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UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

  • Introduction
  • Purpose, origins & events
  • What is ESD?
  • International priorities & Key themes
  • Education quality


Running from 2005 to 2014, the aim of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is promote and improve the integration of Education for Sustainable Development into the educational strategies and action plans at all levels and sectors of education in all countries.

Visit the official site for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development to learn more about projects and events in your region.


What is the purpose of the Decade?

The ultimate objective of United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is promote and improve the integration of Education for Sustainable Development into the educational strategies and action plans at all levels and sectors of education in all countries.

This will involve:

  • Incorporating quantitative and qualitative ESD indicators into on-going monitoring and evaluation of Education for All (EFA) and the UN Literacy Decade.
  • Monitoring the progress of activities undertaken by UN agencies, Governments and NGOs in observance of the Decade and facilitate implementation and follow-up.
  • Evaluating the achievement of measurable results in realising the aims and objectives of the Decade, particularly in regard to the integration of ESD in national educational policies, programmes and systems.
  • Making recommendations to further promote ESD based on results and lessons learnt from the Decade.

Key Outcomes from the World Summit

One of the key outcomes of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, 26 August-4 September 2002, was a recommendation to the United Nations General Assembly that it consider adopting a Decade of Education for Sustainable Development starting in 2005.

Just three months later, on December 9, 2002 the 57th Session of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to proclaim the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development from 1 January 2005 to 31 December 2014.

UNESCO was designated the lead agency in the promotion of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. In this role, UNESCO has worked with the United Nations and other relevant international organizations, governments, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders develop a draft international implementation scheme for the Decade.

A special feature of the Plan is the way it emphasises the relationship between Education for Sustainable Development and the various educational processes already in existence, especially the Dakar Framework for Action adopted at the World Education Forum and the UN Literacy Decade (UNLD).

Governments around the world are now working on measures to implement the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development in their respective educational strategies and action plans, taking into account the international implementation scheme.

Events and Activities During the Decade

There will be many activities at local community, national, regional and international levels during the Decade.

The United Nations General Assembly approved an International Implementation Scheme in 2004 and has provided it to governments around the world to guide their plans for the Decade.

UNESCO is organising regional and international workshops, symposia and conferences during the Decade. Other United Nations agencies, non-government organisations and educational associations are also supporting the Decade through regional and international meetings.

Access a calendar of international and regional events related to the Decade.

Governments around the world have their individual plans for the Decade to ensure that Education for Sustainable Development is implemented in locally relevant and culturally appropriate ways. Central to all national and sub-national activities is the establishment of strategies for integrating Education for Sustainable Development into all educational plans at all levels and in all sectors of education.

At the local level, schools, universities and colleges, cultural and service associations, faith-based groups, youth organisations, cooperatives, the media, business and industry are working cooperatively to identify local sustainable development challenges, integrate local knowledge and skills into Education for Sustainable Development, and exchange experiences and learn lessons for better practice.

In the early years of the Decade, many of the activities at all levels are focusing on:

  • Developing a vision of Education for Sustainable Development that is relevant to all stakeholders and partners.
  • Building partnerships across government, civil society, educational institutions and organisations, the media, business and industry to promote the Decade.
  • Establishing and evaluating demonstration projects to encourage innovation and best practice.
  • Promoting networking between stakeholders and partners to ensure synergy of efforts, avoid unnecessary duplication, and build on each other’s initiatives.

Education for Sustainable Development

What is sustainable development?

The World Commission on Environment and Development promoted the concept of ‘sustainable development’ in the late 1980s. Until then, environment and development tended to be thought of as two distinct actions – the need to promote development on the one hand and the need to protect the environment on the other. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the environmental side of sustainable development emerged as a main focus. Poverty eradication was viewed as important but the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 which were the main documents to emerge from the Earth Summit, laid priority emphasis on the importance of protecting the natural environment. They recommended that there be a global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.

A more fully developed paradigm of sustainable development was endorsed at the highest political levels at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, in 2002. The Political Declaration states that “sustainable development is built on three interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” – economic development, social development and environmental protection – which must be established at local, national, regional and global levels.

This new paradigm of sustainable development establishes linkages across poverty alleviation, human rights, peace and security, cultural diversity, biodiversity, food security, clean water and sanitation, renewable energy, preservation of the environment and the sustainable use of natural resources. This view of sustainable development seeks to ensure a better quality of life for everyone now and for the generations to come.

Read more about the United Nations definition of sustainable development.

What is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)?

The Plan of Implementation from the World Summit on Sustainable Development establishes the linkages between the Millennium Development Goals on universal primary education for both boys and girls, but especially girls, and the Dakar Framework for Action on Education for All. The creation of a gender-sensitive educational system at all levels and of all types – formal, non-formal – and alternate delivery systems to reach the unserved is underscored as a crucial component of Education for Sustainable Development. Consequent on the paradigm shift, education is recognized as a tool for addressing other important questions such as rural development, health care, community involvement, HIV/AIDS, the environment and wider ethical/legal issues such as human values and human rights.

Education for Sustainable Development represents a catalytic process for social change that seeks to foster – through education, training and public awareness – the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future. Thus, sustainable development can be seen not so much as a technical concept but as an educational one – not so much the end goal of a government policy but a process of learning how to think in terms of ‘forever’. This means that ESD involves learning how to make decisions that balance and integrate the long-term future of the economy, the natural environment and the well-being of all communities, near and far, now and in the future.

Education for Sustainable Development is a visionary approach to education that seeks to help people better understand the world in which they live, and to face the future with hope and confidence, knowing that they can play a role in addressing the complex and interdependent problems that threaten our future such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, population growth, gender inequality, health, conflict and the violation of human rights.

The goals of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is to have this vision of education integrated into education plans at all levels and all sectors of education in all countries.

Read more about Education for Sustainable Development in thei UNESCO Briefing document.

The scope of Education for Sustainable Development

Education for Sustainable Development has four major thrusts:

Promotion and improvement of basic education
Education for Sustainable Development promotes the availability of quality life-long education and learning opportunities for all peoples regardless of their occupation or circumstances.
The content and duration of basic education differ greatly around the world. Access to basic education remains a problem for many, especially girls and illiterate adults, the majority of whom are women. However, simply increasing basic literacy and numeracy as currently taught will not significantly advance sustainable development. Instead, basic education needs to focus on sharing knowledge, skills, values and perspectives throughout a lifetime of learning in such a way that it encourages sustainable livelihoods and supports citizens to live sustainable lives. This approach to basic education also supports public participation and community decision-making, which in turn, help communities to achieve their sustainability goals.
Reorienting existing education at all levels to address sustainable development
Education for Sustainable Development requires the reorientation of many existing education policies, programmes and practices to address the social, environmental and economic knowledge, skills, perspectives and values inherent to sustainability.
Rethinking and revisioning education from nursery school through university to include a clear focus on the development of the knowledge, skills, perspectives and values related to sustainability is important to current and future societies. This implies a review of existing curricula in terms of their objectives and content to develop transdisciplinary understandings of social, economic and environmental sustainability. It also requires a review of recommended and mandated approaches to teaching, learning and assessment so that lifelong learning skills are fostered. These include skills for creative and critical thinking, oral and written communication, collaboration and cooperation, conflict management, decision-making, problem-solving and planning, using appropriate ICTs, and practical citizenship.
Enhancing public awareness and understanding of sustainability
Progress towards sustainability requires that the growing global awareness of social, economic and environmental issues is transformed into understanding of root causes and that local, national and global visions of what it means to live and work sustainably are developed.
Thus, achieving the goals of sustainable development requires widespread community education and a responsible media committed to encouraging an informed and active citizenry. This includes educating people to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns. In this the media can play an important role.
Training and skills development for the world of work
Sustainable development depends upon the provision of specialized training programmes to ensure that all sectors of society have the skills necessary to perform their work in a sustainable manner.
All sectors of the workforce can contribute to local, regional and national sustainability. Business and industry are thus key sites for on-going vocational and professional training so that all sectors of the workforce have the knowledge and skills necessary to make decisions and perform their work in a sustainable manner.

How is ESD related to International Educational Priorities?

Sustainable development requires a comprehensive, integrated approach. As a result, Education for Sustainable Development has connections with other programmes and concerns in education. It is not a new programme but a call for a process to reorient educational policies, programmes and practices so that education plays its part in building the capacities of all members of society to work together to build a sustainable future.

Thus, United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development encourages advocacy, communication and networking directed at facilitating all educators to include sustainable development concerns and goals in their own programmes.

There are currently two major world initiatives in education:

  • Education for All (EFA)
  • The United Nations Literacy Decade, 2003 – 2012 (UNLD).

The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development will work in close cooperation with these two initiatives.

Other educational priorities such as education for rural people, education for poverty reduction, health and HIV/AIDs prevention, education for peace, human rights and gender equality, as well as for environmental protection and conservation and sustainable consumption and production are also integral to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

ESD and Education for All (EFA)

A global commitment to achieve the six goals of the Dakar Framework of Action was made at the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal. The six goals are:

  • To expand and improve comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children;
  • Ensure that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality;
  • Ensure that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes;
  • Achieve a 50% improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults;
  • Eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality;
  • Improve all aspects of the quality of education and ensuring excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.

The concept of EFA is founded on human rights as essential to meeting basic learning needs. Basic learning needs comprise both the essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy and problem-solving) and the basic learning content (such as the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes) required by human beings to survive, to develop their full capacities, to live and work in dignity, to participate fully in development, to improve the quality of their lives, to make informed decisions, and to continue learning.

The ultimate purpose of EFA is human development – personal and collective. ESD addresses important issues that can impede the future development of human beings, including the issues of growing poverty, insecurity, renewable energy, preservation of the environment, HIV/AIDS etc which are not yet fully or consistently addressed in EFA activities.

Thus, ESD encompasses EFA, which must be understood as the foundation and catalyst for the achievement of sustainable development. The approach to EFA is human rights based, recognizing the intrinsic human value of education, underpinned by strong moral and legal foundations. ESD reinforces EFA as another tool for enhancing people’s capabilities and for changing their behaviours and attitudes to deal with the serious threats the world is facing in securing its future.

ESD and the United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD)

The United Nations Literacy Decade runs from 2003 to 2012. The Literacy Decade places literacy for all at the heart of Education for All. Literacy for All encompasses the basic educational needs of all human beings in all settings and contexts.

The priority clients of literacy activities are often the same as for sustainable development, especially in poverty contexts. These are rural women, minority groups, nomadic and mountainous populations etc. Literacy, by nature, is participatory and learner-centred. Thus, activities can be oriented to achieve both literacy and sustainable development concurrently. For example, functional literacy can address skills and competencies required for sustainable development.

The connection between the two decades is unquestionable. The first biennium of the UNLD will focus on gender – a shared topic of concern with Education for Sustainable Development. Another biennium of the UNLD will be dedicated to the theme ‘sustainable development’ in which there will be even closer collaboration between the two movements.

Key Themes in Education for Sustainable Development

Education for Sustainable Development shares many common themes with Education for All and the United Nations Literacy Decade.

Overcoming Poverty
Poverty alleviation through appropriate economic development is one of the key pillars on which sustainable development will be achieved. Education for Sustainable Development recognises the importance of working collaboratively with basic education and literacy efforts (EFA and UNLD) as well as Technical and Vocational Education systems to so that this broader view of development becomes the norm. All three initiatives should advocate for education that recognises the complexity of poverty and its alleviation and refute a view of education as merely a means to increase income.
Poverty alleviation is central to all Millennium Development Goals that recognize the importance of gender issues, education, health and environmental protection to sustainable human development. This makes gender equality, health and protecting the resources base upon which social and economic development depends important educational concerns.
Read more about overcoming poverty in this UNESCO Briefing document.
Gender Equality
This forms the basis for one of the EFA goals, and is elaborated in one of the twelve EFA strategies. The General Assembly also identified it as one of the motivating reasons for establishing the UNLD. In the WSSD Plan of Implementation gender equality is seen as both an aim and a pre-condition of sustainable development. Gender equality in formal education is also the main objective of the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI).
All these initiatives emphasise the need for gender-sensitive approaches and materials, and for the integration of gender perspectives into all educational activities.
Read more about gender equality in this UNESCO Briefing document.
Health Promotion
The issues of development, environment and health are closely entwined, reflecting the complex links between the social, economic, ecological and political factors that determine standards of living and other aspects of social well-being that influence human health. A healthy population and safe environments are important pre-conditions for sustainable development. However, the education of many children and young people around the world is compromised by conditions and behaviours that undermine the physical and emotional well-being that makes learning possible.
Hunger, malnutrition, malaria, polio and intestinal infections, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and injury, unplanned pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections are just some of the problems we face that have enormous implications for health. The WSSD Plan of Implementation, EFA and UNLD embrace health education activities to achieve their goals, with schools acting not only centres for academic learning, but also as supportive venues for the provision of essential health education and services.
Read more about health promotion in this UNESCO Briefing document.
Environmental Conservation and Protection
There can be no long-term economic or social development on a depleted planet. Education to develop widespread understanding of the interdependence and fragility of planetary life support systems and the natural resource base upon human well-being depends lies at the core of Education for Sustainable Development. Key resource priorities identified by the World Summit on Sustainable Development include: water, energy, housing, agriculture and biodiversity – the issues that came to be know at Johannesburg as the WEHAB Agenda. “Environmental literacy” depends upon such understandings – and EFA and UNLD are central to developing the capacity for such learning. It also entails the capacity to identify root causes of threats to sustainable development and the values, motivations and skills to address them.
Read more about water and biodiversity in these UNESCO Briefing documents.
Rural Transformation: Education for Rural People
The challenge of education to serve rural transformation is one of the main themes of the Education for All effort. The problems of poverty and deprivation in rural areas, and their spill-over into urban areas, cannot be solved by preventing urbanisation and keeping rural people confined to rural areas. Rather, many, if not all, of the EFA and Millennium Development Goals require special attention to the situation of rural populations. In spite of rapid urbanisation, three billion or 60% of the people in developing countries, and half of the people of the world, still live in rural areas. Three quarters of the world’s poor, those earning less than a dollar a day, live in rural areas.
One in five children in the South still does not attend primary school and, while rural-urban statistics on education are scarce, many countries report that non-attendance in school, early dropout of students, adult illiteracy and gender inequality in education are disproportionately high in rural areas, as is poverty. Urban-rural disparities in educational investment and in the quality of teaching and learning are widespread and need to be redressed. Rural people and rural areas are not homogeneous, and so for education to be relevant, it needs to respond to the diversity of rural situations.
Educational activities have to be linked to the specific needs of the rural community for skills and capacities to seize economic opportunities, improve livelihood and enhance the quality of life. A multi-sectoral educational approach involving all ages and formal, non-formal and informal education is necessary.
Read more about education for rural people.
Human Rights
Without respect for human rights there will be no sustainable development – this view emerges in the WSSD Plan of Implementation, and one of those rights is to a quality basic education, of which literacy is a part. It is not just a matter of exercising an individual right, as an adult or child, to be educated, but of arriving at a point where societies see fulfilment of that right as a sine qua non of sustainable development. This common approach should inform policy formulation at national level with particular attention to the implications for educational systems of a rights-based approach.
Intercultural Understanding and Peace
Many opportunities for education and sustainable human development are being undermined by the lack of tolerance and intercultural understanding, upon which peace is founded. The resulting aggression and conflict causes significant human tragedies, overwhelms health systems, destroys homes, schools and often whole communities, and has led to increasing numbers of displaced people and refugees. The goals of literacy and EFA cannot be met under such circumstances. Education for Sustainable Development therefore seeks to build skills and values for peace in the minds of humankind, as enshrined in the UNESCO charter.
Sustainable Production and Consumption
Sustainable lifestyles and ways of working are central to overcoming poverty and conserving and protecting the natural resource base for all life. Sustainable methods of production are needed in agriculture, forestry, fishing and manufacturing. Use of resources need to be minimized, and pollution and waste reduced. Likewise, there is a need to reduce the social and resource impacts of lifestyle consumption habits to ensure the equitable availability of resources for all around the world. Education and training for sustainable production and consumption depends upon literacy and basic education.
Read more about this in the module on Consumer Education.
Cultural Diversity
“Our rich diversity … is our collective strength” was the way that the Johannesburg Declaration stressed the importance of this concept. The WSSD Plan of Implementation focuses on the protection of biodiversity as an essential component and indicator of sustainable development, within the broader context of cultural diversity. For the UNLD, the recognition and analysis of cultural and linguistic diversity is a premise on which the design of literacy programmes is built – the ‘literacies’ approach is defined, in part, by differences in cultural patterns of learning and in the use of languages. A key aspect of diversity is respect for indigenous and other forms of traditional knowledge, the use of indigenous languages in education, and the integration of indigenous worldviews and perspectives on sustainability into education programmes at all levels.
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)
All three initiatives see ICTs as a useful tool of learning and expression. The common problem is expanding access to ICTs and developing their use to enhance basic education. The Dakar Framework for Action articulates the dilemma that their increasing use “may tend to increase disparities, weaken social bonds and threaten cultural cohesion”. This dilemma applies also to the promotion of literacy and of context-sensitive Education for Sustainable Development, and includes the question of how use of ICTs relates to traditional learning tools (paper and pen, chalk and talk, for example). This is an area where common cause should be made by advocating strongly for local input into how ICTs should be used.

Improving the Quality of Education

Attention to the concept of quality education has come to the fore as learners, parents and communities, educators, leaders, and nations acknowledge that what is learned and how learning occurs is as important as access to education. The age-old problems that have plagued educational quality remain, and are further complicated by new challenges such as the role of education in relation to sustainable development, peace and security, SARS, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, for example.

The conventional definition remains important to understanding quality education. It includes literacy, numeracy, and life skills, and is linked directly to such critical components as teachers, content, methodologies, curriculum, examination systems, policy, planning, and management and administration. Basic academics remain essential, but education is increasingly understood to be more than ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic’ and extends to the ‘expanded vision’ of education as articulated at the Jomtien Conference on Education for All in 1990 and re-affirmed at the Dakar World Education Forum in 2000.

Thus, what constitutes a quality education is evolving. While in the past much of the emphasis on education related to cognitive understanding and development, now there is a need to also address the social and other dimensions of learning. Education is expected to make a contribution to addressing sustainable human development, peace and security, and the quality of life at individual, family, societal, and global levels.

UNESCO promotes quality education as a human right and supports a human rights-based approach to the implementation of all educational activities. Our work is based on a number of international instruments that identify education as a human right. Several of these international instruments indicate the desired nature, or quality of this education. When we look at these instruments together and interpret them we go far beyond single articles to a web of commitments that speak to the depth and breadth of how we must begin to understand educational quality.

A quality education understands the past, is relevant to the present, and has a view to the future. Quality education relates to knowledge building and the skilful application of all forms of knowledge by unique individuals that function both independently and in relation to others. A quality education reflects the dynamic nature of culture and languages, the value of the individual in relation to the larger context, and the importance of living in a way that promotes equality in the present and fosters a sustainable future.

Source: Pigozzi, M. J. (2003) Reorienting Education in Support of Sustainable Development through a Focus on a Quality Education for All. Presentation to Global Environmental Action Conference, Tokyo.