GEOL20180 Geoscience perspectives on the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Academic Year 2023/2024

The United Nations has defined seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. At least half of these (e.g. clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, industry, innovation and infrastructure, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, life on land, no poverty and zero hunger, sustainable cities and communities) have implications for how society interacts with Earth systems and exploits Earth’s resources (e.g. energy, freshwater, minerals, soils, metals). This module will provide Geoscience and Earth Systems perspectives on the opportunities, limitations and challenges that are likely to arise from the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Challenges include, but are not restricted to: raw material constraints (e.g. critical metals) in the transition to clean energy technologies, uncertainties in geohazard risk assessment (e.g. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, floods) to underpin the development of sustainable cities and communities, the maintenance of soil and freshwater quality to help alleviate poverty and reduce hunger as the global population increases, how to integrate negative carbon emission strategies and technologies within a growth-focused economic model.

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

On completion of this module, students should be able to: 1) Critically evaluate the extent to which the UN Sustainable Goals are achievable from an Earth system and finite-resource perspective, 2) Appreciate the inter-connections, dependencies and potential resource-related conflicts that may arise as the goals are simultaneously addressed, 3) Understand the timescales and rates at which Earth systems are likely to respond to measures to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation.

Indicative Module Content:

Lecture 1: Introduction to the module
General introduction to the notion of sustainability and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ten of the UN Sustainable Goals have a Geoscience dimension. Sustainability and the growth paradigm. Discussion about Earth’s finite raw material resources and how earth science perspectives can inform the debate about economic growth and environmental sustainability. Renewable resources (FMcD)

Lecture 2: Climate Action 1 (Sustainable Development Goal 13) Physics of the climate system, natural and anthropogenic climate change, current and projected future rates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission, mitigation of GHG emissions, interplay between enhanced GHG forcing and natural forcing mechanisms such as volcanic eruptions and cyclical changes in solar output. Is a 1.5oC warming target achievable (FMcD)

Lecture 3: Climate Action 2 (Sustainable Development Goal 13) Impacts of climate change, with an emphasis on impact on the physics of the climate system and climate models as predictive tools, circulation changes, redistribution of moisture and energy, model predictions for extreme event frequency etc. – details of impacts on life to be covered in lectures 17-20 (FMcD)

Online Activity 1 available here (Clean Water and Sanitation)

Lecture 4: Clean water and sanitation 1 (Sustainable Development Goal 6)– Surface and groundwaters, water quality and quantity requirements in developing and developed worlds, fossil groundwater and water mining, water supply and waste water treatment etc, the water-energy connection (FMcD)

Lecture 5: Clean water and sanitation 2 (Sustainable Development Goal 6)– Water supply and waste water treatment, advantages and disadvantages of use of surface water as a drinking water supply, groundwater advantages and disadvantages, desalinisation, energy costs of freshwater pumping and waste water treatment, can the system be optimised? Recovery of energy from wastewater treatment facilities via biogas (FMcD)

Lecture 6: Affordable and clean energy 1 (Sustainable Development Goal 7) – Historical global energy consumption. Scenarios for future global energy use and implications for carbon emissions. Improving energy efficiency and carbon intensity. The current and future role of fossil fuels. Carbon pricing and emissions trading schemes. Carbon capture and storage (TM)

Online Activity 2 available here (Clean Energy)

Lecture 7: Affordable and clean energy 2 (Sustainable Development Goal 7) – Transition to a low carbon economy, alternatives to fossil fuel, nuclear, renewables such as wind, solar, wave, geothermal. Effect of climate change on the wind and solar energy resources and on energy demand for heating and cooling. Consumer behaviour, incentivising the consumer and ‘virtual storage’ (FMcD)

Lecture 8: Affordable and clean energy 3 (Sustainable Development Goal 7) – Intermittency in wind and solar resources and other challenges to electricity grid management at high levels of renewable penetration, battery and other forms of storage, power-to-gas, an electric future for transport and industry? (FMcD)

CLOSED BOOK MCQ Test 1 in Week 5 (10th October 2022) in UCD. This will consist of 40 questions on material covered in lectures 1 to 8 inclusive and online material in Activities 1 and 2 (Clean Water and Sanitation, Clean Energy)

Lecture 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure (Sustainable Development Goal 9) Urbanisation: driving forces and requirements. Life cycle analysis. Bulk raw materials for construction and industry – sand, gravel, crushed rock, limestone, iron, aluminium; constraints on supply and transport costs, smelting, lifecycle carbon emissions. Cement production and GHG emissions globally and locally, eco-cement and concrete (CH)

Lecture 10: Sustainable Cities and Communities 1 (Sustainable Development Goal 11) Positive and negative consequences of global urbanisation from a geoscientific perspective (3 per cent of the Earth’s surface area, up to 80% of energy consumption and 75% carbon emissions from cities). Rates of urbanisation and resulting pressures on fresh water supplies, waste water treatment facilities and air quality. Heat island effect. Impact of cities on air quality, runoff and the hydrological balance. Urban flooding and flood water storage options with examples (FMcD)

Online Activity 3 available here (Geohazards)

Lecture 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities 2 (Sustainable Development Goal 11) Location of the world’s major cities in relation to known geohazards such as earthquake-prone areas, volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides, flooding and sea-level rise. Location of critical infrastructure in relation to geohazards (e.g. Fukushima tsunami and nuclear meltdown). Hazard mitigation (FMcD)

Lecture 12: Responsible consumption and production 1 (Sustainable Development Goal 12) The scale of metal usage. Changing perspectives on metal reserves through time: ‘Metals in the service of Man’, ‘Limits to Growth’. Ore deposits, metal production through time, supply and demand. Significance of rare metals; Chinese case study of environmental degradation linked to rare earth element extraction and refining. Metals for the renewable energy and green technology sectors – wind turbines, PV cells, batteries, electric cars. Mining-related pollution problems and solutions (KT)

Online Activity 4 available here (Responsible Consumption and Production)

Lecture 13: Responsible consumption and production 2 (Sustainable Development Goal 12) Notion of the circular economy and tantalum case study. Recycling of recovered metals, links to manufacturing methods, what proportion of metals are recoverable and at what costs; challenges of recycling from highly composite products. Potential new sources of metals: seabed mineral resources, seawater and asteroids (KT)

Lecture 14: How perspectives from palaeontology inform on human modifications of the Earth System. What is the Anthropocene (see also Online Activity 5)? Concept of Planetary Boundaries. Use of analogues from deep and recent geological past to inform on processes and outcomes of environmental change. Natural variability in the environment (baselines). (PJO)

Online Activity 5 available here (The Anthropocene: the progression to an unsustainable future)

Lecture 15: Life below water (Sustainable Development Goal 14) Interconnectedness of ecosystems. Ecosystem Services in marine environments. (Un)healthy oceans: Human modification of oceans, seas and. Sea level rise: drivers and effects. SDG14 Target 14.1 Reduce marine pollution: causes and effects of nutrient pollution. ‘Dead zones’. (PJO)

Lecture 16: Life below water (Sustainable Development Goal 14), cont’d. Target 14.3 Reduce ocean acidification. Target 14.2 Protect and restore ecosystems. Case study: Restoration of oyster communities in Chesapeake Bay (PJO)

Lecture 17: Life on land (Sustainable Development Goal 15) Coastal Systems: interface of land and sea - the threat of sea level rise: drivers and effects. Response of terrestrial ecosystems to human modification. Case studies: (1) The Role of Paleoecology in Restoration and Resource Management: Greater Everglades Ecosystem, USA. (2) Lake sediments as records of natural variability and human impact. Can we geoengineer solutions? (PJO)

Lecture 18: Climate Action 3 (Sustainable Development Goal 13) How can humans and societies adapt to climate change impacts such as temperature and precipitation changes, sea-level rise, increased frequency of extreme events? (FMcD)

Lecture 19: No poverty (Sustainable Development Goal 1) Links between the occurrence and distribution of raw materials and other natural resources and conflict. Conflicts linked to hydrocarbon and water resources. Extent to which economies are reliant on oil and other finite mineral resources. Relationship between a country’s natural capital, per-capita income and poverty (FMcD)

Lecture 20: Zero hunger (Sustainable Development Goal 2) Distribution of soil and water resources for food production, sustainable and unsustainable food production, physical erosion and soil degradation, carbon loss from soils, susceptibility of soil carbon pools to global warming, nitrogen and nitrates, phosphorus constraints and food production, soil trace elements and micronutrients, consequences of deficiencies and excess trace elements with examples such as selenium, silica availability in soils, energy versus food crop production, global fluxes of carbon, silicon and water in food exports, pesticides and persistent organic pollutants (FMcD)

CLOSED BOOK End of Term MCQ Test 2 (60 questions)

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours


Specified Learning Activities


Autonomous Student Learning




Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
Module content is delivered as 20 lectures and 5 online learning exercises. The online learning elements are designed to deepen knowledge in selected areas and are also used to provide feedback to students via quizes. Assessment is by two MCQ tests (week 5 and end of semester), accounting for 40% and 60% of the marks respectively. 
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations

Not applicable to this module.

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
Not applicable to this module.
Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade In Module Component Repeat Offered
Multiple Choice Questionnaire: MCQ test of first part of course (lectures 1 to 8 and Online Exercises 1 and 2) Week 5 n/a Standard conversion grade scale 40% No


Multiple Choice Questionnaire: MCQ test on second part of course 1 hour End of Trimester Exam n/a Standard conversion grade scale 40% No



Carry forward of passed components
Resit In Terminal Exam
Spring Yes - 1 Hour
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Group/class feedback, post-assessment
• Online automated feedback

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

Feedback will be provided to students through MCQ quizes in which students are provided with explanations of why their MCQ responses are correct or incorrect. Group feedback will also be provided after the results of the 1st (mid-term) MCQ exam become available.

Name Role
Assoc Professor Tom Manzocchi Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Assoc Professor Julian Menuge Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Assoc Professor Patrick Orr Lecturer / Co-Lecturer