The concept of sustainability was first introduced to education at an international level by the UNESCO-UNEP International Environmental Education Programme in 1975, jointly administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) (Yarime & Tanaka, 2012). The term “Education for Sustainable Development; ESD” the United Nations first mentioned it in its Agenda 21, which was developed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and is now widely used (McKeown, 2002).
In Chapter 36 of the agenda, ESD was described as a key strategy for meaningful, sustainable development in developed and developing nations. The United Nations realized that the strategy was important to help countries shift from the conventional to a sustainable form of education. It was also essential to take into consideration education into the process of sustainable development to tackle the environmental challenges and other development issues such as equity. The goal of ESD was to promote sustainable development and to improve the capacity of people to respond to environment and development challenges. For that to be attained, Agenda 21 articulated four components: (1) improvement of primary education, (2) reorientation of basic education to address sustainable development, (3) development of public awareness, and (4) training of capacities. These components focused on enriching human wealth through improving education, reducing environmental impacts, and improving the economy, while society is the starting point for all. However, since then, the concept of ESD and its implementations have shifted, advanced and changed as new concerns rose up.
Improving education is the foremost concern of the century. Many nations have realized that it’s hard to achieve sustainable development without improving education. Current modes of education lack integration with society and an awareness of local, national, and global concerns. Education, defined as a process, was recognized by nations as a crucial tool for development not only through building capacities; but also through integrating today’s concerns with curricula and implementing both formal and informal education in an integrative manner. The first milestone was significant because the world faced many crises, especially regarding the environment after decades of industrial development. Industrializing the globe brought up several issues. Primary concerns included environmental damage (e.g., air and water pollution), the depletion of natural resources, and the oil crisis. Things have changed since the first milestone was published in Agenda 21. More severe environmental, economic, and social issues have arisen. Examples include biodiversity, climate change, cultural diversity, disaster risk reduction, poverty alleviation, gender equity, health promotion, sustainable lifestyles, peace, human security, water management, sustainable urbanization, waste management, and food security.
Sustainability science as a new discipline has emerged. Sustainability science seeks to understand the interactions within and between global, social, and human systems (Steinfeld & Mino, 2009). ESD is nowadays integrated with sustainability science to address today’s primary challenges. As the idea of sustainability gradually began to influence educational practice, the concept of ESD emerged. Therefore, ESD emphasizes aspects of learning that enhance the transition toward sustainability (Barth & Michelsen, 2012). It is crucial to learn from history, and therefore, several lessons of success can be drawn from a historical view of the sustainability concept. Examples include:
However, the world faces significant challenges after the first milestone of ESD. Most of the problems arising from the impact of human activities on the Earth’s life support systems come from complex, global, and human social interactions (Uwasu et al., 2009). When humanity succeeds in dealing with those problems, they can lead to sustainable development. While it is not easy to provide solutions, the implementation and development of ESD offers hope. The world has to figure out solutions so that societies can be sustained at the international level. Several issues, such as population explosion as it is associated with the depletion of the planet’s resources. We have to believe that education, at all levels, will help not only reduce the effects related to the exploding demographics worldwide but most of the other problems caused by the increasing population. Family planning, especially in the developing countries, will only be accomplished by obtaining the education needed, from elementary school through college. Access to education by all, regardless of gender, is vital for addressing the problems. There still are efforts to be undertaken by nations to promote education and fight for gender inequality. Also, efforts by local governments to promote awareness of both education and gender inequality will encourage women to become more socially involved.
Another issue that we face now is “languages.” Languages are one of the most building blocks of cultural diversity; but now, the world is facing the disappearance of many languages. Biodiversity is another critical issue as many species of animals and plants face extinction. The reason for this might be that man is destroying nature, resulting in the disappearance of the ecosystem balance. When it comes to the water crisis, per capita of water consumption has increased dramatically. However, one of the most valuable UNESCO achievements is the establishment of the freshwater program. Because of this, 2003 was the International Year of Water at UNESCO. However, a mechanism needs to be developed to solve this issue through, and ESD can help. When discussing energy problems, establishing sustainable sources of energy is a major concern, especially for industrialized countries.
Solving or mitigating these challenges and others should involve social capacity development reflected in the abilities, individually and collectively to perform functions, solve problems and set and achieve goals. Capacity building is mainly involved in overcoming a micro-macro paradox in institutional change. Institutions are the most vital rule makers in society, as they form the constraints that shape human interaction. They govern certain behavioral patterns that are repeatedly exhibited by people in society, whether they are formal institutions such as laws or informal social norms. Social sectors can fall into three main categories: government, citizens, and firms. Here, human capacity has to deal with environmental problems through individual and interactive efforts of social actors. Social capacity development is an endogenous, comprehensive, and sustainable process for solving problems in partnership with social actors and through interaction with socio-economic conditions. However, the most important aspect of social development is its critical capability to manage environmental challenges in a social manner. Those areas can contribute to the process of development; more importantly, they can help to attain the required socio-economic conditions as an essential step to achieve better, more sustainable solutions to environmental problems through ESD.
International cooperation is crucial as well; however, it has been changed from the traditional approach to an approach based on capacity development. The new broader scope covers higher budgets and a move toward human resources, especially in developing countries. One of the significant changes is that the new form of cooperation aims to achieve a more extended period with obvious selection criteria. Not only donations, loans, and grants but also regarding technical operations.
In building sustainability system or a sustainable product, we might look at the associated aspects as” background” and “foreground” layers:
ESD should be implemented in the educational systems; that is natural and it should be the core of a multidimensional system “a sustainable system.” The principal dimensions in the “background layer” are society, culture, and education. These three dimensions are integrated with three principal aspects: health, environment, and economy. Society is an essential element of such an integrated system. The role of social institutions and their influences on the change and development process to implement and improve ESD is vital. Culture ought not to be excluded from the development process of ESD. Understanding of its values that influence and shapes the attitude and behaviors of stakeholders is vital. Societies need to learn about the diversity of cultures, their values, and how they affect people’s attitudes toward education, economy, and the environment and how we can peacefully live together in the same society, different society, or multi-cultural societies. With education, ESD has to be addressed based on the level of education (level of implementation) from elementary school to graduate school. The target of education has been clearly defined and specified. Many universities are striving to integrate ESD into their educational activities. Appropriate student learning outcomes, course syllabi, course curricula, and assessment methods are some of the things that are in focus. With the environment, through society, culture, and education, ecological damage is expected to be reduced. Public awareness will be increased, and the community members will participate in the process of maintaining the environment. With the economy, it should in principle be improved as a result of implementing/improving ESD through creating jobs and sustainable businesses as well. This will reduce the poverty levels and increase professional capacities to participate in society. The previously mentioned two layers the “background” and “foreground” are just an example of promoting a sustainable society, system or products. Goals might differ, and therefore, approaches and methods will be different as well as the integration levels.
Barth, M. & Michelsen, G. (2012) Learning for change: an educational contribution to sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 8 (1), pp.103–119.
McKeown, R. (2002) Education for Sustainable Development Segalàs, J., Ferrer-Balas, D., Svanström, M., Lundqvist, U. & Mulder, K.F. (2009) What has to be learned for sustainability? A comparison of bachelor engineering education competencies at three European universities. Sustainability Science, 4 (1), pp.17–27.
Steinfeld, J.I. & Mino, T. (2009) Education for sustainable development: the challenge of trans-disciplinarity. Sustainability Science, 4 (1), pp.1–2.
Toolkit [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 25 December 2014].
Uwasu, M., Yabar, H., Hara, K., Shimoda, Y. & Saijo, T. (2009) Educational Initiative of Osaka University in sustainability science: mobilizing science and technology towards sustainability. Sustainability Science, 4 (1), pp.45–53.
Yarime, M. & Tanaka, Y. (2012) The issues and methodologies in sustainability assessment tools for higher education institutions: a review of recent trends and future challenges. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 6 (1), pp.63–77.