The focus of 2020 has been COVID-19, and in the initial stages of lockdown, news channels across the world featured little else. In between the disheartening statistics though, there was also news of cleaner skies, oceans, and land — with lesser human activity, the Earth thrived. This proved that we cannot go back to the unsustainable pattern of life we were used to pre-pandemic. So if the year has taught us anything, it is that we need to exist in harmony with our environment. And in making that possible, education plays a key role.
Sustainable education creates long-lasting solutions within the learning system. It involves academic participation under the three pillars of sustainability — environmental, social, and economic — at all stages of learning.
Here’s how education systems can introduce students to sustainability theory and practice, and move towards an eco-friendly future together:
Improve policies and financing
Quality education that prepares students to live sustainably requires financing and policy changes from governments. For example, schools in European nations like Switzerland, Belgium, and Finland have transformed their campuses into sustainable spaces with support from the EU’s Erasmus+ program. Similarly, governmental bodies across the world can partner with educational institutions to support sustainability learning through finances and legislation, while keeping pace with efforts such as UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 — equitable education and lifelong learning for all.
Encourage eco-friendly practices
Educational institutions should encourage eco-friendly practices at school. This could involve recycling, composting, alternate energy, or something as simple as going partly digital to cut down on the use of paper. The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill is a prime example of an eco-friendly campus with major sustainability projects including energy-efficient buildings, green transportation options, water conservation, and better waste management. Other institutions can take responsibility for their environmental impact in similar ways.
Integrate sustainability into the curriculum
Sustainability should be integrated into curriculums in early school years so that awareness can be built from a young age. This should then carry forward into college curriculums, making sustainability a reality at all levels of education. Some universities have already started on this mission, and leading them is Iowa State University. Their ‘Live Green!’ initiative is supported by students and faculty through academic and extracurricular activities. Students can contribute through volunteer work, exchange programs, and on-campus associations and research groups.
Foster a collaborative learning environment
In order to combat climate change, countries and their ideas need to come together. With this goal, education should take on a globalized approach that encourages interconnectedness and collaboration. The University of Melbourne prides itself on its international research community and its contribution to global solutions for environmental challenges. The same can be said for several leading universities, while others are catching up now, with the repercussions of climate change close at our heels. The world is starting to see that this fight is one that needs all countries on the same side of the battle.
The UNESCO 2014-2021 education strategy aims at inclusive and responsible learning for students in any country. 2020 has only reiterated the necessity for such intervention and education institutions can go a long way in helping to create a better tomorrow. As the new academic year begins, education and sustainability should walk hand-in-hand into 2021 through sustainable learning, as envisioned by UNESCO years before the outbreak of the pandemic.
Rather than teaching students about heroes, institutions should aim at teaching them how to be heroes — by building a sustainable future. Now is the time to take action against climate change and the education sector has a world-saving role to play.