History of Education for Sustainable Development

The Evolution of Sustainability Education (adapted from de Leo 2012; DESD 2008)

Late 1960s

Early ideas around concepts of ‘environmental sustainability’ first began to emerge, with the birth of Environmental Education.


EE was first formalised at a meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in Nevada, where the definition included ‘values’ and the ‘cultural’ context.


The first UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) was held in Stockholm, and recommended that the International Environmental Education Programme (IEEP) be established to develop Environmental Education for promoting understanding through education in managing, protecting and improving the environment (UN 1972).


Inter-Governmental Conference on Environmental Education held in Tbilisi described the aim of Environmental Education, reflecting the inter-relatedness of the multiple dimensions of sustainable development (UNESCO-UNEP 1978).

Between the 1970s and 1980s

EE continued to develop with concerns about the Earth’s capacity to sustain growing patterns of consumption and production and their effects on the environment in terms of pollution and depletion of resources. But Environmental Education was to anticipate and solve only environmental problems rather than finding systemic solutions to socio-political, cultural, environmental and economic concerns.


The IUCN publication ‘Caring for the Earth’, emphasised the importance of Environmental Education for changing behaviour necessary for sustainable development (IUCN 1991).


The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) outlined the Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development in Agenda 21, which highlighted the critical importance of fostering values and attitudes of respect for the environment through education. Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 specifically discusses promoting education, public awareness and training with special emphasis on: 1. reorienting education towards sustainable development, 2. increasing public awareness, 3. and promoting training. (UN 1992).


Agenda 21 led to the establishment of the Environment, Population and Information for Human Development (EPD) project, which included social, environmental and economic considerations.


Agenda 21 catalysed the development of ‘The Earth Charter Initiative’, which outlined a set of values and principles for a sustainable future for educational purposes, to build a “just, sustainable and peaceful global society for the 21st century” (ECI 2000).


The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014, (DESD), emphasising that education is an indispensable element for achieving Sustainable Development (DESD 2008).

2005 – 2014

The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

2009 the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development was held in Bonn, Germany, and published ‘Bonn Declaration’ which included a call for action (Bonn Declaration 2009).