Sustainability Science and Education for Sustainable Development in Universities: A Way for Transition

  • Antje DisterheftEmail author
  • Sandra Caeiro
  • Ulisses Miranda Azeiteiro
  • Walter Leal Filho


The debate about sustainable development (SD) in higher education institutions has expanded over the past decades. It has been recognized that universities play a pivotal role in promoting sustainability principles, contributing to the paradigm shift toward a more sustainable present and future. Campus sustainability—commonly understood in a broad sense that includes the physical, educational (teaching, curricula, research), and institutional dimensions—is an evolving study field, as indicated by the growing number of articles in academic journals, conferences, awards, and books (like the present one) dedicated to the subject. From the academic point of view, the emergent fields of sustainability science and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) have advanced the efforts of mainstreaming sustainability and implementing concrete practices in universities. But despite some progress and good examples, only a few institutions follow a SD implementation process holistically. A one-sided trend of “going green,” driven by market requirements, marketing advantages, and economic benefits, increases the risks of greenwashing. Reductionist models and misconceptions may cause sustainability initiatives to be wrongly reduced to single aspects of SD like environmental initiatives, losing meaning and credibility. This chapter addresses the question of what role the emerging fields of sustainability science and ESD can play within the transition to more sustainable universities. It aims to contribute to a more holistic perception of SD and examines some of the trends being observed in the higher education sector. Universities are challenged to reflect about educational objectives and strategic goals in their sustainability implementation processes, if they aim to educate the academic community beyond eco-efficiency and recycling. ESD and sustainability science are normative academic fields, action-oriented and close to society. Along with universities as democratic institutions, these fields constitute essential vehicles to investigate, test, and develop conditions for truly transformative change.


Sustainability science Education for sustainable development Higher education institutions Transition Campus sustainability Greenwashing 



The authors wish to thank Derek Moench for his valuable and constructive comments on this chapter.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Antje Disterheft
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Sandra Caeiro
    • 3
  • Ulisses Miranda Azeiteiro
    • 4
  • Walter Leal Filho
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Science and TechnologyUniversidade AbertaLisbonPortugal
  2. 2.Centre for Functional Ecology (CFE)Universidade de CoimbraCoimbraPortugal
  3. 3.Department of Science and TechnologyUniversidade Aberta/Center for Environmental and Sustainability Research, Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia Universidade Nova de LisboaLisbonPortugal
  4. 4.Departamento de Ciências e TecnologiaUniversidade Aberta/Centre for Functional Ecology, University of CoimbraCoimbraPortugal
  5. 5.Research and Transfer Centre for Applied Sciences (FTZ-ALS) University of Applied Sciences HamburgHamburgGermany

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