Education for sustainable development

Education for sustainable development (ESD) in higher education involves students learning what sustainable development is and how they can contribute towards it, as well as developing the skills they need to work for sustainable development in their future professional lives through their education.

The target for 2030 is that sustainable development should be integrated into all education.


Higher education plays an important role in terms of providing students with the knowledge and skills needed to address sustainable development issues in their future professional lives. In order to teach for and about sustainable development, teaching staff also need to be able to place their subject within a wider perspective.

The requirement for higher education institutions to promote sustainable development through their operations was established in the Swedish Higher Education Act (1992:1434, Chapter 1, § 5) in 2006. At Umeå University, it has therefore been incorporated into the University's quality system for education that sustainable development should be a perspective that characterises all education. The target for 2030 is that sustainable development should be integrated into all education at all levels. Education for sustainable development is also necessary in order for both the University and students in their future professional lives to be able to contribute to the University's vision, to local, regional and national sustainability goals, and by extension to the global Sustainable Development Goals in Agenda 2030 being achieved.

Learning about sustainable development requires the following three aspects to be fulfilled:

1. The education has content that is linked to sustainable development

In order for students to be able to work for sustainable development in their future professional lives, they need knowledge of what sustainable development is and how it is described from different perspectives. This may involve complex societal challenges that lack unambiguous solutions, and where there are conflicting values and interests

Even if the focus of the teaching is on one of the three perspectives (ecological, social or economic sustainability), the perspective in question needs to be discussed in relation to the other two to ensure learning for sustainable development.

In order to contribute towards sustainable development, it is also important that the education gives students an insight into how different competences (and skills) can contribute towards sustainable development, and how experts from different areas need to work together. In other words, not everyone needs to be an expert at everything, but we need to understand that other people's competences are also important and necessary.

2. The education develops key competences for sustainable development

Students need to be trained to use knowledge about and for sustainable development to bring about changes in society – the required societal transformation. Research on ESD has identified the competences that are critical for working towards sustainable development. These are called key competences.
ESD should develop and train at least one (but ideally more than one) of the following key competences:

Systems thinking analysing the challenges of sustainability as complex systems
Anticipatory creating and evaluating future scenarios; managing risks and changes
Normative identifying and critically discussing norms and values linked to sustainability issues
Strategic identifying structural barriers to sustainability transition; planning the implementation and monitoring of sustainability initiatives
Interpersonal engaging, cooperating with and learning from others in sustainability work; dealing with conflicts and building positive relationships
Intrapersonal being aware of and regulating one's own feelings, thoughts and actions; critically reflecting on one's own role within global and local sustainability work
Implementation implementing innovative solutions; iteratively evaluating and adapting the implementation process
Integrated problem-solving working in a transdisciplinary manner; combining and applying different methods and key competences for developing disruptive, inclusive and equitable responses to address sustainability challenges

These key competences are interconnected and interdependent. Students should have the opportunity to practise all competences at some point during their education. Depending on the focus of the education, some competences may be trained more than others.

3. The education uses pedagogical approaches that are compatible with sustainable development

Work for sustainable development is based on the fundamental values of democracy, human rights and justice. Education that promotes these values should be:

Student-centred: The teaching prioritises active learning over a passive transfer of knowledge. Students are given the opportunity to reflect on – and take responsibility for – their own learning, and to adapt learning situations and activities based on what they themselves perceive to be important when working with sustainability issues.

Action-oriented: Students need knowledge and skills to make an active contribution towards dealing with sustainability challenges. In order to train action skills, the teaching needs to focus on authentic challenges that students will find meaningful. It is also important that students have the opportunity to connect abstract concepts to their own experiences and their own life situation.

Transformative: Since sustainability challenges are not static and are instead in a state of constant change, we cannot rely entirely on existing knowledge and perspectives that we already know. We need to think in new ways and differently. This requires teaching staff to challenge themselves, and for students to question existing knowledge and perspectives. Together, we can develop new knowledge – the kind of knowledge that is needed to achieve a more sustainable world.

Interdisciplinary: Sustainability challenges do not recognise disciplinary boundaries, and nor do they recognise national, institutional or cultural boundaries. Different perspectives are needed to gain an overview, and a holistic understanding of the problems we face and how they can be dealt with. An interdisciplinary approach that crosses faculty boundaries is one of the most powerful tools in education for sustainable development.

Challenges to education for sustainable development

Education for sustainable development is sometimes criticised for being 'imposed', since higher education should be factual and objective.

Some of the challenges that may arise are listed below:

"We already work with sustainable development"

'Sustainable development' is a broad term, and is currently used to describe many different phenomena. There is therefore always a risk of 'greenwashing', whereby the term 'sustainability' is used because it sounds good, but without including concrete content. It is also common for social, ecological and economic sustainability to be dealt with separately, although this is not the same as education for and about sustainable development. A sustainability label is often attached to education that only fulfils one of the three fundamental aspects above. All three perspectives need to be taken into consideration simultaneously and in relation to each other, and all three aspects need to be included.

"Sustainable development is abstract – there is no real content to teach"

The term 'sustainable development' may be abstract, but this does not mean that it cannot be concretised. The term was initially coined by the American environmental scientist Lester Brown in the early 1980s. In 1987, it was defined by the UN Brundtland Commission in the report Our Common Future. This was also when it was formalised internationally:
Sustainable development is defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

In other words, the term is based on human needs and includes a long-term perspective when talking about future generations. The concept also includes a justice perspective, since people around the world are affected.
At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the meaning of the concept was clarified in an agenda for the 21st century (Agenda 21), and the three mutually dependent dimensions – social, economic and ecological – were incorporated into all contexts.

The three dimensions and the generational perspective included in the term mean that it may appear complex. When we take action for sustainable development, we do not see any results immediately. However, they will come in the future.
Today, the UN has chosen to concretise the work for sustainable development in Agenda 2030 with 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. Each goal includes the different perspectives: fairness, sustainability, and the social, economic and environmental dimensions. The Agenda 2030 goals were preceded by 15 Millennium Development Goals.

In Sweden, the climate goals of the Paris Agreement are often cited as being particularly important in a sustainability context, i.e. SDG13. However, other goals are also prioritised for working with in Sweden, such as SDG12 (Responsible consumption and production), SDG15, which deals with ecosystem services, and SDG2, which here in Sweden tends not to be about hunger, but about the opposite: the problems resulting from poor diet and overweight/obesity.
Here at Umeå University, the sustainability ambitions are concretised in the University's vision, with Responsibility for the Future being one of three development areas. Within the Environmental Policy and the Action Plan for Climate and Sustainability, the ecological dimension in particular is concretised, although a broader approach is taken with regard to core operations. As mentioned above, sustainable development shall be a perspective that characterises all education in accordance with the University's quality system for education. Sustainability is also included in other governing documents, such as the Work environment and equal opportunities policy, but here it relates to sustainable working life and sustainable student life. Additionally, sustainability is taken into account in the Purchasing and procurement policy.

"Sustainable development is not relevant to my subject"

The broad nature of sustainability means that all perspectives are important. All subjects can therefore contribute towards a more holistic view and most people have the opportunity to teach about and for sustainable development, regardless of their background or previous knowledge.

"I'm not an expert on sustainability, so I can't teach it"

In education, sustainability issues are often referred to as 'wicked problems' due to their complexity and the fact that it is impossible for anyone to know everything. The field of sustainability is also constantly evolving, and we do not know with any degree of certainty which challenges we will need to deal with in the future or what knowledge and skills we will require. Teaching for sustainable development is therefore often a collaborative exploration, where neither the literature nor the teaching staff know 'the answer' in advance. You can find out what other people have done under 'Good examples'.
Remember that not all students need to or are able to become experts on all aspects of sustainable development. However, they do need to gain an understanding of the complexity and diversity of the perspectives that must be considered in sustainability work.

Tips for those starting with education for sustainable development

Here are some suggestions when preparing to start with education for sustainable development.

  1. Familiarise yourself with the basics of sustainable development by reading a review article or a course book about sustainability, for example.
  2. Collaborate with members of teaching staff who can contribute different perspectives, ideally from other disciplines.
  3. Collaborate with students to design both content and learning situations based on a changing world in which new knowledge, challenges and courses of action are constantly being actualised.
  4. Identify whether there are any existing elements in your teaching that fulfil any of the three fundamental aspects above, and explore how the other aspects could be implemented.
  5. Also identify whether there are any elements that focus on social or ecological sustainability, and add the missing perspectives.
  6. Start by taking small steps. For example, you could introduce a new aspect or a new perspective to a coursework assignment or a discussion question during a lesson.
Alexandra Haglund