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Education Is the Answer to Sustainable Development

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We're reaching a critical time in the field of sustainable development. At the end of October, the global population hit 7 billion. That number may not mean much on its own, but the rapid pace of global growth is what makes it truly concerning.

Since I was born, the world's population has more than doubled, and we now find ourselves with the largest youth population in history. More people are using more resources -- but those resources are fast depleting. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations is predicting that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. We encounter the same problems when we look at available food, minerals and other natural resources.

Yet this is not necessarily as ominous as it sounds. The Earth could actually support billions more people, assuming those people were making sound choices around resource production and consumption. This brings us to the heart of the issue: how do we convince individuals, organizations and governments to make the right choices, thus ensuring a sustainable future for us all?

Since the beginning of my career, I have always believed that the answer to that question is remarkably simple. In order to ensure a sustainable future, people of all ages and all walks of life need to start thinking and acting more responsibly towards our environment. But it is impossible to ask this of anyone without first making sure that people understand a right choice from a wrong choice and that they have the information and skills needed to follow through on whatever choice they make.

Education is the answer. It is transformative. Providing the right information and education can change people's values and behaviours, encouraging them to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. It can also break the cycle of poverty, malnutrition and disease that affects so many worldwide.

The power of education within the context of sustainable development was given centre stage when the United Nations General Assembly declared the United Nations Decade on Education for Sustainable Development from 2005 to 2014. The Decade helped focus attention on the fact that education is an indispensable element for achieving sustainable development. As that Decade comes to a close, many of us in the field are looking to what is ahead.

This week, as part of that effort, I'm attending a global assembly of experts on education for sustainable development in the Netherlands. The experts come from a worldwide network of Regional Centres of Expertise -- the official title of a global network of leaders on education and sustainable development issues. Spread out across 89 countries, the RCE network works collaboratively to develop innovative approaches to sustainable development. Put into practice, these approaches can then be scaled up to provide viable alternatives to unsustainable development activities. Also attending are representatives from UNDP, UNESCO as well as the mayors and governors from several cities in Europe, Asia and the United States and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende.

What makes this assembly so unique is that it is one of the few gatherings that includes participation from a wide variety of stakeholders -- from cities, communities, industries and academia -- who are all focused on building a bottom-up approach to realizing sustainable development. That grassroots approach is crucial to our success, since we will never be able to change people's behaviors by simply telling them what to do. We need to know what's important to them and what will resonate within their respective communities. The outcomes from this year's conference will hopefully help formulate a common vision and strategy for the RCE network and all partners in sustainable development, which will ensure enhanced collaboration towards the end of the Decade and beyond.

In the meantime, I call on each of you to do your part in raising the visibility of education as a fundamental element of sustainable development initiatives. Implementing education for sustainable development is an inter-sectoral endeavour, which will require high-level government support and political will to make it happen in all types, levels and settings of education and learning. Changing behaviors now will benefit the rights, health and well-being of future generations to come. It is our shared responsibility to make sure this happens.

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