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Global Challenges: Sustainability



First-year programme.

Admissions requirements



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, ores, and traditional forms of energy. On top of that, 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 for humanity, and the planet’s ecosphere as a whole. Questions to be addressed are

  • What are the states and trends of key environmental components such as biological diversity, soils, freshwater and oceans, climate?

  • What are the main trends of human drivers of environmental and climate change such as population, consumption, land and sea use, and energy use?

  • How did it happen that human activities like deforestation, agriculture, pollution, resource exploitation and construction have been resulting in the transformation environmental Earth systems to a scale and magnitude unprecedented in Earth history?

  • Why is maintaining biodiversity important? What does future climate change hold for environmental and human systems?

  • How do concepts of sustainability relate to renewability and management issues of water, soil and energy resources?

  • Which decisions need to be taken, how will these potentially 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 emerge from the coupling of natural environmental processes and human systems. 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, Ecosystems
Week 2 Biodiversity
Week 3 Climate Change
Week 4 Energy Use
Week 5 Soil to Sediment to Sea
Week 6 Our Sustainable Future
Week 7 Summary and Outlook
Week 8 Final Exam

Course 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 as 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

  • 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.


Once available, timetables will be published here.

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. A field meeting may be scheduled and subject to change on short notice depending on organizational matters. This probably is organized as one session on a Wednesday afternoon (14:00 – 18:00).


Assessment will occur through a final exam, two individual assignments and two group assignments (fact sheet, debate). Also, in-class participation will be part of the final grade. Every day late for handing in assignments will result in a deduction of a full letter grade of your mark (e.g. A+ (on time) to B+ (1 day late) to C+ (2 days late) to D+ (3 days late) etc.
Note, students must submit all graded assignments to be able to pass the course. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, not finishing and submitting an assessment component will automatically result in an F in the course. At the discretion of the section instructor, make-up assignments or a final make-up exam may be given if a student misses a deadline or exam only because of extenuating circumstances or three or more final exams on the day of the final exam.

Assessment 1: In-class participation
Weight: 10%, deadline: weeks 1-7

Assessment 2: Ecological Footprint
Weight: 20%, deadline: Week 2

Assessment 3: Scientific Paper Analysis
Weight: 20%, deadline: Week 4

Assessment 4: Stakeholder Fact Sheet
Weight: 10%, deadline: Week 6

Assessment 5: Stakeholder Debate
Weight: 10%, deadline: Week 6

Assessment 6: Final Exam
Weight: 30%, Week 8


There will be a Blackboard site available for this course. Students will be enrolled at least one week before the start of classes.

Reading list

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 BB.


This course is open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Registration is coordinated by the Curriculum Coordinator. Interested non-LUC students should contact


Course convener P. Houben:


Course readings for Week 1 will be posted on Blackboard along with a notification of course participants a week before semester start. Course preparation includes submitting an ungraded assignment.