• English

High-level meeting of Education and Environment Ministries

Vilnius, 17-18 March 2005
Statement by Mrs. Brigita Schmögnerová,
Executive Secretary

Mr. Permanent Secretary, Ministers, Excellencies, Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to open this first High-level meeting of Education and Environment Ministries. This event is unique in the way it brings together for the first time representatives of two key sectors that should jointly be driving forces for sustainable development. I would like to say a particularly welcome to UNESCO, who is a key partner and is leading the implementation of education for sustainable development at the global level. I am delighted to see so many non-governmental organizations present. They are proof that civil society is playing an increasing role in contributing to sustainable development agendas in our region.

When the World Commission on Environment and Development published its report in 1987, it presented a new concept – sustainable development. The concept became one of the most successful approaches to be introduced in many years. In fact, it helped to shape the international agenda and the international community’s attitude towards economic, social and environmental development.

The Commission’s report defines sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The concept supports strong economic and social development, in particular for people with a low standard of living. At the same time it underlines the importance of protecting the natural resource base and the environment. Economic and social well-being cannot be improved with measures that destroy the environment. Intergenerational solidarity is also crucial: all development has to take into account its impact on the opportunities for future generations.
More than a decade of experience of sustainable development work has produced both successes and challenges. One of the clearest successes is the widespread local activity. Thousands of municipalities have taken the promotion of sustainable development seriously, with subsequent increased awareness and improved performance.

But, of course, many problems still persist. At a recent course for government officials from Central and Eastern Europe, participants raised a number of concerns: lack of understanding of the concept in administrations, insufficient political support, limited resources at different levels for effective action, inadequate involvement of civil society, inertia in education systems and various problems in specific sectors of the economy.

One of the cross-cutting issues to promote sustainable development that has gained prominence recently is education. Even if sustainable development is not a scientific concept enabling understanding of the different interactions in relation to it is crucial. Decision-makers and ordinary citizens would benefit from more learning. The United Nations Decade for Education for Sustainable Development starting in 2005 and led by UNESCO illustrates the importance of education in achieving sustainable development.

The drafting of a UNECE Strategy for Education for Sustainable Development, which was initiated by the Environment Ministers at their conference in Kiev in May 2003, shows that there is support in the region for an operational commitment to it. The cooperation between environment and education ministries in the drafting process has been very encouraging, but after the adoption of the Strategy its application will constitute the real litmus test of countries’ readiness to cooperate.

The importance of education for understanding and promotion of sustainable development have been recognized recently on regional and sub-regional level.

The Regional Ministerial Preparatory Meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development called for initiatives in the area of education. Specifically, the Ministers “agreed to improve education systems and the design of learning programmes on sustainable development to increase the general understanding of how to implement and promote sustainable development in practice.”

The World Summit on Sustainable Development stressed the need to integrate sustainable development into education systems at all levels of education, from pre-school to higher education and non-formal education, in order to promote education as a key agent for change.

Today’s event is the result of a decision made by UNECE Environment Ministers at their “Environment for Europe” Conference in Kiev recognizing that education is a fundamental tool for environmental protection and sustainable development and that environmental education has increasingly addressed a wide range of issues included in Agenda 21, the Ministers endorsed the Statement on Education for Sustainable Development by acclamation. They invited all countries to integrate sustainable development into their education systems and agreed to take the lead in promoting regionally the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

They also invited UNECE to develop a UNECE strategy for education for sustainable development (ESD) in close cooperation with UNESCO and other relevant actors.

As you know the UNECE region is very diverse politically, economically and socially. UNECE ‘s role is to shape policies in the region and to provide a forum for communication among States and developing international legal and soft-law instruments. Education is a rather new issue for ECE. Thus, the drafting of the Strategy was a challenging exercise for everybody. I wish to express my appreciation to all and everybody who contributed to the process and to the governments of Sweden and the Russian Federation for leading it.

Education for sustainable development is a complex and dynamic concept encompassing a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues. Effective implementation of the Strategy thus requires close cooperation of different actors on all levels of society. Therefore, it was crucially important to develop the draft through a participatory process involving governments, UNESCO, NGOs and other stakeholders. Noting the diversity in the region the draft had to be made flexible enough, so that its implementation can be adapted to each country’s priorities, specific needs and circumstances.

The aim of the Strategy is rather ambitious encouraging countries to incorporate ESD into their formal education systems, in all relevant subjects, and in non-formal and informal education. It suggests establishing a partnership mechanism between different ministries and agencies to coordinate the implementation. The Strategy supports multi-stakeholder cooperation and an important role for NGOs, trade unions, various communities, including communities of indigenous people and media, among others.

Our region has a good basis for implementing ESD. Most countries have established well-functioning education systems, ensured access to basic education and equal rights to education for all. However, there are serious challenges ahead. The key one is that the education systems are not flexible enough for the integrative nature of ESD. Countries need to adapt their legislation and policy frameworks to the needs of ESD.

There are already some good practices available in different parts of the region. Efficient mechanisms to share information and good practices will have to be established in order to make the implementation of the Strategy as practical and effective as possible.

I am pleased that UNECE can be seen as a pioneer among the UN regional commissions in driving ESD and that this initiative provides a substantial regional contribution to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly. We are officially going to launch this contribution tomorrow.

There is no stronger a catalyst to implement sustainable development than the goodwill and active contribution by our citizens. I am convinced that the knowledge and awareness that ESD can promote will facilitate a shift in people's mindsets and in so doing enable us to make this world safer, healthier and more prosperous.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is prepared to continue to support this process in open and close cooperation with all our partners. Let us together make this historical endeavour something that we can be proud of for the future.

Finally, I wish to express my deepest gratitude to the Government and the people of Lithuania for hosting this Conference, for making it a memorable event, and for the warm welcome and hospitality extended to all of us.

Thank you.