Three axes for environmental education: their understanding by higher education students

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A change for a more sustainable society has motivated the edition of strategic guidelines in different countries to improve awareness of the citizens of a new model of development, subjugated to axes that can mobilize the whole society. Three of these axes are:
i) to mitigate climate change;
ii) to move to a circular economy, highlighting the sustainable use of resources and fighting consumerism;
iii) to value the territory, emphasizing territorial planning and natural values.

These axes have been disseminated by the media, environmental associations, formal and non-formal education institutions and governmental entities.

The present study aimed to check the understanding of these three axes by higher education students. With that purpose, a questionnaire with open questions was administered to 100 students randomly selected of two high school campuses in Portugal. The questionnaire inquired about the meaning of each axis and how it could be achieved.

Thus, concerning the understanding of mitigation of climate change, 86 of the students proved to understand this axis, and only14 wrongly defined it or were unaware of its meaning. Most students focused on actions related to sustainable mobility, recycling, energy saving and use of alternative energies, reducing greenhouse gases, with CO2 being the only one to be stated. Interestingly, 13 students stressed the need to reduce the impact of animal production and meat consumption, a dimension frequently omitted by politicians and environmental associations, often more focused on emissions related to mobility.

On the contrary, the transition for a circular economy was badly understood by the students, since 18 stated not to know what it means and 42 defined it in a wrong or vague way. For instance, several students mentioned that the concept meant to make the economy fair, sustainable or cyclical, without explaining their ideas more deeply. The 40 who were able to better define the concept, emphasized the idea of recycling raw materials, while also including elements that are not correct in the definition, as it was the case of confound reuse and recycling concepts. With regard to actions to achieve a circular economy, the difficulty of the participants was even greater, since those who defined the concept vaguely did not succeed in stating plausible actions. Those who succeed highlighted mainly recycling as the major action, and only 4 clearly stated the need to reduce consumption.

Regarding the third axis, to value the territory, only 6 students did not present any definition. The other 94 did not develop their answers, but, even so, included ideas such as "giving more value to it", "caring it", "preserving it", taking advantage of its potential"," or "protecting it". The need of territorial planning was only stated by two students. Many of the actions to be taken were vague, expressing ideas already used to define the axis. Other actions highlighted were related to: reduce pollution, mainly avoiding garbage (15 responses); preserve habitats or species, avoiding negative actions such as deforestation (17); and encourage tourism (12).

In conclusion, students show a greater understanding of the first axis, revealing more difficulties in the other two, especially in the second. Thus, it seems that there is a need to promote a greater clarification about key aspects of sustainable development, a condition for a deeper involvement of everyone in the environmental cause.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationICERI2020 Proceedings
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)978-84-09-24232-0
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2020
Event13th annual International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation -
Duration: 9 Nov 202010 Nov 2020


Conference13th annual International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation
Abbreviated titleICERI2020


  • Sustainable development
  • Envronmental education
  • Higher education students


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