Green Economy – business as usual? ESD – education as usual? Rio +20 or Rio -20?

It has been about a month now since 40-50 thousand people (from policy-makers to activists, CSOs, NGOs to CEOs) came to Rio to discuss the future of the Planet. What was accomplished? Having been among the privileged ones to be able to go to the meeting I can safely say that Rio minus 20 (The Stockholm Conference on Environment and Development) was more ground-breaking than Rio plus 20. Some will disagree with me as they see the interest of the private sector in environment and sustainability as a major step forward. The issues of 1972 have moved from the margin to the mainstream. The role of education – with Stockholm as a launching pad for Environmental Education and Rio as a launching pad for Education for Sustainable Development – has been ‘re-affirmed’ in the final declaration, much to the delight of UNESCO which hopes that Rio +20 will lead to an extension of ESD beyond the closing of the UN’s Decade for ESD (2014). At the end of this post you can read a briefing from UNESCO’s ESD-section head Alexander Leicht about the results achieved in Rio from his perspective.

I was invited to Rio to present the review of the UN DESD which UNESCO commissioned me to write up in the report 2012 DESD Full-length Report”.  Basically there are three reports: the one I submitted to UNESCO, the full report as edited and authorized by UNESCO and an abridged, glossy version for policy-makers that contains a selection of texts from the full report made by UNESCO’s ESD section. Some of the rough edges and critical notes of the original report were taken out somewhat to my dismay.

One of the key messages from the reports is that ESD or sustainability education can act as a potential catalyst for educational renewal and the introduction of new forms of learning and pedagogies (e.g. social learning, transformative learning, critical pedagogy). There is also a section addressing the changing role of science in society in times of uncertainty, complexity, eroding trust of hegemonic systems, and of rapid change. This theme connects well with the “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change” book featured in my previous post. There is some movement within higher education but also within less institutionalized environments to transition towards new forms of knowledge co-creation and self-determined practices that are considered more sustainable and transformative. At a side-event the so-called Treaty on Higher Education Towards Sustainable development was launched that calls for the transformation of higher education itself in order to become part of the transformation towards a more sustainable world. Clearly, when taking some of these counter movements and alternative approaches to education and learning seriously ESD cannot mean ‘education as usual’.

Finally, although the green economy has been billed as ‘an opportunity’ both in the report and in Rio there is also the cautionary tale about privileging the ‘green economy’ as a driver for societal transformation as opposed to the ‘green society’ and, with that, ESD becoming an extension of economic globalization.

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Education/Education for Sustainable Development and Rio+20 (compiled by Alexander Leicht UNESCO’s ESD section)

Summary and preliminary conclusions regarding Education/Education for Sustainable Development at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) from a UNESCO perspective

  1. While the overall outcome of the Rio+20 conference contains few new joint commitments by governments regarding sustainable development, the outcome for education and in particular Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is positive. The education passages in the outcome document, The Future We Want, are in line with UNESCO’s priorities and contain a clear call to continue ESD beyond the end of the UN Decade of ESD in 2014, education was frequently mentioned at the conference as an important area of sustainable development, and UNESCO’s ESD side-event was successful and very well attended.

Conference outcomes

  1. Member States reaffirm in the outcome document their commitment to achieving universal access to primary education and reaffirm that “full access to quality education at all levels is an essential condition for achieving sustainable development” and the internationally agreed development goals. Greater international cooperation to improve access to education, the need to strengthen and build education infrastructure, and increasing investment in education, in particular regarding quality education for all in developing countries, are also emphasized.
  2. The outcome document emphasizes the link between quality education and ESD, which is an important emphasis of UNESCO’s ESD work. The “need for better quality and access to education beyond the primary level” means that “the capacity of our education systems to prepare people to pursue sustainable development” must be improved. This includes the development of “sustainability curricula” and of “training programmes that prepare students for careers in fields related to sustainability”. The importance of non-formal education in pursuit of sustainable development is also recognized.
  3. Member States commit to strengthening ESD beyond the end of the UN Decade of ESD in 2014: “We resolve to promote education for sustainable development and to integrate sustainable development more actively into education beyond the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.”
  4. A ‘whole institution approach’ to ESD – “teaching sustainable development as an integrated component across all disciplines” together with “sustainability management” on the campus and engagement with the community – is particularly encouraged for education institutions. Research and innovation for sustainable development, including in education, are also highlighted, as well as programmes in the areas of “entrepreneurship and business skills training, professional, technical and vocational training and lifelong learning” with a view to “bridging skills gaps for advancing national sustainable development objectives.” Information, education and training on sustainability to strengthen the capacities of workers are referred to in the context of green economy policies.
  5. From UNESCO’s perspective it is important that the document treats education not merely instrumentally as a means of implementation for sustainable development, but that education (paras. 229-235) is grouped with other thematic areas and cross-sectoral issues of sustainable development.
  6. The document recognizes the usefulness of a limited set of concrete sustainable development goals, which should be integrated into the UN development agenda after 2015 and drive the achievement and mainstreaming of sustainable development. Their development should be guided by the outcome document, that is, goals will presumably be formulated on the basis of the thematic areas mentioned in the document. Regarding process, an open working group of 30 representatives will be established at the 67th session of the General Assembly and submit its proposal for goals to the 68th session. The Secretary-General will give first input into this group and support its work through an interagency technical support team. The document very generally states that the process must be coherent with the deliberations on the post-2015 development agenda. This will obviously have to be closely monitored in the context of the development of EFA follow-up and in order to ensure UNESCO’s priorities, including ESD, are taken into account in any post-2015 development/sustainable development agenda. More generally, UNESCO’s involvement with Rio provided further support to the view that the Organization’s ESD work needs to connect closely and strategically to global agendas in sustainable development, development and education.

Other issues regarding UNESCO/ED’s engagement with Rio

  1. UNESCO’s side-event on ESD, which was co-organized with and supported by the Government of Sweden and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, was highly successful and very well attended. It received very good external and internal feedback. Speakers were Shigeharu Kato, Director-General for International Affairs, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, and Secretary-General of the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO; Annika Markovic, Environment Ambassador, Ministry for the Environment, Sweden; Greg Selinger, Premier of Manitoba, Canada; Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University; Kartikeya Sarabhai, Director, Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad, India; Rafael Zulli and Thiago Schlieper, secondary school students from Brazil. The panel was opened by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and chaired by Gretchen Kalonji, Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences. Arjen Wals, UNESCO Chair of Social Learning and Sustainable Development at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, presented the latest UNESCO report on the UN Decade of ESD, Shaping the Education of Tomorrow. Speakers pointed to ESD as one of the key priorities when advancing towards sustainable development and highlighted ESD’s potential to transform and innovate education. UNESCO’s leadership in education and ESD was widely recognized.
  2. Together with UN DESA, the Global Compact Secretariat, UNEP and UNU, UNESCO presented a higher education initiative launched before the conference by the Executive Coordinator of Rio+20, Elizabeth Thompson. Higher education institutions have been invited to sign up to a declaration on higher education and sustainable development and make concrete commitments. The initiative achieved good visibility during the conference, many of the voluntary commitments uploaded to the Rio+20 website in advance of the conference came from this initiative. UNESCO agreed with the Global Compact Secretariat to continue collaborating in this important and promising field.
  3. UNESCO’s message on ESD and education was also successfully shared at side-events on multi-stakeholder partnerships, led by UNICEF, on capacity-building regarding climate change, led by UNITAR, on environmental education and ESD, led by the Government of Georgia, and on partnerships for education, led by the International Business Leaders Forum. The UNESCO/IOC side-event on oceans also variously referred to the importance of education.
  4. In the lead-up to the conference, the Swedish Minister for the Environment, the Japanese Minister for Education and the Director-General co-wrote an op-ed article on ESD. It was published during the conference by a Swedish newspaper, Sydsvenska Dagbladet, distributed to the Japanese press club, and published on the UNESCO website.
  5. The importance of education was also confirmed by the online Sustainable Development Dialogues, which were organized by the Government of Brazil in the lead-up to the conference. Stakeholders had the opportunity to discuss topics such as poverty eradication, water and oceans. UNESCO provided several discussion papers as input to the discussions. Out of the 100 recommendations that came out of the dialogues, people from all over the world chose the top ten recommendations by vote. Three of them are on education.
  6. In the context of the engagement of UNESCO with Rio+20 it should also be recalled that the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, which was published as Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing before the conference, contains significant passages and recommendations on education, including the development of skills and knowledge needed for sustainable growth and jobs.

Alexander Leicht, Chief, Section of Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO (a.leicht@unesco.org)

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