Every big or small decision we make in our everyday lives has a major impact on a global level. It starts with our diet, how we travel or work, or what we wear. In a world with more than 7.5 billion people, limited natural resources, increasing social injustice, climate change, food shortages and the loss of biodiversity, the livelihoods of current and future generations are becoming increasingly scarce.

For decades we have known how important it is to change our ideas about growth and consumption and to treat nature with respect again. But despite some positive developments and an international consensus on the urgency of acting together, the measures have never been profound enough to achieve effective, long-term positive change. What makes it so difficult for states to stop the necessary measures, such as against climate change? What prevents people from using the means they have to act more economically, more environmentally friendly and thus more sustainably? And what do we need to think and act more sustainably?

In addition to important political decisions that pave the way, it is also essential that all people, young and old, are part of the solution. To do this, they need “tools” to develop competencies and skills that help them to react positively and innovatively and to act in a solution-oriented and sustainable manner. Quality education and education for sustainable development (ESD) are among these important tools.

Education for sustainable development (ESD) aims to enable people to understand the impact of their own actions on the environment and at the same time to consider and question social, economic and cultural contexts.

Education for sustainable development is an integral part of quality education that enables learners to change themselves and their societies, enable a transition to more sustainable economies and more peaceful societies and to be “global citizens”. It can help ensure that students and adults are able to bring about change through their sustainable actions and contribute solutions with a personal connection.

ESD promotes progressive pedagogies that are interactive, transformative, participatory and put learners at the center. It includes learning environments that are action-oriented, connected to local communities and cultures and practical, such as outdoor learning that promotes contact with the natural environment. ESD empowers and equips learners with skills, values, attitudes and competences, such as systems thinking or collaborative decision-making, that enable them to understand the environment, economy, society and cultural diversity and make informed decisions, adopt sustainable lifestyles and take responsibility for current and future generations.

Another innovative aspect of ESD is that it increasingly blurs the distinction between formal, non-formal and informal education and involves various actors from civil society to the arts. This enriches learning and positions educational institutions as an integral and transparent part of the public.

There are many related forms of learning that are similar to ESD but often have a different focus. These include, for example, environmental education, human rights education, peace and democracy education, climate education or consumer education. All of these forms of learning can be linked to ESD, which encompasses these areas.

Education and the international community

For more than five decades, the global community has been concerned with the impacts of pollution, loss of biodiversity, depletion of natural resources and looming climate change. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development published its report “Our Common Future”, also known as the Brundtland Report, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its first assessment report. The report confirmed climate change, caused by a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of anthropogenic, human-derived activities. The report confirmed that climate change is anthropogenic, caused by human activities leading to a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The report also stressed that the emerging challenges and their global consequences cannot be met by one nation alone.

In 1992, the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, commonly referred to as the Earth Summit) was held in Rio de Janeiro to discuss and address pressing environmental and socio-economic development issues. Heads of state and government signed the Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, endorsed the Rio Declaration and the Forest Principles, and adopted Agenda 21. Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 underlines the crucial role of education in achieving sustainable development. Since then, education for all has been an integral part of the Sustainable Development Agenda.

2030 Sustainability Agenda – Goals for current and future generations

International cooperation is a key component in meeting the challenges. In September 2000, the international world committed to the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and formulated eight international development goals aimed at combating poverty and inequality and enabling universal primary education by 2015. The MDGs led to remarkable efforts to achieve some of the targets.

To support these goals, the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) was launched in 2005. Sustainable development was to be anchored as a guiding principle in all areas of education and thus contribute to solving global problems such as climate change, poverty or loss of biodiversity.

Following the MDGs, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015 with an ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets as its core. The ambitious Agenda 2030 is an action plan for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership that aims to help achieve a global sustainable society for the 21st century. Eradicating poverty – including extreme poverty – is seen as an indispensable prerequisite for sustainable development, with no one left behind. The stated goal is to hand over a world worth living in for current and future generations. Although the goals are linked in many ways, there are conflicting goals between the individual SDGs.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 is dedicated to quality education and its sub-goal of education for sustainable development. In 2017, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed the key role of ESD in its Resolution 72/222 as “an integral element of the Sustainable Development Goal on quality education and as a key to enabling all other Sustainable Development Goals”, including Sustainable Development Goal 13 on climate protection.

The UNESCO Global Action Programme on ESD was the official follow-up to the UN Decade on ESD with climate change as a key thematic focus, which ran from 2015 to 2019. It aimed to bring about long-term systemic change in the education system and to move education for sustainable development from project to structure. The Global Action Programme identified five key strategic points to advance ESD:

Policy support

Whole-of-institutional approach



Local authorities

At the end of November 2020, UNESCO launched the new global follow-up framework for the implementation of ESD in the period 2020-2030, “Education for Sustainable Development: Achieving the Global Sustainable Development Goals (ESD 2030)”. The ambitious goal is to achieve the 2030 Agenda with its 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by anchoring ESD in all areas of learning worldwide, thus creating a fairer and more sustainable world. With the new program “Education for Sustainable Development: Towards achieving the SDGs” – “ESD for 2030” for short – it clearly highlights the importance of ESD for the global sustainability agenda. The national ESD bodies will also continue their work.

The ESD 2030 Roadmap also sets three thematic priorities:

Transformative actions,

Structural changes

Technological advances

Sustainability Goal 4: Quality education

Education for sustainable development in Germany

The UN Decades for Education for Sustainable Development inspired many states to adopt concepts and political measures to move ESD from a project to a structure.

In January 2017, the Federal Government adopted the revised sustainability strategy, which is based on Agenda 2030, and called on states and municipalities to set their own strategies and priorities that are adapted to the respective regional conditions.

The National Action Plan for Education for Sustainable Development, which was developed with the participation of politics, science, business, civil society and young people, was adopted on June 2, 2017 by the National Platform for Education for Sustainable Development. The action plan contains 130 goals and 349 concrete recommendations for action for the individual educational areas with the aim of structurally anchoring education for sustainable development in the German educational landscape. The fields of action, goals and measures are structured according to the central educational areas.

Education for Sustainable Development in Hamburg

Hamburg’s contribution to the implementation of the United Nations’ global sustainability goals and the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) 2005-2014 included, among others, the “Hamburg Learns Sustainability” initiative launched by the Senate. The initiative promotes cross-agency cooperation, including civil society and other key players, to advance sustainable education in Hamburg. The Global Action Programme (GAP) announced by UNESCO from 2015 to 2019 following the UN Decade of ESD prompted the Hamburg Senate to continue the “Hamburg Learns Sustainability” initiative, which has since been coordinated under the leadership of the Authority for the Environment, Climate, Energy and Agriculture (BUKEA). With the printed matter 21/5468 “Hamburg’s contribution to the Global Action Programme on ESD”, the “Hamburg Learns Sustainability” initiative was given the task, among other things, of anchoring ESD more firmly in Hamburg and developing an ESD action plan for Hamburg. The coalition agreement for the 22nd legislative period also stipulates that the ESD Master Plan 2030 should be implemented “with high priority”. This resulted in the Hamburg Master Plan Education for Sustainable Development 2030 with the aim of structurally anchoring sustainable education in Hamburg’s educational landscape.

Hamburg Master Plan Education for Sustainable Development 2030

In June 2021, the Hamburg Senate adopted the Master Plan ESD 2030 and made over 1.1 million euros available for 2021 and 2022. The master plan has a term of ten years and includes a catalog of measures for a wide variety of educational areas from kindergarten to adult education, including municipalities/administration. Civil society should continue to support implementation.

The World Future Council has been part of the “Hamburg Learns Sustainability” initiative for years and was active in developing the Master Plan Education for Sustainable Development for the area of school education. Together with Hamburg civil society, we will support the implementation of the master plan.