The World Summit on Sustainable Development and Higher Education for Sustainable Development

The Declaration, Volume 6, Number 1: December 2002  [Feature]

by Richard M. Clugston and Wynn Calder

On September 4, 2002, after a protracted and difficult drafting process, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) released its Political Declaration and Plan of Implementation. Many delegates to the WSSD regarded these outcomes as weak, last-minute compromises that will result in little progress toward sustainability. Education for sustainable development (ESD), and the crucial role of education (and educators as a stakeholder group) in assisting in the transition to a sustainable future, was not a major theme in the Political Declaration or the Plan of Implementation. However, the WSSD provided opportunities for stakeholders committed to higher education to clarify goals and further develop partnerships and their own plans of implementation. Summarized below are significant developments at the WSSD related to higher education for sustainable development.

Article 117 of the Plan of Implementation articulates the governments’ commitments to education for sustainable development, including support for urgent actions at all levels to:

(a) Integrate information and communications technology in school curriculum development;

(b) Promote, as appropriate, affordable and increased access to programs in developed countries for students, researchers and engineers in developing countries in order to promote exchange of experience and capacity to benefit all partners;

(c) Continue to implement the work program of the Commission on Sustainable Development on education for sustainable development;

(d) Recommend to the United Nations General Assembly that it consider adopting a decade of education for sustainable development, starting in 2005.

A UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development will offer significant opportunities to advance this movement, and preparation for this decade can serve as a strong focal point for collaboration. The World Summit clearly underlined the fact that many are not prepared to make the transition necessary to ensure a sustainable future. A significant educational effort is crucial to providing the understanding, skills and motivation required to make sustainable development central to society’s policies and practices. The adoption of a decade of ESD recognizes that education is indeed a significant priority for the realization of sustainable development, even though it was considered the “lost priority” in the decade from Rio to Johannesburg.

UNESCO, the Earth Charter, and the Ubuntu Declaration
The South African Department of Education and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in its role as task manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, hosted a two-day event at the WSSD entitled “Educating for a Sustainable Future: Action, Commitments and Partnerships.” Here UNESCO announced a major Type II Partnership1: the Global Higher Education for Sustainability Partnership (GHESP), involving the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, COPERNICUS-CAMPUS, the International Association of Universities, and UNESCO. GHESP seeks to develop and share effective strategies, models and best practices for promoting higher education for sustainability, and to analyze experience thus far in order to make recommendations in consultation with key Northern and Southern stakeholders.2

During the same event, South Africa’s Minister of Education launched the South African version of UNESCO’s multimedia teacher education program: “Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future.” This CD-ROM contains 100 hours of professional development for use in pre-service teacher courses as well as in-service education of teachers, curriculum developers, education policy makers, and authors of educational materials. The program enables educators to help students develop and evaluate alternative visions of a sustainable future and work creatively with others to help bring their visions of a better world into effect.3

A report prepared for the WSSD by UNESCO and the International Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Sustainability of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development contributed substantively to discussions on ESD at the summit. The higher education section of this report, entitled “Education for Sustainability – From Rio to Johannesburg: Lessons learnt from a decade of commitment,” identifies key lessons for success in implementing innovative policies and practices that achieve sustainable outcomes in universities, which include:

A demonstration of commitment from a senior executive: full, visible and tangible support form senior university executives is critical to success in implementing sustainability strategies. A clear signal can be sent to the university community by becoming a signatory to one of the key declarations on sustainability in higher education) e.g. Talloires, Copernicus, Kyoto, etc).

A ‘triple-bottom line’ perspective: sustainable universities focus not only on efforts to ‘green’ the curriculum and their management practices but also on measures to promote social and economic sustainability.

A sustainability strategy: universities that are successful tend to have a comprehensive strategy for sustainability that has been negotiated and agreed through the university’s decision-making structures.

Implementation and cultural change: the likelihood of sustainability strategies leading to real outcomes depends on successful cultural change across a university, and developing appropriate attitudes and skills among students and administrative and academic staff.

Monitoring and evaluation: a process for regular monitoring and evaluation and reporting is vital to ensuring continuous and effective implementation.4

Another significant education-related Type II Partnership launched at the WSSD focuses on “Educating for Sustainable Living with the Earth Charter.” The Earth Charter is a declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century. Seen by many as the unfinished business of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Earth Charter was created through a decade long, multicultural dialogue, and was completed in 2000.

The major goal of the Earth Charter partnership is “to provide education and training for local leaders and communities regarding the fundamental principles of sustainable development, and how to incorporate these principles into decision making processes. The Earth Charter will be employed as the primary educational instrument in this process. Toward this end the Earth Charter will be integrated into professional training and community development programs as a guiding framework for implementing sustainable development.”5

Among the notable declarations to emerge from the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Ubuntu Declaration is highly significant in terms of higher education for sustainable development.6 Building on the Lüneburg Declaration on Higher Education for Sustainable Development7 (October 2001), the Ubuntu Declaration calls for greater global emphasis on education for sustainable development, the strengthening of science and technology education for sustainable development, and international partnerships to accomplish these goals.

Issued collectively by the United Nations University, UNESCO, the African Academy for Science, GHESP (and its individual members), the Science Council of Asia, the Third World Academy of Science, and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, the Ubuntu Declaration concludes with the resolve to “work towards a new global learning space on education and sustainability that promotes cooperation and exchange between institutions at all levels and in all sectors of education around the world. This space must be developed on the basis of international networks of institutions and the creation of regional centers of excellence, which bring together universities, poly-techniques, and institutions of secondary education and primary schools. We invite all other responsible stakeholders to join us in this endeavor.”8 This declaration is particularly significant because it brings together so many crucial stakeholders from the North and South.

We hope and anticipate that these various higher education efforts will become more closely integrated over the next few years and will join together in a major global initiative to advance the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, in cooperation with other levels of formal and informal education.

This piece is taken from a longer article entitled “International Efforts to Promote Higher Education for Sustainable Development,” written for Planning for Higher Education, the Journal of the U.S.-based Society for College and University Planning, to be published in spring 2003.


1 Type II outcomes from the World Summit are partnerships involving governments, NGOs and businesses. Of the two hundred and eighty-three Type II Partnerships announced at the WSSD, approximately 12 focused on education for sustainability. Type I outcomes are the Political Declaration and the Plan of Implementation.
2 This partnership formed originally in 2000 (and was featured in the May 2001 issue of this report), was reconfirmed this year and announced as a Type II Partnership at the WSSD.
3 This program is available in two multimedia formats: a CD-ROM and an Internet program available at
4 “Education for Sustainability – From Rio to Johannesburg: Lessons learnt from a decade of commitment,” Report prepared by UNESCO and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, WSSD, 2002, pp. 39-40.
5 The partnership proposal can be seen at
6 The Ubuntu Declaration is named for an area designated “Ubuntu Village” at the WSSD. “Ubuntu” derives from ubu which means creation, and ntu which means creator. Ubuntu has seven key principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamu (corporate economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creative) and imani (faith).
7 The Lüneburg Declaration was the first joint policy statement of GHESP addressed to the WSSD.
8 “Ubuntu Declaration on Education and Science and Technology for Sustainable Development,” World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August – 4 September 2002. See

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