An Australian Government Perspective on the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development
Peter Woods, Assistant Secretary - Knowledge Management and Education, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage
Address to the National Symposium on the DESD
Melbourne, 7 July 2005
Firstly, in NAIDOC Week, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and the relevance of our indigenous heritage to the issues with which this Symposium and the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable development are concerned.
UNESCO's vision of education for sustainable development is "a world where everyone has the opportunity to benefit from quality education and learn the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future and for positive societal transformation."
Kofi Anan has said that transforming the abstract notion of sustainable development into a reality for all the world's people is "our biggest challenge in this century."
Bringing together in a meaningful and concrete sense issues such as poverty reduction, health, human rights, gender equality, corporate responsibility, and the management of our natural resources is no easy task.
The United Nations declaration of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development is an acknowledgement that education is a key element in meeting this challenge.
The UN Decade centres on the collective pursuit of a global vision, linked to shared objectives.
That sense of a collective approach and vision, and shared objectives, is as relevant to Australia as anywhere else. In fact it is fundamental to the Australian Government's National Action Plan - Education for a Sustainable Future which, among other things, highlights the importance of a coordinated approach.
In the pursuit of sustainable development - or sustainability - it is important that we work together to put into practice the vision of a sustainable world - something that does not need to be emphasised to this audience.
As indicated by the range of organisations represented here today, sustainable development involves everyone in the community, not just governments.
Having said that, governments have a particular role to play in national endeavours and it is that role, as it applies to the Australian Government, that I want to focus on in my remarks this morning.
In particular I want to set the scene for a national response to the Decade, to provide an information base for the discussions that will follow these initial presentations today.
The Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, regrets he is unable to be here. He has indicated however that he will be interested to hear about the outcomes of today's Symposium and will consider them in finalising the Government's approach to the Decade.
As stated by UNESCO, the capacity of countries to pursue sustainable development, and the nature of their responses to the DESD, will vary. Relative to many other countries, Australia's political institutions, social coherence, stability, education and health systems, and overall prosperity mean that we do not need to concentrate our efforts in these fundamental areas, as other countries may need to. Our national efforts can therefore concentrate on how we can build on existing approaches and further embed sustainability education, learning, values and thinking in our economic, social and political institutions, policies and programmes.
In general the Australian Government's role is to show leadership at national level; build capacity; and effect change in individual initiatives that will act as a catalyst for wider national change. It also has international obligations.
The Australian Government's existing commitment to sustainability, and in particular education for sustainable development, is demonstrated in a number of ways.
In a broad sense, initiatives such as the Sustainable Environment Committee of Cabinet, the inclusion of a Sustainable Australia as one of our national research priorities, and the $3.2 billion in 2005-2006 that was committed in the last Federal Budget to environment-related issues reflect the priority accorded by the Government to a whole of government approach to sustainability.
In relation to education for sustainability specifically, the Australian Government's guiding policy document since its release in July 2000 has been the National Action Plan - Environmental Education for a Sustainable Future.
The principles espoused in the National Action Plan, and the initiatives flowing from it, are very consistent with those espoused by UNESCO in its draft International Implementation Scheme for the Decade - notably that education for sustainable development should be:
- multidisciplinary and holistic;
- values driven;
- concerned with problem solving and critical thinking; and
- involving participatory decision-making.
One of the aims of the National Action Plan has been to go beyond raising awareness and educating about the environment, to focus on equipping people and organisations with the necessary values and skills to be able to take positive action to address a range of sustainability issues.
The Australian Government's commitment to this aim is reflected in initiatives such as:
- the establishment of the National Environmental Education Council and National Environmental Education Network;
- the $2.3 million applied education research programme through the Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability (ARIES) at Macquarie University;
- the $2 million Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative;
- the development of the first National Environmental Education Statement for Australian Schools that was endorsed in May this year by all of Australia's Education Ministers;
- the $255,000 allocated under the 2004-05 Environmental Education Grants Programme, including funding to hold this National Symposium; and
- funds allocated under other Australian Government programmes such as the $200 million Australian Community Water Grants programme, under which a total of $1 million has already been allocated to demonstration projects, including $356,000 to ten schools around the country.
These initiatives are very much about capacity building and finding ways of integrating sustainability thinking into all sectors of the Australian community.
A look at the grants made this year under the Environmental Education Grants Programme also indicates the Australian Government's approach. They include:
- $25,000 to assist the Australian Association for Environmental Education to establish a national secretariat;
- $40,000 to the Gould League to work with local government on community sustainability;
- $25,000 to the Centre for Design at RMIT to develop sustainability curriculum materials for industrial design students;
- $24,000 to the National Centre for Sustainability at Swinburne University to develop materials to support the adoption of sustainability learning in all industry training packages
- as well as grants to the Institute of Engineers, Doctors for the Environment, Scout Association of Australia and Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability.
These projects were supported because of their capacity to integrate sustainability into mainstream areas and their potential to have a national impact.
Having the right policy frameworks in place is a central plank of the Australian Government's approach. The approval by all Education Ministers of the first National Environmental Education Statement for Australian Schools is a considerable achievement in this regard. As well as demonstrating a highly effective partnership between education and environment portfolios, the Statement provides a comprehensive and strategic approach to sustainability education in schools.
At a practical level, the $2 million Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative is already producing financial, social and educational, as well as environmental, benefits in the 600 schools in which it is currently operating.
Similarly the research work being undertaken by ARIES is indicative of the approach the Australian Government is pursuing. The Industry Sustainability project, and the Education for and About Sustainability in Australian Business Schools project, are both aimed at integrating sustainability thinking into the operations of Australian companies and institutions that impact on the thinking of companies.
The private and public sector organisations involved in the Industry Sustainability action research project include Westpac, IAG, National Australia Bank, Toyota, Amcor, VISY, Wesley Mission, Yarra Valley Water, Parramatta City Council, and the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage. The research will bring together the experiences of the participating organisations to produce case studies and/or a model to assist a broader range of organisations.
Given the impact government policies can have, a further study will investigate organisational learning and change for sustainability within Australian Government departments and agencies. The Building Government Capacity Towards Sustainability project will explore the dynamics, characteristics, systems and structures that bring people together, enable cooperation between agencies, and strengthen the relationships that support change.
The fact that the Australian Government has been prepared to commit $2.3 million to a research programme to underpin its policies indicates its interest in achieving real outcomes in an area which can suffer from a lack of clarity and depth of understanding about how to practically achieve the desired outcomes.
The Australian Government's approach is also very much about developing partnerships to achieve objectives. This is evident with its work with the National Environmental Education Network and through ARIES.
The Australian Government is involved internationally with the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. In addition to UNESCO, current initiatives with other countries include a collaborative research project with the Japanese Institute for Global Environment Strategies looking at the Australian experience in education for sustainable development, as well as examining the possibility of developing a model ESD strategy for use by other countries in the Asia Pacific. Possible future work may involve Indonesia and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme.
The European-based environmental education organisation, ENSI, has also proposed that Australia consider sponsoring a regional secretariat in the Asia Pacific.
The Australian Government's current national and international activities in education for sustainability are consistent with the strategies outlined by UNESCO in the draft International Implementation Scheme.
Given the consistency of the existing approaches, the Australian Government is approaching the Decade with a concern for building on its current achievements, as well as looking for new opportunities to make connections between projects and establish partnerships in new areas.
In terms of building on existing approaches, an obvious area of activity for the Australian Government and National Environmental Education Council is a review of the current National Action Plan, given the Plan has now been in existence for five years and all its key initiatives have been implemented.
As we continue our work with industry, communities, and education institutions, there is a need, recognised by the Australian Government, to move into new areas. While environmental education in Australia has for many years embraced economic, social and political considerations, as well as environmental considerations, it is still true that the strongest impetus for sustainability comes from the environment sector.
Part of the existing work of the Australian Government Environment and Heritage portfolio, and the National Environmental Education Council, is to integrate and embed sustainability principles into all sectors of the Australian community. Not only should environmentalists be concerned about the economic, social and political dimensions of sustainability but business people, economists, and those working in the social sciences should also give equal importance to environmental considerations when they are developing and implementing their forward plans and policies for the business, economy, social welfare, health sector, etc.
As indicated in the UNESCO draft International Implementation Scheme, it is essential that our progress through the Decade be monitored and evaluated. Further work is required in this area to clarify exactly what indicators and methodologies should be employed.
We are all aware there is much work to be done - and many of us here are no doubt impatient to build on our collective efforts to date. The Australian Government has a particular role to play but it cannot do it all. All levels of government, industry, bodies involved in formal education, community groups and individuals need to consider what role they can play in progressing sustainability, including establishing new partnerships outside their normal relationships.
In conclusion, Australia is well-placed to respond to the Decade. The Australian Government's current approach encompasses a broad definition of education for sustainable development with the aim of integrating sustainability thinking into all sectors of the Australian community. It sees itself playing a leadership role with a focus on national and international initiatives and building partnerships in key areas.
I look forward to seeing the outcomes from today's symposium and conveying them back to Senator Campbell.