A powerful German city network fighting climate change wins UNESCO education prize

The rich and vibrant sustainability and climate change culture of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Germany has been awarded the UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

Funded by the Government of Japan, the prize showcases and rewards outstanding ESD projects and programmes with an emphasis on innovation and potential for transformation. This year's three winners receive an award of US$50,000 each which will be presented at a ceremony at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris on 15 November during the 40th UNESCO General Conference.

Hamburg was selected for its large-scale programme 'Hamburg is learning sustainability – and fights climate change through ESD' which comprises more than 200 diverse projects, initiatives and green events.

The North Sea port city is particularly vulnerable to climate change which bring weather fluctuations and flooding. For that reason, it has been an early pioneer in educating its 1.8 million population about climate adaptation and mitigation. Before the prize-winning programme it was promoting energy-saving techniques including offering grants for insulating and refurbishing houses, factories and schools.

Ralf Behrens, Head of Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development at the Hamburg Ministry of Environment and Energy said: 'The network of actors, projects and events began in 2005 to coincide with the UN Decade of ESD and from the start we wanted it to tightly knit together all the existing private and public sector sustainability initiatives in order for them to share and talk with each other. The bigger aim was to integrate sustainability into all sectors of education both formal and non-formal and to transform educational practice throughout the city.'

As a Hanseatic city and federal state, Hamburg has autonomy over its education sector which allowed flexibility in designing and running the programme. Led by the Hamburg Ministry of Environment and Energy, the programme brought together around 140 business and civil society actors including from the ministries of education, science and research and social affairs as well as across all the education sectors from kindergarten to higher education.

'An annual conference and monthly roundtables brought people and activities under one roof and a database was established where the different projects could be published,' said Ralf.

Educational climate projects begin with very young children through the Kindergarten 21 project which has been running for ten years and has won a good practice award from the German Ministry of Education and Science.

'The children carry out simple projects with strong and lasting messages such as building a large fish from plastic waste which they then feed with other used plastic to impart the message about the damage being done to sea-life,' said Ralf.

Currently 63 of the city's more than 400 schools are climate schools and 65 are eco-schools after meeting criteria by explaining what they are doing in relation to ESD and climate change which allows them to apply for the title.

In relation to higher education the programme fosters a climate excellence cluster in universities which means that the seven institutions in Hamburg can work together as a network and carry out sustainability projects separately and together. One university has a library powered by solar 'sunbrellas'. All faculties of the University of Hamburg are committed to sustainability in both research and teaching and in 2012 founded the Competence Centre Sustainable University to support their objectives.

Each year all of the more than 25,000 new students who arrive are given a sustainability handbook and guide to the city which shows everything from organic markets to cycle circuits. The booklet includes discount vouchers to ensure the students patronise green and sustainable commerce and that it is kept and referred to over time.

'We believe this is a crucial moment to influence young people as they start their new lives,' said Ralf.

Since 2007 the city has had a Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In that year it became the first city in German to be awarded the country's Official City of the UN Decade of ESD title, which it went on to win three more times. In 2011 it was named European Green Capital of the year by the European Commission. 

In addition, this year the city began its Hamburg Climate Funds programme to finance small-scale climate projects such as activities in schools and kindergartens, green events on climate protection or sharing a cargo bike in a neighbourhood.

One outstanding success of the programme has been the Hamburg climate protection centre, Gut Karlshöhe, financed by the city and offering activities on climate change and renewable energy like spring and autumn markets or events which attract more than 65,000 people of all ages each year.

For the future the programme hopes to further integrate ESD into the education system.

'Currently the level of ESD in all sectors of education depends very much on the school and the teachers. We want to make sure ESD is obligatory and integrated at a curriculum level," said Ralf.