News, Student Voice

UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development  

Student Fellow Rhona reflects on her attendance to the recent UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development 

I must be truthful – I am often quite reluctant with international organisations and discussions on climate change and environmental issues. A student in politics, I have spent the past four years critiquing international governance and their role in operating within, and reproducing, unequal structures. However, the advancement of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is an issue that I am really interested in and thus, I was excited to attend this event. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. 

The event was attended by more than 2000 participants – including law makers, NGOs, policy makers, ministers, and students. It was quite an empowering experience to be amongst such influential individuals and groups. The event sought to establish a framework for ESD to embed sustainable development into educational systems across the world. Here, I will explore some of my key takeaways. 

What does education for sustainable development mean?  

The definition that emerged focused on how ESD empowers learners with knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes to ensure that decisions and actions allow for environmental integrity, economic viability, and a just society. Integrating sustainability issues into the pedagogy, learning environments and curriculums can empower the next generation to meet the increasing challenges that we are going to face.  

Education for Sustainable Development definition visualised: Venn diagram showing overlap of social, environmental and economic considerations
Education for Sustainable Development definition visualised: Venn diagram showing overlap of social, environmental and economic considerations

Linking to higher education specifically, integrating sustainability into curriculums equips students with skills and knowledge which they can take into a range of different sectors after they graduate – ensuring that sustainability-minded individuals are leading society into the future. ESD was often talked about in an abstract form during the conference but there was a focus on the necessity of ensuring that future generations have skills and tools to deal with the unprecedented phenomena the world is facing. We need a future work force that is adaptable and creative when it comes to sustainability issues. As the conference stressed, education holds the key – allowing our societies to face the increasing challenges we are going to face.  

A Global Process  

What really stood out to me about this conference was how global it was – people attended from across the world. It is key to understand that sustainable education in an institution is seen to be part of a larger movement – understanding the connections between institutions, students, and countries. Creating awareness of interconnections and differences is important to ensure that ESD recognises global inequalities and seeks to address it.  

The voices of students  

The conference really stressed the role of students as agents of change. At one point, they showed a video highlighting the work of students across the world taking actions on sustainability and environmental well-being. This is important. Students can bring a sense of creativity to learning about sustainability – ensuring it is engaging, innovative and effective. It is key that the voices of students are shaping the process of integrating ESD into curriculums.  


At the end of the conference, over 80 ministers and vice ministers and 2,800 education and environment stakeholders adopted the Berlin Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), committing to taking concrete steps to transform learning the survival of our planet. The Declaration calls for ESD to be a core component of all education systems at all levels by 2025. This Declaration included policies and while these were largely abstract, it does provide a framework to build upon and relate to each country, institution, discipline etc.   

Ultimately, I came away from this conference still reluctant but surprising optimistic. Such global discussions, frameworks and declarations can ignite action. We need to learn from these global processes, understand where our institution fits within them and use it as a basis to integrate ESD into our curriculums.  

What to get involved at Bristol?

Education for Sustainability and the Climate Emergency – Staff Gathering

Thurs 15 July – 2.00-4.30pm (Online Event)

The university has declared a climate emergency, and is committed to sustainable development. As part of this, it plans to embed these themes more in the education we offer – but in ways which are appropriate to the priorities and interests of the students in each discipline. This gathering provides a chance to hear from other engaged academics, and explore how this might happen. The event will consist of:

– A briefing on where we are currently, from Tansy Jessop (PVC Education) and Chris Preist (University Academic Lead for Sustainability).

– A briefing from a representative of the student community.

– A number of short presentations from staff, giving alternate perspectives from different disciplines.

– Discussion to gather ideas and opinions.

– Informal networking.

To register, please follow this link:

Further reading 

UNESCO. (no date) ‘What is Education for Sustainable Development’, What is Education for Sustainable Development? ( 

UNESCO (2021) ‘UNECO declares environmental education must be a core curriculum component by 2025’, UNESCO declares environmental education must be a core curriculum component by 2025,  

Rhona Wilkinson BILT Student Fellow 20/21 working on the projects – Creating online communities – Assessment and feedback – Students as researchers -Decolonisation.

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