The challenges of educating on sustainability


Environmental and sustainability education is a topic that is now coming to the fore: national and European initiatives are looking to give children the tools to understand the world they live in, and how they can positively impact it. But there are still a number of challenges to overcome before consistent environmental education becomes a reality.


‘These kids are learning about ecological footprints!’ In 2012, at the Planetworkshops’ Global Conference, American futurist Jeremy Rifkin was pleased to note that children all over the world are starting to develop environmental awareness, asking their parents where what they consume comes from and how it affects the environment. He saw it as a sign of hope that the next generation in charge will see environmental friendliness as a must, and as absolutely obvious. In this process to make future generations more environmentally aware than the past, education naturally plays a major role.

Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’, as Nelson Mandela once said.  ‘Education is essential to sustainable development. Citizens of the world need to learn their way to sustainability. Our current knowledge base does not contain the solutions to contemporary global environmental, societal and economic problems. Today’s education is crucial to the ability of present and future leaders and citizens to create solutions and find new paths to a better future’

writes UNESCO on its page dedicated to sustainable development education. Not only education at home, through parents and friends, but also education at school. It is important that children’s knowledge on how our ecosystem works and how they can increase their impact on it does not rely solely on the level of awareness within their own families. Education on sustainability is a major issue if we want the younger generations to continue and speed up efforts on behalf of environmental protection. And to ensure that they all have the same minimum level of education, schools have a crucial mission to fulfil. Today, most educational programmes throughout Europe are still the result of individual initiatives; but a more global approach is now emerging on a national as well as a European level.

The issue is rising just now

In April 2014, Ademe (the French Environment and Energy Management Agency) published the results of research carried out on environmental education in France’s high schools. These concluded that ‘environmental education in high schools is essentially the result of spontaneous initiatives,’ noting that teachers lacked appropriate training on the topic, and should be encouraged to accompany environmental education with awareness operations within the school (an organic canteen, waste management, water and energy savings, etc.). Significantly, it was observed that teenagers were more interested and motivated by sustainability issues when they saw that what they were taught in class had concrete applications enforced by their own high school, the local authorities and companies. According to this study, environmental education needs to be made consistent with local sustainability policies if it is to be truly effective.

This research, even if it was carried out in France alone, provides an important insight into the state of environmental education today: it is still in its early stages. A history of environmental education can be found on the website of the French Ministry of Education. Even though a 1977 circular officially founded the discipline, it had to wait until 2004 for sustainability issues to be included, and to be revived in school programmes. In 2013, it was made a part of the “Education Code”, and now environmental education is a cross-disciplinary topic, included in all the subjects taught at school and in extra-curricular activities.

At European level, the first “Pan-European Day on Environmental Education towards Sustainable Development (EESD)” was also held in 2013: a sign that the issue is now really coming to the fore. On March 4th, EESD players from all over Europe met in Lyon (France) to discuss challenges, share practices, and establish a basis for developing a European network.‘ The aim of the event, organised by the World Environmental Education Congress (WEEC), was to understand how each country defines EESD and how players work in the field, in order to be able to design joint pilot European programmes and pinpoint recommendations for establishing an EESD European policy. The participants identified that the main obstacles to establishing such a policy were firstly the lack of funding, and secondly the complexity of setting up actual projects in the absence of structured networks and procedures. They will continue their work during the second ‘Pan-European Day on Environmental Education towards Sustainable Development,’ to be held in Bergamo (Italy) on 25 and 26 September, and will hopefully find the means to overcome these obstacles.

 Going further than environmental education

At international level, environmental education is also gathering momentum. The UNESCO promotes Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in these terms:

Education for Sustainable Development allows every human being to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to shape a sustainable future.

This is mainly achieved in two ways:

– ‘incorporating key sustainable development issues into teaching and learning; for example, climate change, disaster risk reduction, biodiversity, poverty reduction and sustainable consumption’

– ‘participatory teaching and learning methods that motivate and empower learners to change their behaviour and take action for sustainable development.’

In other words, the UNESCO supports environmental education that is collaborative and participatory, and encourages critical thinking and imagination in building new solutions. Rather than delivering text-book answers to a series of problems, environmental education should foster the spirit of initiative of the younger generations, in order to truly launch them in the fight for a sustainable future.

It is worth noting that UNESCO does not see ESD as environmental education alone, since the discipline embraces not only biodiversity, climate change education, disaster risk reduction, sustainable lifestyles, water and sustainable urban planing, but also cultural diversity, poverty reduction, gender equality, progress in health, peace and human security. Sustainability is a global, inclusive approach. The stakes involve all segments (as witness the Millennium Development Goals): they cannot be addressed as completely separate issues. And that is yet another challenge for education on the environment and sustainability.

To really become a driving force in the way the young generations see their own future, environmental and sustainability education will need more individual initiatives, more support from local authorities, governments and continental/international organisations, and more political will that takes the form of public policies. Then the children of France, Europe and the rest of the world will be able to educate their own parents, and bring change about now. Wait until they are in charge of the world!

Photo © Pressmaster