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Environmental sustainability rhymes with lifelong learning

The European Commission published its proposal for a Council Recommendation on learning for environmental sustainability. The aim of the proposal is to support Member States, schools, higher education institutions, non-governmental organisations and all education providers in equipping learners with understanding and skills on sustainability, climate change and the environment. 

What is it?

This proposal serves the European strategy to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent 

and envisions decisive actions to be taken now. The European Education Area, the European Green Deal and other key initiatives already recognise the crucial role of education and training for the green transition: this proposal builds on them to step up Europe’s commitment. Learners of all ages now need to be able to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to live more sustainably, change patterns of consumption and production, embrace healthier lifestyles and contribute – both individually and collectively – to the transformation of our societies. The Commission explicitly points at a “lifelong learning approach to learning for environmental sustainability with hands-on, engaging and action-based ways of learning which foster (i) knowledge, understanding and critical thinking (cognitive learning); (ii) practical skills development (applied learning); and (iii) empathy, solidarity and caring for nature (socio-emotional learning)”.

What for?

The Commission proposal aims to:

  • articulate a vision and shared understanding at EU level on the deep and transformative changes needed in education and training for the green transition;
  • develop a coherent approach to the competences, skills and attitudes that people need to act, live and work in a sustainable manner, strengthen the importance of lifelong learning to ensure that everybody from a young age through to adulthood can acquire those competences and skills; 
  • facilitate the sharing of policy-maker, researcher and educator expertise and best practices at system and institution level;
  • support initiatives at EU level to foster learning for environmental sustainability; and encourage investment in the above areas.

How?

The proposal recommends that Member States establish learning for environmental sustainability as a priority area in education and training policies and programmes; this will likely bring not only extra attention to this topic, but also – crucially – more funding. Among its provisions to support learners, we find that it needs to “[s]trengthen, including through financial support, high-quality lifelong learning for environmental sustainability, including traineeships, apprenticeships, volunteering, extra-curricular activities and other forms of non-formal and informal learning. Recognise and reward civic engagement in environmental sustainability”. This would mean that Europe is about to take a huge leap forward as it will recognise the active role that all forms of learning play in making human activities more sustainable, in line with its commitment to meet all Sustainable Development Goals. 

Moreover, this proposal also supports a) educators to facilitate learning for environmental sustainability, and b) education and training institutions to effectively integrate environmental sustainability across all their activities. Such ambitious objectives will hopefully steer Europe a little more on the track of environmental sustainability. To achieve them, Member States are encouraged to agree on the mobilisation of national and EU funds for investment in infrastructure, training, tools and resources. The EU programmes and financing schemes that will support the actions to be taken under this recommendation will be the Erasmus+, the Recovery and Resilience Facility, European Solidarity Corps, European Social Fund Plus, European Regional Development Fund, the Technical Support Instrument, Digital Europe Programme, Horizon Europe and InvestEU. When it comes to instruments, it will be important that such noble purposes are met with funding that is adequate to revolutionise European education systems. 

At the same time, as is often the case with Council recommendations, the implementation process and measures will be as important as the recommendation itself. It will be important to stay within the framework of a learner-guided implementation, where education is implemented for its own sake. 

Systemic cooperation for a green transition

It is nonetheless crucial to realise that the burden of reaching the objective shall not be placed entirely on individuals or on education systems. Alone, atomised individuals or educators will not make the world greener overnight: such a titanic effort shall see the active involvement and commitment of decision-makers and major economic players and polluters. Environmental challenges are first and foremost of economic nature (e.g. production and consumption models) and have societal implications (e.g. migration, inequalities). The system cannot be changed by only looking at the environmental dimension without questioning our economic and social system. Education is a place where its actors can understand what is wrong with the system and identify solutions to fix it, but education stakeholders cannot do that in isolation from the community and society that they live in.  

As a way of illustrating this, integrating education for sustainability in the education system can only succeed if the economic and productive policies supported by employment and civil society stakeholders fuel the creation of green jobs and occupations as well as the development of green skills. The same applies to social policies addressing inequality gaps; intergenerational sustainability can only be achieved if intragenerational wellbeing is given proper attention. Close cooperation between stakeholders can support that and is essential in that regard.  

Lifelong learning as guiding principle 

Likewise, it will be important to not conceive education and training only as a means to cover the jobs needed as part of the green transition as the first aim indicates, but keep in mind that the ultimate goal must always be to improve education in itself.

At the same time, it is revitalising to acknowledge that the European Commission is envisioning to put education and lifelong learning at the centre of this new journey. All the more, because many of the guiding provisions in the proposal had been put forward by the Lifelong Learning Platform in its position paper on “Lifelong Learning for Sustainable Societies”. And we like to believe that well-grounded documents such as the position paper, informed with values of inclusion and solidarity, will always end up being the backbone of progressive decision-making.