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History of ESD

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, governments, and major groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment.

The concept of sustainable development was popularised in 1987 with the publication of the “Brundtland Report” – the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. This landmark report highlighted the need to conceptualize sustainable development that would “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Five years later, in 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) met in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the planet’s dwindling resources in the face of unrestrained economic growth and the failure of humankind to achieve equitable development.  The “Earth Summit”, as the UNCED came to be known, resulted in countries agreeing to the Rio Declaration setting out 27 principles for achieving sustainable development and complemented by Agenda 21, a guiding document for sustainable development.

It has been generally accepted that achieving sustainable development will require balancing environmental, societal, and economic considerations in the pursuit of development and an improved quality of life. A number of ideals and principles underlying sustainability have been identified. These include intergenerational equity, gender equity, just and peaceable societies, social tolerance, environmental preservation and restoration, poverty alleviation and natural resource conservation.

Agenda 21 viewed education as an essential tool for achieving sustainable development and identified four areas of action for education. These are:

  • Improve the quality of basic education;
  • Reorient existing education programmes to address sustainable development;
  • Develop public awareness and understanding; and
  • Provide training for all sectors of private and civil society.

Despite much effort in these and other areas, reports prepared by countries for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002, the ten-year review of Agenda 21, revealed that the goals laid out in Rio were still a long way from becoming reality. There was clearly a need to rethink education. Education for Sustainable Development paves the way for this “rethinking”.

Unlike most education movements, people outside of the education community initiated ESD. In fact, one major push for ESD came from international political and economic forums (e.g., United Nations, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Organization of American States). As the concept of sustainable development was discussed and formulated, it became apparent that education is key to sustainability. For about a decade, many people were realizing that education is important to any effort that would create a more sustainable future; however, little was progress was being made under the name of ESD.

In fact, many considered education the forgotten priority of Rio. The importance of ESD was confirmed to the world when in December 2002 the United Nations declared 2005 - 2014 to be the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Now many educational organizations around the world are exploring how to reorient their curricula and programmes to address sustainability.


• Brundtland Report (1987)

• Agenda 21