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Charles Hopkins, York University’s UNESCO Chair, received the 2022 Clean50 Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in reorienting education systems towards sustainable development and fostering cross-sector collaboration.Supplied

There is a powerful tool that can help to address the interconnected global challenges of our time, including climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty and inequality – and this tool is education.

Yet how do we hone such a tool to enhance its application and impact? How do we ensure it can be effectively used in different circumstances and communities across the globe? Such questions are at the core of the career-long efforts of Charles Hopkins, York University’s UNESCO Chair, who received the 2022 Clean50 Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in reorienting education systems towards sustainable development and fostering cross-sector collaboration.

Climate challenges affect us all – and they cannot be resolved by anything less than a collaborative approach, says Mr. Hopkins. “We need to create linkages between governments, academia, business, industry, the arts and civil society. What is required is a sense of responsibility and engagement from everyone to advance a common goal: a better future for all, while ‘all’ is not limited to humans.”

A concept with universal appeal

It started with the quest to find a concept that would enable the UN to engage the global community on the topic of environmental protection, explains Mr. Hopkins. “When you work with a broad range of countries – including those in need of development – you need goals that resonate widely. One vision got buy-in from world leaders: sustainable development.”

This concept, which became the UN’s overarching paradigm through the Brundtland Report in 1987 and is still valid today, describes “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In 1992, Mr. Hopkins presented education, public awareness and training as crucial elements for sustainability. This idea became known as Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and has been evident in all subsequent UN implementation plans, including Agenda 2030 with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Today, the UNESCO Chair co-ordinates two global networks with members from over 70 countries,” he says, “providing research-based evidence and policy advice to the UN, governments and other education stakeholders.”

Enabling a sustainable future

As key enabler of a sustainable future, ESD has four aspects, says Mr. Hopkins. “The first is to ensure access to quality education and lifelong learning. The second task is reorienting education towards advancing sustainability and creating a sense of responsibility in every individual.”

The third aspect concerns public awareness, he says. “When citizens understand the impact of their everyday actions, they can make conscious choices. For instance, awareness about our ecological footprint and understanding how we can create a handprint in life that helps reduce our footprint can be an important tool to achieve sustainability.”

Delivering training that enables people to improve sustainability at their places of work is the fourth aspect.

Creating positive change at universities

“Although the percentage of the world’s population attending university is quite small, these graduates will likely become leaders and influencers who have the opportunity to shape societal outcomes,” he says. “Universities are also in a unique position to answer fundamental questions about sustainability.”

As a member of the President’s Sustainability Council at York University, Mr. Hopkins works to embed the idea of the “university as a whole” moving towards sustainability, placing sustainable development as a theme in the curriculum, rethinking operations, facilities and management practices, and changing the campus culture.

These endeavours have found fertile ground at York, which is known for prioritizing inclusion, equity and social justice, he says. “And this means sustainability is being embedded in teaching and research as well as societal engagement with communities, locally and globally.”

The ambition of driving positive change for all community members while improving sustainability is reflected in the university’s latest academic plan, aiming to elevate York’s contributions to the 17 SDGs.

Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications with Canada’s Clean50. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.