Education for Sustainable Development: Background

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When a society wants to make essential changes to its way of being and functioning fundamentally in every of its parts, it needs actors who can think in a new way and carry out concrete actions. Education on sustainable development starts at this interface between citizens and sustainability. In this section we will give an overview of how individuals can be empowered to take the idea of sustainability into the places they live and transform them.

UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development

To foster Education for Sustainable Development the UN has proclaimed the World Decade on ESD from 2005-2014. For these ten years, the UN and its members are running and supporting projects involving sustainable development, the members are to integrate Education for Sustainable Development in their national educational concepts and a host of conferences are to be held.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

"Empowers learners with knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to take informed decisions and make responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society."

  • Education for Sustainable Development Goals Learning Objectives UNESCO

Addressing Competences to Act

ESD empowers people to foster sustainable development. Even though the background is theoretical, the practical part of Education for Sustainable Development is very concrete. At its heart, it is focused on providing people not only with knowledge but with the competencies to act. On a practical level, Education for Sustainable Development includes many didactical principles and methods from environmental education or civic education.

Sustainable Development – a New Idea?

The idea of Sustainable Development has its origins in forestry and fishery. European authorities and people in the 18th century faced a timber shortage and developed ideas as to how to deal with this problem, like the mining officer Carl von Carlowitz. In 1713, he realized that most trees in his part of Germany had been cut down to build wooden constructions for mines and to create fields for agriculture. The forests could not recover quickly enough and soon there would be no trees left. Grasping the implications of this situation, he made a plea for sustainability: Only as many trees should be cut down as could then re-grow to replace them.

About 250 years later, the 1970s environmentalists’ movement expanded the idea of Sustainable Development to other fields of human life. One important milestone was the book The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome, which reflected on the increase in world population, growth of economy, and environment pollution on a global level. In 1987, the UN’s Brundtland Commission published its report Our Common Future.

This opened the discussion to global politics and wider audiences. Another important milestone was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio (1992) with ideas about implementing Sustainable Development on the local level (local agenda 21) and through Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Further UN milestones have included the Millennium Declaration to reduce poverty and foster education and cooperation between rich and poor countries (2000), as well as the climate conferences (COP) in the follow-up of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which was the result of the Earth Summit in in Rio de Janeiro (1992) - e.g. in Kyoto (1997), Montreal (2005), Durban (2012) or Paris (2015).


Materials: Education for Sustainable Development/ Global Learning


  • Arpine Galfayan, Sebastian Wehrsig, Nils-Eyk Zimmermann: Environment and Civil Involvement; How Can We Connect Sustainable Development Education and Active Citizenship Empowerment? ISBN 978-3-944012-01-8 Online



Environment and Civil Involvement

How Can We Connect Education for Sustainable Development and Active Citizenship Empowerment? Online