GEOU2EI: Global Environmental Issues

CO-ORDINATOR: Dr David Oliver

Module Description

In 2011 the world population exceeded 7 billion people and is expected to reach 7.8 billion by 2025. In the previous Environmental Science course ‘People and the Environment’ you learnt about the connections between the rapidly expanding human population and the pressures on natural resources resulting from the increasing demands for food, land, water and energy. This course will explore the impacts which humans are having on the environment as a consequence of industrialisation, expanding agriculture and increased living standards.

The first theme to be studied is ‘waste and pollution’. The more affluent humans become, the more waste they produce. Waste disposal can cause pollution of soil, water and air. However, if waste is treated as a resource then pollution can be reduced, for example through reuse and recycling. Even some hazardous industrial waste can now be recycled although much of it needs to be treated. The best way forward would be to minimise waste production in the first place but this requires a shift in our thinking away from unfettered consumption to a more careful use of resources. A key question is whether societies can tackle their waste problems without restricting economic growth. Pollution is often regarded as an inevitable price to pay for industrialisation and increased living standards. Pollution in the form of gases, liquids, solids and heat is a by-product of activities such as agriculture, industrial production, waste disposal and transport. Humans derive benefits from these activities, which have to be weighed up against environmental impacts and the benefits and costs of pollution reduction. Science can provide the necessary information for a reasoned debate on pollution. We need to know which specific chemicals are emitted in what amounts and what effects they might have on humans and other living organisms. Cleaner technologies can be implemented but the ultimate decisions about pollution control depend oneconomic and political conditions.

The second theme of the course is climate change. Changes in mean temperature of up to a few degrees can occur during human lifespans and can impact on lifestyles and planning decisions. During the 1980s and ‘90s the concept of global warming, caused mainly by the carbon dioxide produced by industrial activity, attracted much attention in the media and politically. A key problem is to identify the extent of such warming and to discover whether it can be distinguished from the natural pattern of climate change and variability. The course will also examine some of the causes of climate change (both natural and anthropogenically induced), some of the projected impacts and will consider some of the measures which have been suggested to mitigate the possible effects of anthropogenically induced climate change.

The final theme covered by this course is biodiversity and the conservation of the world’s living resources. The term biodiversity was popularised and pushed to the front of the political agenda by the Rio summit held in June 1992. Representatives from 178 countries, including over 100 heads of state, met in Rio to discuss ways of combining increased protection of the environment with more effective economic development in less wealthy countries. The discussions led to the Convention on Biodiversity which has three objectives: protecting biological diversity; using it sustainably; and sharing the benefits of new products made with wild and domestic species (the latter being designed to stop rich nations from exploiting resources in the Third World without adequate payment). The course will consider what biodiversity is, how the abundance and distribution of species change naturally, how mankind has accelerated the loss of certain species, why this matters and what can be done to halt the declines.

Module Objectives

The module aims to provide an introduction to key global environmental problems by examining the issues, the underlying science and the potential solutions and to link these to the acquisition of core skills. The main themes are waste disposal, air and water pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity.

Learning Outcomes

  • Ability to examine environmental issues critically and to appreciate the divergent opinions regarding causes, seriousness and the need for solutions
  • Basic scientific understanding of the relationships between human activities and environmental processes which to varying degrees cause pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity
  • Greater competence in practical skills introduced in GEO1PE
  • Basic numeracy and competence in report writing and questionnaire surveys

Acquired Skills

The course is designed to enhance your skills in the following areas:

  • making measurements and field observations
  • using and interpreting questionnaires
  • calculations and unit conversions
  • processing and presentation of data using MS-EXCEL
  • assessing data quality and critically interpreting data
  • scientific report writing
  • referencing literature including internet sources correctly


Scheduled Teaching: 32 hours
Independent Study: 168 hours
Placements: 0 hours


Coursework: 30%
Examination: 50%
Practical: 20%

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