Education for Sustainable Development is key to tackle Climate Change

Education is often seen as a driver of social transformation that can influence change. Therefore, it is very important to focus on what kind of education is necessary to achieve the change we need to tackle huge challenges like Climate Change.

By Alicia Jiménez

“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history…” this is the first sentence of the Earth Charter, launched 20 years ago, yet most of us would agree that this “critical moment” continues, we see the issues on climate change, biodiversity loss, armed conflicts, violations to human rights and so forth are not solved. 

Annual CO2 emissions (Reference: Global Carbon project https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions)

COemissions globally are still rising and we are suffering rapid changes due to these increase of anthropogenic greenhouse emissions. And even though we have solid scientific research of the damage we are causing to life supporting systems on Earth, we are really not acting to change.  Why?

The answer is not easy, but it’s clear that we need to change the way we think, we have to modify our behavior, not only individual but collective behavior.  We need a new worldview, a new paradigm to solve these complex problems. 

How do we change?

As humanity, we have been able to make radical changes in a relatively short periods of time. The ban of smoking in public places is a good example. It is hard to believe that not very long ago people could easily smoke in planes, now that is impossible!

There was a total change in paradigm in regards to smoking that led to a change in behavior, and a collective, global change.  Maybe not every individual in this world agreed on this measure, but, as the majority did, change happened.  

The essence of change, according to Fritjof Capra (Austrian American author) is in approaching things in a deeper way, questioning the old paradigm. Also, to expand our perception and rethink our values. This can happen in many ways; I will expand on this later on.

Capra also mentions that change in thinking is associated with change in values, which is associated with change in habits and behavior. 

Ken Wilber’s integral framework to understand how change is complex, argues that there are four dimensions that can be used to explain human’s reality:

We are all embedded in these dimensions, an interior individual dimension, which is our inner experience, our paradigm, the way we think, the psychological and spiritual dimension (I).  Our inner experience is expressed as behavior or personality (IT dimension).  These are influenced by the culture we live in (WE), which is how we experience the collective; and the expression of all these are what he calls ITS, which is the social structures, that is our social, economic, political systems. 

Wilber argues that change occurs in all these dimensions, since these are all interconnected, and each influence each other, but, the fourth dimension (ITS) is the one that has the biggest influence in creating big changes.  

In the case of smoking in planes, passing laws enabled change to happen quickly, but for this systemic change to occur, there had to be a process where decision makers were convinced that this was an important thing to do (I dimension), and that they knew a majority of people would approve this (since politicians wouldn’t normally pass laws that are not popular), that is, there was a cultural acceptance (WE Dimension).

That is why, it is important to work in all these dimensions to enable change and tackle the sustainability crisis we are experiencing.

Education to achieve Sustainable Development

Now, in terms of education, it is often seen as a driver of social transformation that can influence all the above mentioned dimensions. The Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Article 12 of the Paris Agreement proposes that education is one of the best ways to tackle climate change. Therefore, it is very important to focus on the kind of education necessary that will bring the changes we want to see in the world. 

“Education is crucial for climate action because it has the exceptional power to make evolve mindsets and behaviours in the long run.  Because education can change minds, it can change the world.”  

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General, UNESCO

There has been a tendency in formal education settings on prioritizing the learning of theoretical knowledge, leaving behind processes of ethical and values reflection and clarification, using the body, mind and heart in an integral way, addressing as well the social dimensions of learning.     

Change towards a new paradigm, according to Capra, will be from a mainly rational and analytical thinking to one that balances the rational with a more intuitive, holistic, non-linear, thinking; that is associated with values of cooperation, conservation, equality.  

In this sense, it is very important to integrate values reflection in education processes, so we can expand our perception and rethink our values, which is a step to change the way we think and act. 

But values education has been considered as not too practical, a waste of time, too philosophical.  Especially in nowadays education systems, that are focused on the market, on skills that will help people to get a job. 

As society, we want ethical lawyers, ethical engineers whose actions will enhance the common good. So, we should be interested in values based education.  

Maybe the problem is on the lack of pedagogical elements to make ethics and values reflection relevant to everyday life. 

In this sense, I want to present the Earth Charter, as a relevant education instrument to enable this change we need.

This document is a product of a decade long intercultural dialogue process, that started in 1992 during the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro).  People from all walks of life came together to reflect on what are values and principles that we share as humanity, that can lead us to the vision of a sustainable, just and peaceful world.  

This Charter can be considered as an ethical compass, that, when integrated in pedagogical processes, can be transformative in the way people think and relate with each other and with other living beings, expanding its responsibility for the common good to all life in this planet.

This image presents the systemic nature of the Earth Charter. It has 4 pillars with 16 principles and values, which are all connected.  The essence is an ethics of care and respect, which is presented in Pillar I: Respect and Care for the Community of Life.   It is important to note that the Earth Charter doesn’t refer to nature and humans in a separate way, it talks about “a community of life”, emphasizing in this way the interdependence of all living and non-living beings on Earth.  The other Pillars refer action oriented principles in the area of ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, non-violence and peace.  The Earth Charter proposes that it is important to work on all these areas, in an integral way, to be able to achieve sustainability.  In a context of high social inequalities, it is not possible to be sustainable, the same happen when there are violent conflicts or where ecosystems are damaged of polluted. 

UNESCO recognized the Earth Charter as an important ethical framework, especially for education for sustainable development (ESD) in 2003 and then it reaffirmed this recognition in 2019, inviting Member States to use the Earth Charter, especially in ESD for 2030 processes (Resolution 2019 (40C/80).   

Education for sustainable development is considered in the Sustainable Development Goal 4, target 4.7, as part of the strategy to achieve quality education to address our current challenges. ESD refers to both the content that is being taught, the values that are highlighted explicitly or implicitly, and the way this is addressed in practice. ESD Agenda is coordinated by UNESCO, and it works in connection with UNFCCC to implement the programme of Action Climate Empowerment, which includes climate change education. 

The Earth Charter supports ESD because it offers an ethical foundation or framework that teachers can use to open spaces to promote values related to sustainability. 

There is a myriad of ways to use the Earth Charter in education, nonetheless, I would like to emphasize on some pedagogical elements that Mirian Vilela, Earth Charter Center for Education for Sustainable Development Executive Director, have identified in her research as very appropriate for values based education processes, and which are put in practice in the Center’s educational programmes.

These reflect the hands, heart and body scheme that many educators are using.  In the sense that it is important to practice action oriented or learning by doing principle, where students have the opportunity to put in practice, or enact, the values associated with sustainability, with projects and other activities.  Also, to experience nature, having an opportunity to use gardens or natural areas as part of the classroom.  

Participation is another key element, where students engage in meaningful dialogue and are actively making decisions on their learning journey, opening many spaces for dialogue and reflection. These spaces of dialogue are spaces to practice values of care, love, human connection.  

This is as well connected with an element that maybe is not too mentioned as pedagogical element – spirituality – but we think it is important, not in terms of religions, but in terms of having opportunities to feel in awe with what is bigger than us.  To gain a sense of higher purpose, and of connection with the whole community of life, not only connecting with those around me that “I like”, but with the other, who is different. 

Spirituality can be cultivated with the arts, which we consider of great importance to enrich the education process, giving space to different type of intelligence, and to make classes more enjoyable! Which should be one of the aims of the education processes. 

In terms of the “mind”, teachers normally don’t have a problem finding content, information to share for the different subjects.  I would say that on the contrary, there is too much information to give. In this sense, one pedagogical element we highlight is to take care of the way to present this content, in a way that is contextualized, where students can see the relevance of the information to their lifestyle, their surroundings, or make connections with them and the information.  This relates to systems thinking, an ability that I think needs to be cultivated, and is necessary for the new paradigm needed to tackle our sustainability challenges. 

There are different education materials available for free in the Earth Charter website (Resources page and Earth Charter Virtual Library), in which you can expand on what is presented in this article.

At the Earth Charter Center for ESD, which is located at the University for Peace campus, we offer more resources in terms of training opportunities for educators, and other audience.  Find here the information of the different education opportunities.  

For example, the Earth Charter Center offers a five-month Diploma Programme on ESD.  There are programmes for policy makers, workshops for educators, and also an online course for youth on leadership, sustainability an ethics.  In all these, we put in practice the pedagogical elements mentioned before, so participants can learn about these in practice, and expand their knowledge on sustainability and ethics. 

To conclude, I believe that the Earth Charter, integrated into pedagogical processes, can galvanize the change in paradigm to tackle climate change and move away from the sustainability crisis we are living. And, as Capra[1] said “recover the ecological consciousness that many have lost”.  Through values based education processes we can recover and incorporate the values associated with sustainability, redefining our relationships within ourselves, between us (humans) and between humans and other living beings.  


Capra, F. (1982). Turning point: Science, society and the rising culture. Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Audrey Azoulay quote: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000373762

Capra, F. (2014). “The Systems View of Life”. Cambridge University Press.

Vilela, M. (2019). “Educación y aprendizaje en valores de la sostenibilidad y de la ciudadanía global desde la Carta de la Tierra. Elementos pedagógicos”. Doctoral Thesis. La Salle University.