Effort, UN Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20, April 2012.

27. United Nations Environment Programme, Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in Africa Universities Partnership—Education for Sustainable Development Innovation Course Toolkit (Nairobi, Kenya: 2006).

Allison Anderson is a Fellow with the Brookings Institution's Center for Universal Education, where she focuses on the ways in which quality education contributes to sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, and climate change adaptation and mitigation. She is also an adjunct professor on international education, emergency response, and risk reduction at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in New York City.

Morgan Strecker is a Consultant with UNICEF's Education Section. She previously worked for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on sustainable lifestyles and consumption.

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