In this article, we explore a series of issues and tensions raised by the papers in this Special Issue of Environmental Education Research. The papers focus on developments in environmental education and ESD research in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In order to provide an alternative framework for contextualising and understanding the trends and challenges illustrated in the collection, we begin with an examination of Germany’s green political movement, both at the level of national politics but also in relation to broader cultural shifts that have taken place in recent years. We then invite further debate on environmental education and ESD by focusing on three nodes within the discourse on these complex, dynamic and linked fields of theory and practice. First, we explore the themes of compatibility and compliance regarding environmental education and the ‘global’ as two of the key ingredients to ESD. Second, we consider the growing dominance of competency-based approaches to ESD, primarily in terms of educational standards projects, but also in relation to images of the human therein. Third, we look into understandings of agency in relation to innovation and change, including the role of NGOs in research and policy-making, and the sources and drivers of possible frames for future research agendas. The article ends by inviting wider discussion and critique of the achievements, tensions and challenges for research and development in environmental education and ESD, both in the three countries, and further afield.