Sustainability & Education – Two Intertwined Journeys Towards A Common Future
Sustainability means to last into the future, education is the only way to ensure something from now, endures into the future. So clearly education and sustainability are interlinked, Having completed a masters in Sustainability over the Covid period I would say that a couple of things about studying this subject at a good level stand out, one is there is a rollercoaster of dread combined with hope and which you move (often ) between, The dread is inevitable I think when you look at the current situation, the positive faith in people that comes through learning more about solutions and actions we can take is both completely necessary and rewarding. The second thing about Sustainability is that it is incredibly general, there is an aspect of Sustainability in every part of the pursuit or profession in life. This makes it accessible and hard to get a grip of at the same time.
To speak personally I came to study Sustainability recently, and through an interest in CSR, I have been a teacher and trainer all my working life. This pretty much mirrors the world's recent seeing the light in terms of climate change and net zero. So, to ensure that this impetus isn't lost we need to educate people on the seriousness of the planet’s situation and give them the knowledge to repair it. People like Al Gore and Greta Thunberg have succeeded in getting Sustainability onto the global Agenda, whereas people like Rachel Carson and Herman Daly were not as successful, we mustn't lose this impetus.
I said earlier how general Sustainability is, and I would say that we sometimes fail in our education systems to tackle the more every day or common-sense parts of life. We focus on academics without teaching people how to manage their money in school, or how to change a plug. The more we can integrate the basics of sustainable living into schools the better. One of the most committed and passionate teachers I know has just completed a course on incorporating Sustainability into education. With the help of UNESCO educators from the American University of Sharjah learned about incorporating the key tenets of the SDGs into teaching material used in departments across the university. In an international partnership, they worked to produce materials that will impact students' knowledge of Sustainability all across the curriculum. This is a great example of a positive new normal, where Sustainability is ever-present in the thoughts and considerations of people, instead of being a peripheral, or optional extra.
Education empowers all people, and education today especially motivates the young to take action. Incorporating sustainability at the heart of education gives it the prominence that it deserves and requires if we are to have any chance of making the changes to our economic and political priorities that are required in this time of climate emergency. Education for sustainable development means giving students the knowledge, skills, values, and agency to address the massive challenges the earth faces in this Anthropocene era. These are key challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of resources, and inequality. When we make people and the planet the heart of education, learners understand the real urgency and need for change. Putting sustainability into the core of the education system immediately prioritises these issues instead of seeing them as an additional or peripheral matter.
The UAE has a long history of incorporating the ideas of Sustainability into its primary and secondary education sectors. Education for sustainable development (ESD) has been defined as “a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology, and equity of all communities”. In addition, the World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development (2009) defined ESD as “an approach to teaching and learning based on the ideals and principles that underlie sustainability”. The UAE can be viewed as being ahead of the game with its 2009 launch of its Sustainable Schools initiative which aimed to an understanding of the key values of Sustainability in public and private schools in Abu Dhabi. This program has grown to include over 150 schools. Other emirates within the UAE also include Sustainability criteria within their school inspection program. Sharjah also has a green Schools Award within its Sharjah Sustainability Awards, last year 22 schools from the Emirate were honoured for their efforts to incorporate sustainability into their teaching and pupils' learning experience. Individual schools like Fairgreen School Dubai, GEMS Millennium School – Sharjah, and St Joseph’s Abu Dhabi in the UAE all have flagship Sustainability programmes.
Things move on quickly here in the Emirates but it is worth remembering that Expo 2020 closed just a few months ago. Sustainability was one of its overriding themes and millions of visitors, amongst them, hundreds of thousands of students passed through the Sustainability pavilion there or were impacted by other ESD initiatives which Expo pioneered. We can see then that there are a growing number of ESD activities going on here at all levels of the education sector and also more broadly in society. However, there are also challenges that the UAE faces in becoming more green. The massive and fast growth in construction and the high consumption lifestyle require huge amounts of energy, additionally, the unavoidable need for cooling and seawater desalination also creates very high GHG emissions. These are broader concerns, within the Educational field the varied reporting standards expectations in the different Emirates can lead to a lack of empirical clarity when it comes to reporting and tracking standards.
UNESCO leads the way globally in co-ordinating Sustainable Education initiatives UNESCO is the United Nations' leading agency for ESD and is responsible for the implementation of ESD for 2030, the current global framework for ESD which takes up and continues the work of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) and the Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD (2015-2019). UNESCO’s work on ESD focuses on five main areas: Advancing policy, transforming learning environments, Building the capacities of educators,
Empowering and mobilising youth and accelerating local-level action.UNESCO supports countries to develop and expand educational activities that focus on sustainability issues such as climate change, biodiversity, disaster risk reduction, water, the oceans, sustainable urbanisation, and sustainable lifestyles through ESD. UNESCO leads and advocates globally on ESD and provides guidance and standards. It also provides data on the status of ESD and monitors progress on SDG Indicators.
Here in the Gulf UNESCO has been part of several projects including organising workshops in the UAE on t “The Role of Higher Education Institutions in Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the UAE. The meetings were part of UNESCO’s role in assisting representatives of higher education institutions in the UAE with practical information on how to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development goals and the role of colleges and universities in doing that. In Qatar UNESCO regional office partnered with the Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar to work on Climate Change Education through an initiative entitled “Measuring Household Carbon Footprint in Qatar through Youth Engagement”.The initiative aims to educate students and households about their consumption patterns and to raise awareness of the impact of their lifestyle on global warming. Initiatives like these have the benefit that children become aware of more sustainable options of consumption themselves and also can share this knowledge with their families about how to better protect the environment and natural resources.
And although I led the Generality of Sustainable education initiatives I want to continue with another industry-specific initiative. I worked for many years in Banking and Finance Training. In terms of Sustainability finance is the area which I think has the most potential leverage to tackle the Climate Emergency. I always like to remind people that the famous American gangster Al Capone, was imprisoned because of his tax evasion. In other words, follow the money. The UNEP Finance Initiative is a project that aims to encourage and enable banks to align their business with the SDGs and use that alignment as an engine to drive change through society. The UNEP FI has 6 core principles that banks sign up to. This summer they launched a new education initiative in collaboration with The Chartered Banker Institute this new online interactive training, is designed for banking employees. brings together one of the world’s most established professional banking institutes, the world’s foremost responsible banking framework, and one of the largest organisations for international development cooperation worldwide. This is happening through the educational qualifications which are being offered. The key point here is that these training courses act as pathways from high-level policy decisions into people and business everyday lives. Once these courses are established then the products and services offered by banks on the mall or high street will be in line with them. The leverage here is huge, if mortgages, loans, and pension fund investments are directed toward decisions that support sustainable practices then this is a massive engine for change. Here in the UAE the Emirates Institute for Banking and Financial Studies will be offering these qualifications to bankers and students. This kind of initiative helps keep the UAE at the forefront of education in the sustainable finance field.
I would like to move onto a 3rd industry in which I’ve been involved, Aviation. And look at one of the key benefits a combination of Education and technology brought to it. Aviation is one of the most challenging industries to make sustainable as its core business activity is burning aviation fuel. Sustainable aviation fuels are problematic in their sourcing and effectiveness. A solution that led to significant reductions in the amount of GHG emitted. Signol is an app that analyses flying decisions and gives personalised feedback to captains to improve their efficiency and reduce fuel burnt. This impacts the Sustainability of flights significantly and is an example of highly personalised education for skilled professionals, resulting in reducing pollution. Signol is also being deployed in the maritime shipping industry, which could potentially result in massive savings in the use of polluting diesel fuels. This seems very specific but if goods and people are transported more efficiently, then our holidays, business trips, and our weekly grocery shopping and trips to the mall all become more sustainable.
Overall, the UAE faces a challenging but potentially very fruitful place when it comes to Sustainability, both in the field of education and the broader context there is a tremendous opportunity to create the change needed for sustainability through education. The UAE has a long track record of both innovation and imitation of the best practices from around the world. Other countries may be further ahead with their ESD frameworks, but few countries can move as swiftly and effectively to achieve a goal once it has set its mind to it. The country already has strong alliances such as UNESCO, the UNDP and UNEP. Using this knowledge and its resources and experience the country can certainly forge ahead with education for sustainable development.
About the Author:
A long time teacher and UAE resident David May has worked in higher education and in the banking, aviation and defence industries. He has an MA in English and an MSc in Sustainability. He is particularly interested in Sustainable Finance and Education.