History of ESD


The Chairholder, Charles Hopkins, has been involved with Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) since its early beginning. Often referred to as the Keeper of the Story, he began his sustainability involvement by presenting a paper to the Brundtland Commission in 1986 during its global search for a new development paradigm. The UNESCO Chair, launched in 1999, was the first one of its kind in the field of ESD.  The involvement in seminal decisions regarding the evolution of ESD continues. Much has been written since about the history of both sustainable development and ESD. However, some of the key highlights in the history and evolution of ESD in formal education include:

  • In 1989, education, public awareness and training were recognized as crucial means of implementation of sustainable development and were identified in Agenda 21, the action plan of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) both with the specific Chapter 36 and as crucial elements of implementation throughout the entire document.
  • In 1992, UNESCO was requested by the United Nations Secretary-General to act as the lead agency for Chapter 36 and in the pursuing years developed the conceptual framework of strengthening and reorienting existing education, public awareness and training systems rather than adding sustainability education as another discipline or discrete subject.
  • In 1992, the first Post-Rio, UNESCO/UNEP/ICC global conference on sustainable development in the context of education and communication - titled 'The World Congress for Education and Communication on Environment and Development (ECO-ED)' was held in Toronto, Canada.
  • In 2002, at the World Conference on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, marking the 10th anniversary of UNCED, nations agreed that more ESD progress was needed. The concept of creating a UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD) was discussed and endorsed by many nations.
  • In 2002, the UN Decade (2005-2014) was declared through a resolution by the UN General Assembly (57/254). It was during the UNDESD that formal education systems, who had to report on their nation’s progress, began to take more notice of ESD as part of their responsibility.
  • In 2012, as the Decade was ending, nations called for a continuation of the work begun during the UNDESD and requested UNESCO to develop a continuing strategy.
  • In 2014, at the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development in Aichi-Nagoya, Japan, ministers of education adopted a declaration containing 360 commitments and calling for urgent action to mainstream ESD and include ESD in the post-2015 development agenda. At this meeting UNESCO launched the Global Action Programme on ESD (GAP) highlighting 5 priority areas for action. The GAP has proven useful in maintaining the momentum of ESD that has now emerged as a crucial implementation element in the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • In 2015, at the World Education Forum, at Incheon, Korea, Ministers of education adopted a global education strategy to implement SDG 4 entitled Education 2030. This would be their contribution to the 2030 Agenda and the 17 SDGs. By merging the concepts of Education for All and ESD, as was initially envisioned in Agenda 21, (both initiatives emerged simultaneously in different forums in the late 1980s) the new overarching vision of ESD is thoroughly identified in the 2030 Agenda as of crucial importance.
  • Also in 2015, at the World Education Forum, ministers approved the yearly publication of the Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) which requires nations to make yearly reports on their SDG 4 progress.
  • In 2016, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was put into effect. Today, ESD is at the core of these 17 SDGs for a sustainable future of our planet and for all. With this international recognition and the adoption of the Global Education 2030 Agenda including its report mechanisms through the Sustainable Development Goal indicators and the GEMR, ESD is poised to gather the attention of both formal and non-formal educators.
  • In November 2019, the 40th session of UNESCO General Conference adopted a new global framework on ESD called ‘Education for Sustainable Development: Towards achieving the SDGs’ or ‘ESD for 2030’.
  • In May 2021, this new ESD for 2030 Roadmap was launched during an international virtual conference and supported by the Berlin Declaration.
  • In November 2021 and after a global consultation with more than one million participants, UNESCO launched a new groundbreaking document on how to think about education for the future beyond 2030: Reimagining our futures together: A new social contract for  education.

For 2022 and beyond, as the history of ESD continues to unfold, the Chairholder and his team follow a strategy to further scale up ESD both in policy and practice making ESD an underlying purpose in all formal education systems around the world. Especially, the consequences of the global pandemic and more than a billion children and youth temporarily out of school and more than 24 million in danger of not returning to their education, require us to make education a priority and transform our ways of learning.

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