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Global Challenges: Sustainability



This is a compulsory first-year course.

Admission requirements

  • Class of 2017: None.

  • Classes of 2013-2016: None. Students who did not succesfully complete the GC: Earth of GC: Environmental Change course, should register for this course.

Course description

We are living in an era of increasing population, urbanization, transportation, technology and consumption while experiencing increasingly fewer fundamental resources for humans like food, water, and energy. On top of that, triggered and driven by human activities the Earth undergoes a period of unprecedented environmental change, which by now accounts for all fundamental Earth systems and resource provision. This change spanning from local to global scales is one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century and thereafter. Questions to be addressed are:

  • How did (and still does) it happen that human activities like deforestation, agriculture, pollution, resource exploitation and construction alter and even transform environmental Earth systems to a scale and magnitude unprecedented in Earth history?

  • Why is maintaining biodiversity important? Isn’t the availability of water and food just a matter of distribution as there always enough around to suffice our needs?

  • What does future climate change hold for environmental and human systems?

  • Aren’t all water, soil and energy resources renewable should we only manage them in a clever way?

  • Which decisions need to be taken and how will they impact both our own lives and our planet’s future? What personal decisions do I have to take and could they collectively make a positive or negative impact?

This course introduces students to environmental issues which relate to both the functioning of the (once) natural environment and the current societal demands. By using examples from around the planet, course contents highlight key problems and their underlying causes, human actions that made them an issue, and the struggle for solutions.

Weekly overview

Week 1 Course Overview
Week 2 Biodiversity and Sustainability: Ecosystems, cycles of life, biodiversity, and change
Week 3 Water: Cycling, resources, availability, water and societies
Week 4 Mid-term exam; Land use, the soil resource, Earth’s biogeochemical cycles
Week 5 Climate change
Week 6 Mineral and energy resources from the Earth system (deposits, ores, reserves, fossil fuel, renewables and the environment)
Week 7 Synthesis: Human stressors of Earth systems (tragedy of the commons, economy, development, projections of global environmental change, individual and societal choices)
Week 8 Final exam

Learning objectives

The goals of the course are to provide students with a basic understanding of the interdependence of natural biotic and abiotic Earth systems, resource provision and human systems, to introduce key observations of human-related changes of Earth systems and their implications for a sustainable use of environmental resources. Students will learn to:

  • specify human activities and related environmental impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity including topics such water and air quality, nutrient cycling, ecosystem functioning, the importance of biodiversity, overexploitation of natural resources, impacts of agriculture;

  • list and discuss human influences on Earth sediment and biogeochemical cycling;

  • describe and discuss the significance of global trends marking the exploitation of soil resources;

  • describe the causes, evidence, and consequences of global climate change;

  • name trends and implications of energy consumption, fossil fuel use, and renewable energies production as regards maintaining beneficial environmental conditions;

  • describe and discuss the role of different stakeholders in decision-making processes related to environmental change;

  • understand how their own behavior links to environmental change, and which steps can be taken to reduce their impact.

Mode of instruction

The course is organized around lectures and seminar sessions. Each week starts with a plenary session (Monday) followed by a seminar session in small groups (sections). The seminars concentrate on more detailed analyses and in-class discussions of topics covered in the plenary session. Also, as the plenary session is taught in an open lecture format students are expected to contribute to the instructor’s presentation when appropriate. To assure best participation students are required to cover readings before coming to class, and should have reviewed lecture materials.

Attendance is required at all plenary lectures and all class sessions. Field meetings may be scheduled and subject to change on short notice depending on organizational matters. This probably is organized a one session on a Wednesday afternoon (14:00 – 18:00).

Laptops, phones, and other digital media are not allowed unless requested by the instructor. Students can contact their section instructors if they have questions as regards course materials. Students are also welcome to contact the course convener (P. Houben) regarding issues concerning GC Earth as a whole.


Students have to read assigned readings to prepare class participation and work on in-class assignments. Assignments include quizzes, participation, stakeholder debates (group assignment), a mid-term and a final exam.

Assessment 1: In-class participation
Weight: 10%, deadline: weeks 1-7
Learning aim: Interactive engagement with course material, communication and contribution to class ideas and class exercises

Assessment 2: Individual Assignment
Weight: 17.5% Week 2
Learning aim: Individual engagement with course material and lecture content

Assessment 3: Mid-term exam
Weight: 17.5%, Week 4
Learning aim: Individual engagement with course readings, comprehension of course content of weeks 1-3 (factual, conceptual and technical material)

Assessment 4: Stakeholder debate
Weight: 25%, deadline: Week 6 or 7
Learning aim: Understanding of course content

Assessment 5: Final exam
Weight: 30%, Week 8
Learning aim: Individual engagement with course readings, synthesis of course topics and concepts

Compulsory textbook

There will be no required textbook to be purchased for this course. Required readings will draw on material from various sources which will be announced and (if possible) made available through Blackboard.

Contact information

Course convener
P. Houben: