12 Apr 2016 Story Sustainable Development Goals

Education vital for healthy, productive ecosystems

One of UNEP’s goals within an integrated ecosystem management framework is to foster the capacity of professionals and develop human capacity across all social strata and genders.

Environmental education and education for sustainable development will be one of the resolutions up for discussion at the forthcoming United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2), the “Parliament of the Environment”, due to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 23-27 May 2016.

Mongolia and Georgia proposed the relevant draft resolution, entitled “Investing in human capacity for sustainable development through environmental education and training”.

It requests UNEP’s Executive Director to:

  • promote cooperation and interaction between UNEP and the higher education community in mainstreaming environment and sustainability across education and training; 
  • continue to provide and promote assistance in capacity building for developing countries, through increased access to environmental education, training and capacity building opportunities;
  • and further enhance cooperation with all relevant UN bodies for better implementation of the Global Action Programme for ESD (Education for Sustainable Development),  following the 2005-2014 UN decade on ESD.

It also invites Member States in a position to do so to support UNEP’s work in this area.

No brainer?
Ecosystems are fundamental to our present and future sustainability. Ecosystems management and systems thinking form an essential part of solutions to sustainable development challenges. The interlinkages and cross-sectoral impacts on ecosystems and environment come from all aspects of our economic and social activities.


How can we hope to achieve the goals encapsulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the vision of an Inclusive Green Economy without action now to broaden awareness of ecosystem issues and what is at stake for countries and communities?

The stakes are high: Without a step change in terms of mainstreaming an ecosystem approach in schools and institutions of higher learning, we cannot even hope to make the necessary progress. Inaction in this area is likely to carry greater risks than action.

Delegates at UNEA-2 have a unique opportunity to discuss the mainstreaming of an ecosystem approach in educational establishments worldwide.

Last year, the United Nations General Assembly approved in New York the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of these, Goal 4 aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. In particular, Target 4.7 focuses on education for sustainable development:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

So we know where we are supposed to be heading. Getting there may prove more difficult.

According to Wondwosen Asnake, an expert with UNEP’s regional office in Geneva, a number of key questions must be asked: “How to ensure learning and training integrate sustainability principles? How to help build capacities and strengthen institutions of learning to deliver on the environmental dimensions of SDGs? And how to be a platform for best practice and innovative ideas for sustainable solutions also at the local/community level?”

What’s UNEP’s role?
UNEP is driving change over both the short and long term.

The organization’s draft Medium-Term Strategy 2018-2021 highlights the need to strengthen partnerships to institutionalize the ecosystem approach across society, including in education. The overall objective is to develop and mainstream capacity and awareness on ecosystems management issues and systems thinking by enhancing UNEP’s engagement with the higher education community.

Through its work on environmental education and the proposed resolution, UNEP seeks to build partnerships with academia and governments to achieve healthy ecosystems by increasing the number of education institutions that incorporate an integrated ecosystem approach.

One example is the Global Universities Partnership on Environment and Sustainability (GUPES), UNEP’s flagship programme on environmental education, which was launched in 2012 in the lead-up to the Rio+20 Conference.

GUPES aims to mainstream environmental education in higher education institutions, both through curricula and greening practices on campuses. It operates through three key pillars: education, training, and networking. GUPES currently has close to 800 partner universities worldwide.

GUPES also seeks:

  • to build, through university education systems, professional capacity and leadership for the prevention of and response to environmental issues, risks and associated sustainable development challenges;
  • to contribute to the knowledge generation within UNEP’s seven priority thematic areas and other contemporary environmental and sustainability issues, risks and challenges; and
  • to help prepare the world for the projected impacts of global climate change, disasters and conflicts, harmful substances and hazardous wastes, as well as to help reverse and mitigate these and other negative environmental and sustainability trends.

Recent and ongoing initiatives
One of the current projects UNEP is working on through GUPES is the leveraging of technology-assisted learning systems such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For example, UNEP, in collaboration with partners, is working on the development of a MOOC on Ecosystem Approaches and Systems Thinking (EAST). 

MOOCs focus on enhancing capacity and mainstreaming awareness among current and future professionals, across all sectors, in understanding environment and sustainability issues through the development of a set of educational tools and materials, including a curriculum sourcebook.

In another recent initiative, in February 2016, UNEP, together with Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the Commission for University Education (CUE), launched the Kenya Green Universities Network (KGUN) at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi. 

KGUN aims to develop environmentally sound practices in higher education, fostering low-carbon, climate-resilient development strategies and sustainability across campuses. The network will cover all aspects of higher education, including curricula development, training and campus operations as well as promoting greater student engagement across the 71 public and private universities in KGUN.

Education alone cannot achieve a more sustainable future. However, without education and learning for sustainable development, there is no way that we will be able to achieve the ambitious vision of the 2030 Agenda.