Return to the Sustainable Development pages
SD Features
UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development

Key Education Action Areas and Themes

Education for sustainable development has four major thrusts.

  • Promotion and improvement of Basic Education: Access to basic education remains a problem for many, especially girls and illiterate adults. The quality of basic education must improve to focus on imparting knowledge, skills, values and perspectives throughout a lifetime that encourage and support citizens to lead sustainable lives.
  • Reorienting Existing Education Programmes: Rethinking and revising education from nursery school through university to include more principles, knowledge, skills, perspectives and values related to sustainability in each of the three realms Esocial, environmental, and economic Eis important to our current and future societies. This should be done in a holistic and interdisciplinary manner. The best chance of success of education for sustainable development lies not in a separate programme but in embedding its vision within other initiatives.
  • Developing Public Awareness and Understanding of Sustainability: To make progress towards more sustainable societies requires a population that is aware of the goals of sustainability and has the knowledge and the skills to contribute towards those goals. Informed citizenry and knowledgeable consumers can help communities and governments enact sustainability measures and move towards more sustainable societies.
  • Training: All sectors of the workforce can contribute to local, regional and national sustainability. The development of specialized training programmes to ensure that all sectors of the workforce have the knowledge and skills necessary to perform their work in a sustainable manner has been identified as a critical component of education for sustainable development.

Several key themes are critical priorities for planning programmes and activities in support of the Decade, and need to be kept in mind while elaborating the Implementation Scheme. Among the more important are biodiversity, fresh water management, environmental conservation and protection, rural transformation, health promotion, sustainable production and consumption, human rights, peace and international understanding, and the cross-cutting themes of poverty alleviation and gender equality. Attempts should be made to use Information and Communication Technology in the service of ESD even in very traditional learning situations. Actions that will be in the implementation scheme will be related to the educational aspects of topics, issues, and problems that are relevant to sustainable development.

DESD Key Action Areas

  • Gender equality
  • The pursuit of gender equality is central to sustainable development where each member of society respects others and plays a role in which they can fulfill their potential. The broader goal of gender equality is a societal goal to which education, along with all other social institutions, must contribute.

    Discrimination based on sex is often structurally embedded. In many societies women bear the major burden of responsibility for food production and child-rearing, they are excluded from family and community decisions affecting them, and they have little or no access to the means of income generation.

    Gender issues must therefore be mainstreamed throughout educational planning -- from infrastructure planning to material development to pedagogical processes. The full and equal engagement of women is crucial to ensuring a sustainable future.

  • Health Promotion
  • Issues of development, environment and health are closely entwined -- ill-health hampers economic and social development.

    Hunger, malnutrition, malaria, water-borne diseases, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and injury, unplanned pregnancy, HIV & AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections are just some of the problems that have enormous implications for health.

    Education and basic medical information are powerful ways to drive behavioural change. The school environment itself must be safe and healthy. Schools should act not only as centres for academic learning, but also as supportive venues for the provision of essential health education and services, in collaboration with parents and the community.

  • Environment
  • Environmental perspectives cover several major themes, reflecting diverse goals and audiences, including:
    • Water
    • Climate change
    • Biodiversity
    • Disaster prevention
    There can be no long-term economic or social development on a depleted planet. Teaching society how to behave responsibly and respect the environment lies at the core of education for sustainable development.

    Building on more than 30 years of experience in environmental education, education for sustainable development must continue to highlight the importance of addressing the issues of natural resources (water, energy, agriculture, biodiversity) as part of the broader agenda of sustainable development. In particular, ESD must encourage new behaviours to protect the worldfs natural resources.

  • Rural Development
  • In spite of rapid urbanization, three billion people or 60 % of the population in developing countries, and half of the world population, still live in rural areas. Education and training are essential in addressing rural poverty and ensuring sustainable development in these parts of the world.

    Education for Rural People (ERP)

    During the Johannesburg Summit, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and UNESCO jointly launched a new partnership initiative on Education for Rural People (ERP) to respond to this growing concern. Through advocacy at international level and technical support to countries, the initiative aims at:
    • Increasing access to basic Education for rural people.
    • Improving the quality of basic education in rural areas.
    • Fostering the national capacity to plan and implement basic education in a way that addresses the learning needs of rural people.

  • Cultural Diversity
  • "Our rich diversity . . . is our collective strength" (Johannesburg Declaration, 2002).

    Education must respect diversity. The values, diversity, knowledge, languages and worldviews associated with culture predetermine the way issues of education for sustainable development are dealt with in specific national contexts. ESD aims at promoting teaching which respects indigenous and traditional knowledge, and encourages the use of indigenous languages in education, the integration of worldviews and perspectives on sustainability into education programmes at all levels.

    The preservation of cultures is linked to economic development. Tourism and cultural industries can run the risk of commodifying culture and making it a mere object of interest for outsiders. Cultures must be respected as the living and dynamic contexts within which human beings find their values and identity.

  • Peace and Human Security
  • Peace and security are fundamental to human dignity and development. The sustainable development of any culture is always endangered by a situation of insecurity and conflict.

    These result in significant human tragedies, overwhelming health systems, destroying homes, schools and often whole communities, and leading to increasing numbers of displaced people and refugees.

    Education for sustainable development plays a key role in promoting values for peace.

  • Sustainable Urbanization
  • Cities have moved to the forefront of global socio-economic change. Globalisation and democratisation have increased the importance of cities in relation to sustainable development.

    Half of the worldfs population is now living in urban areas. The other half is increasingly dependent upon cities for its economic, social and political progress.

    Urban areas undeniably pose potential threats to sustainable development. With responsible decision-making, however, cities also hold promising opportunities for social and economic advancement and for environmental improvements at local, national, and global levels.

  • Sustainable Consumption
  • Our choices as consumers today will impact the way people live tomorrow. Sustainable consumption means consuming goods and services without harming the environment or society.

    Living a sustainable lifestyle is essential to overcoming poverty and conserving and protecting the natural resource base for all forms of life.

    ESD promotes responsible citizenship and fights against the social and resource impacts of unsustainable lifestyle consumption habits.

    Source: UNESCO

    Contributions to this section are welcome! Please send an email to Hari Srinivas at -

    Return to pages on UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UN-DESD)
    Return to UN-DESD
    Contact: Hari Srinivas -