Ms. Loes van der Graaf



Environmental degradation and climate change have been caused by the unsustainable patterns of human behaviour as they are linked to consumption. Most efforts to improve environmental sustainability involve international cooperation, legal restrictions, and technological developments, rather than behaviour. This article argues that the achievement of sustainability can only be achieved through adjusted human behaviour and that education plays a major role in this regard. Instead of informing children of our harmful actions, educators and society members need to create a generation for whom sustainable behaviour is part of their identity and habits. This requires a holistic approach to sustainability both within the school and within government policies.


Behavioural insights, sustainability, environmental education, whole-school approach.

Introduction: Behavioural change against climate change

Throughout history, human behaviour has impacted the environment to modify it for our needs. Though limited at first, scholars are now arguing that the actions of humans are the main force behind ecological processes and system changes on our planet. At the moment, at least two-thirds of global greenhouse emissions – a key factor contributing to climate change – are connected directly to human consumption: Our purchases, food choices, travel methods and waste disposal.

Initial actions to combat climate change and degradation of ecosystems across the planet such as policies and regulations, international agreements as well as technological solutions and innovations are to some extent effective, but do not address human behaviour itself, though the latter is the destructive force behind environmental damage. While human awareness of climate change is proven to be widespread, human behaviour to address it remains limited.

Initially, behavioural change models for environmental sustainability were built on the premise that a direct causal connection exists between increased knowledge and awareness of climate change and environmental degradation, and subsequent sustainable behaviour. While this is true to some extent, there still exists a significant gap between knowledge and action, caused by the numerous factors besides knowledge that influence behaviour.

According to OECD research, decision-making processes of humans, individual or collective, are based on three elements: Our cognitive resources, our shortsightedness and our combined self-interest and interest to help others. These are considered deviations from the standard rational decision-making process and are called “cognitive biases”. These biases explain why humans sometimes make purchasing or investment decisions that cannot be considered rational or based on their best interest. They also explain why traditional policy and legal approaches (based on rational decision-making) may lack effectiveness in addressing and preventing environmental degradation.

The OECD, as well as other authors cited in this study, argue that exactly these biases need to be studied and influenced through policies and incentives in order to achieve behavioural change, particularly in the area of sustainability. Behavioural change programmes generally include three steps, namely 1) identifying a suitable behaviour to change, 2) develop and implement suitable intervention tools, and 3) evaluate the impact. Tools and interventions to change behaviour can be categorized in two groups, namely the interventions that address factors influencing behaviour (antecedent interventions) and those that address the consequences of behaviour (consequence interventions). An example of the first would be the provision of information on recycling, while an example of the latter includes financial rewards for recycling.

Information and education, as antecedent tools for behavioural change, are highly common, but as standalone effort not effective. Information to address behaviour should be aligned with the recipient’s worldview and perspectives, and it needs to demonstrate exactly how the behavioural change feeds into the daily life of the recipient. The introduction of role models and social norms, showing how most people behave, have also shown to be effective in achieving a change in behaviour.

While behavioural change interventions are suitable to adjust existing consumer habits in favour of more sustainable behaviour, building environmentally sustainable habits that do not require interventions are clearly most favourable. Nicholas McGuire even argues that behavioural interventions to address, for example, the use of plastic bags or electricity are not sufficient to provide a more comprehensive, holistic approach to environmental degradation.

This article argues that proper, quality education for sustainable development is a crucial antecedent tool to create a generation of people whose behaviour is constructed by environmentally sustainable habits.

Education for environmental sustainability: From knowledge to identity

The Convention on the Rights of the Child specifies in article 29 that education of the child should be directed to (e) the development of respect for the natural environment. As a sense of responsibility towards the environment (and other dimensions of life) is created already during childhood, schools play a crucial role in forming environmentally sustainable behaviour.

However, based on the weaknesses found in “information” as a tool to influence behaviour, there is no surprise that prior initiatives to integrate environmental sustainability into education programmes has been met with disappointing results. Additionally, environmental education has struggled over the past decades to be formally recognized as integral part of education.

It has been understood more widely that environmental education should be hands-on and should engage students in in direct experiences as well as challenge them to use higher order thinking skills. The 1977 Tbilisi Declaration on Environmental Education additionally specified that environmental education should “foster attitudes, motivations and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible actions”. In particular, environment education according to the Declaration should contribute to the following objectives:

Awareness—to help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems.

Knowledge—to help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experience in, and acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems.

Attitudes—to help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection.

Skills—to help social groups and individuals acquire the skills for identifying and solving environmental problems.

Participation—to provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.

These objectives indicate the inclusion of knowledge and awareness of environmental degradation, but combine it with the necessary attitudes, skills, and ability to actually participate and contribute to environmental sustainability. The achievement of these objectives requires not only a holistic approach to sustainability in education, but partnerships between students, schools, and communities to practice sustainable behaviour in daily life outside the school. Research in New England, for example, has demonstrated that direct connection with nature or an ecocultural location enhances a person’s environmentally-friendly behaviour.

Nicholas McGuire argues against the notion of knowledge and attitudes as main targets of environmental education. He explains that environmental education programmes should address two facets of human decision-making, namely the conscious awareness (usually targeted by information campaigns and attitude adjustment programmes) as well as the automatic processes which provide an immediate reaction (positive, negative, bias) when confronted with a situation or stimulus. Both facets together influence decision-making and therefore both facets should be addressed in environmental education. For this reason, McGuire argues that environmental education should target not only our knowledge and attitudes, but also our overall identity and subconscious, to create a human being for whom sustainability is a part of who they are. As a result, both conscious and automatic decision-making and behaviour is directed at sustainability.

McGuire, based on Harter (2012) designed the following criteria for an environmental education programme that has a holistic approach to both facets of human decision-making:

  • Engage students’ social and personal identities in as many behavioral domains as possible to increase the influence exerted on global self-identity. This means that environmental education should not only relate to “obvious” aspects of sustainability, such as recycling, but should present a wider frame of sustainability that can be applied in all situations and circumstances of life.
  • Engage those who are deemed ‘significant others’ to the developmental stage of students in program activities. Parents, teachers, and peers all contribute to children’s development in different ways at different stages. The influence and role of “others” needs to be understood for different age groups and mobilized to shape sustainable behaviour.
  • Endeavor to make behavioral domains that relate more directly to ecological behavior more strongly identified with students. For example, students are interested in shopping, so create a domain focused on this area.
  • Make external justification for participating in activities related to fostering environmental self-identities as low as possible. Instead of explaining to students why they need to participate in gardening, recycling or other sustainable behavioural activities, support them to discover, question and develop their own environment-centric reasons for participating.
  • Make the experiences and activities used in the program as authentic to each student as possible. As environmental education targets a student’s identity, it should be tailored to personal and cultural circumstances and encourage individual forms of expression.
  • Emphasize affect toward the particular object of thought. This relates to the prior statement on the importance of role models. Teachers should emphasize their own enthusiasm and interest in sustainability and so demonstrate that sustainability is appropriate, positive behaviour.
  • Engage students in as many pro-environmental or nature-related activities/behaviors as possible. This makes sustainability more practical and tangible, and facilitates repetition of sustainable behaviour in the future. It also serves to widen the “frame” for environmental sustainability by including a diverse range of activities.

In line with these thoughts, environmental education should be a cross-curriculum priority rather than a standalone subject or programme. Integration of sustainability across the curriculum allows students to understand how different social, economic and environmental systems interact, understand the views and values that affect sustainability, and participate actively in designing more sustainable ways of living. The Brundtland Green Schools initiative in Canada is a good example of a holistic, whole-school approach to environmental education. To become part of the green school network, schools should fulfil at least three out of the four requirements, namely: a) reduce, reuse or recycle rubbish by visible and measurable means; b) teach ecological issues as part of all curriculum subjects; c) assume the costs for securing ecological services or implementing ecological actions, and; d) implement an ecological club lead by children.

A benefit of whole-school and cross-curricular approaches is the continued, long-term exposure of children to environmentally sustainable practices. Prior studies have suggested that sustainable attitudes are stimulated and sustained only through involvement in environmental education over a long period of time.

Unfortunately, various practical barriers prevent the effective implementation of environmental education. For example, a large-scale survey among Australian teachers found that 80% do not know what encompasses environmental education. This finding was supported by numerous other studies across the world, which indicate that the lack of a common, coherent understanding of environmental education prevents teachers from including it into their teaching. Pre-service or initial teacher education does not sufficiently address sustainability, neither as standalone topic, not integrated as part of other subjects.

Other challenges and barriers to environmental education include a lack of instructional materials, time, funding and other resources. The relevance of sustainability is also not recognized for each subject, making a cross-curricular approach more difficult. Disinterest of school leadership is a key blockade to the whole-school implementation of sustainable education and to the allocation of staff development resources and time. If sustainability is not a priority within the school, McGuire’s criteria for behavioural change will never be met.

A holistic approach to environmental education in school requires a holistic approach to sustainability by the government and country overall, to ensure that sustainability is a priority in school funding, curriculum development, pre-service and in-service teacher training and in school-society cooperation structures. It can be argued, therefore, that nation-wide attitudes to sustainability are crucial to ensure the topic receives priority within the education system.

Impact of education on sustainable behaviour

It is important to note that the short history of environmental education means that no longitudinal studies have been performed as of yet, to determine how (early age) environmental education affects behaviour later in life.

Numerous efforts worldwide stimulate environmental awareness in education have met less than positive results. For example, a study among Nigerian students found no connection between increased knowledge of students about the environment and increased positive attitudes towards protecting the environment. Similarly, a study conducted by Osbaldiston and Schott in 2012 measured the effects of environmental information embedded in education programmes and found only small, marginal positive results. These findings support the previous statements that knowledge alone is simply not sufficient to create sustainable behaviour.

However, certain findings arose from short-term and retroactive studies that are important for education stakeholders to consider in their design of environmental education. First, retroactive studies by Chawla (1999) and Pease et al. (1997) found that childhood experiences with nature were an important factor for present-day environmental activists to engage in this form of activism. A study involving forest-immersion early childhood education found that children participating in this activity utilized a different, more nature-based vocabulary compared to their peers in the control group. While these studies did not measure clear causal effects, they do provide insights into the impact of practical nature-based experiences on children’s development.

A more recent study, published in 2020, reviewed the impacts of a practical nature-based environmental education programme integrated in a primary school curriculum compared to the traditional classroom-based version. As expected, the study found that children who participated in the nature-based variant demonstrated higher environmental awareness than their peers. These results aligned with prior studies on nature-based education reviewed by the authors. However, the study found no difference regarding environmental behaviour. Therefore, practical experience is clearly more valuable for children’s sustainable mindset than knowledge alone, but not sufficient to change behaviour.

A counterfactual study of the Brundtland Green Schools project’s effect on children’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviour also demonstrated less impact than the authors expected, despite its holistic, multifaceted approach. However, the authors considered that, among other factors, the period of exposure to the curriculum (eight months) of the surveyed participants may have been too short to measure meaningful and lasting change. Indeed, additional research is necessary to measure the behaviour of children who attended green schools for at least multiple years.

As the above-mentioned studies and evaluations demonstrated, the impact of environmental education is strongly dependent on the programme length, curriculum integration, and the collaboration between students, teachers, school staff and community members (whole-school approach). However, numerous barriers are perceived by teachers and by researchers to achieve this level of environmental education integration in schools, which leads to the conclusion that in most schools around the world, environmental education initiatives are limited in their effect on children’s behaviour.


Human behaviour is influenced by numerous factors and cannot be adjusted through short-term, informative interventions. Current unsustainable behaviour has been formed over decades and is passed on to new generations through families, society, and education systems. To change a person’s unsustainable behaviour requires a change of habits and identity. Therefore, it is far easier and more effective to build a sustainable identity from childhood onwards.

As shown through -limited- evaluations of, and research about, environmental education programmes, sustainable behaviour is created through a continuous, holistic approach which both surrounds a child with pro-environmental behaviour while empowering the child to make its own decisions and considerations. For this reason, programmes focusing on knowledge and awareness, as well as short-term involvement in nature-based activities, are unlikely to influence a child’s identity, behaviour and habits. This is particularly true for children whose direct environment (family and friends) do not engage in sustainable behaviour and therefore provide negative role models. 

However, a holistic approach to environmental education in school is reflective of the overall sustainable approach of a government. Namely, environmental education requires curriculum adaptation, relevant teacher training, funding, time, resources, and motivation of school leadership. Most of these potential barriers are caused, and addressed, through government awareness and intervention.

Present day environmental education is fighting a human consumption behaviour that has been ingrained in our identity for a long time and can be perceived as our modern culture. Despite our knowledge that human behaviour is detrimental for the environment, present generations may be too stuck in old habits to be affected by anything more than small-scale behaviour nudges. As stated in the beginning, small-scale incentives are insufficient to address a problem that affects all dimensions of society and life on our planet. Therefore, to radically change the culture of consumption, global society needs to train the next generations to design a new culture of sustainability and environmental recovery. 



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