Education matters for all Sustainable Development Goals

The Global Education Monitoring Report 2016 established that education is at the heart of sustainable development. IIASA made a considerable contribution to the report, which, according to IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow Jeffrey Sachs: “should set off the alarm bells around the world and lead to a historic scale-up of actions to achieve Sustainable Development Goal four: education for all.”

The Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report is an editorially independent, evidence-based annual report published by UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which provides an authoritative global review of education. Its mandate is to monitor progress towards the education targets in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework. The GEM report draws on the latest available data and evidence, and includes extensive research from leading experts around the world.

In 2016, scientists from the IIASA World Population Program were invited to make a contribution on the topic “Education and the SDGs: Long-Term Interactions.” This involved producing a comprehensive literature review of the current evidence on education’s impact on other key sectors of development, such as inclusive economic growth; inclusive social development; environmental sustainability; governance; and peaceful, just, inclusive societies. This review examined interlinkages between the different SDGs, in particular looking at how progress towards achieving the education goal four will help to achieve the other 16 goals. The researchers also modeled different future scenarios for projecting patterns of education expansion if the SDG targets are met [1].

Examining the issue from four angles—people, planet, prosperity, peace— the analysis shows there are numerous synergies between education and the other SDGs. In terms of “people” the effect of education on social development, including health, is well known. The chapter on “planet” focuses on the role of education (both in terms of formal schooling and interventional education) in reducing vulnerability to climate change and promoting sustainable lifestyles through both direct and indirect mechanisms.

A large number of studies demonstrate how formal education reduces vulnerability in the face of natural disasters, building resilience and adaptive capacity. When it comes to sustainable lifestyles, the relationship is quite complex: while the highly educated are more likely to be concerned about the impacts of their behaviors on CO2 emissions and the environment in general, their associated higher income levels tend to mean higher consumption levels and higher emissions.

The processes through which education contributes to vulnerability reduction

A review of over 50 studies reveals mixed evidence, though the finding that the more highly educated are more willing and more able to adopt new technologies suggests that formal education may be key to ensuring environmental sustainability in the long term.

The chapter on “prosperity” explores the concept of inclusive economic growth in relation to education. Inclusive growth is spread across all sectors, creating productive employment opportunities for the majority of the labor force, including traditionally marginalized groups. The review of the literature reveals that education can promote broad-based, fast, sustainable economic growth by contributing to the movement of labor from less productive agriculture to more productive manufacturing and services, and by making workers more productive.

The quantitative scenarios of educational expansion underlying the population projections presented in the report are the result of refinement of the education model presented in [2]. The projections showed the share of the population reaching or exceeding a given attainment level in different countries and between genders.


[1] Barakat B, Bengtsson S, Muttarak R, & Kebede E (2016). Modelling SDG scenarios for Educational Attainment and Development. CESDEG: Education for all Global Monitoring Report (EFA-GMR). Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW, WU).

[2] Lutz W, Butz WP & KC S (2014). World Population & Human Capital in the Twenty-first Century. UK: Oxford University Press.


  • Vienna Institute of Demography (VID), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria
  • Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), Austria