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Study information

Ecosystems of the future: climate change, terrestrial feedbacks and nature-based solutions

Module titleEcosystems of the future: climate change, terrestrial feedbacks and nature-based solutions
Module codeGEO2235
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Professor Iain Hartley (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

To reach net zero, society must reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the level that the land surface and oceans can absorb, resulting in no increase in GHGs in the atmosphere. Terrestrial ecosystems currently absorb ~25% of the CO2 we release each year. However, there is uncertainty whether this will continue as climate change impacts become more severe. On the other hand, there is increasing interest in trying to manage land to promote greater carbon uptake while also delivering ecological benefits (Nature-based Solutions). This module will critically evaluate the role terrestrial ecosystems could play in the fight against climate change.

The model is suitable for non-geographers but some ecological knowledge is useful.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to:

  1. demonstrate how greenhouse gas fluxes to and from terrestrial ecosystems are controlling atmospheric chemistry and therefore the Earth’s climate;
  2. outline the type of detailed knowledge required to predict future carbon uptake/release;
  3. evaluate management options for using terrestrial ecosystems in climate change mitigation, and the associated risks;
  4. explain the challenges in predicting future greenhouse gas fluxes.

The course is highly research-led, making extensive use of the primary literature and outlining the most recent developments in the subject. There are increasing opportunities for jobs associated with Nature-based Solutions, linked to carbon-offsetting schemes in both the public and private sector. Understanding how to measure stores and fluxes of greenhouse gases is extremely important for verifying these schemes, and the module will engage with these issues directly. Furthermore, evaluating potential rates of future carbon uptake, as well as options for managing the carbon cycle, requires critical engagement with both the science and the societal contexts in which carbon offsetting may be promoted. As well as the subject-specific training, you will need good group-work and communication skills to succeed in many jobs. Working within groups in practical sessions will provide you with the opportunities to develop communication and organisational skills, as well as providing technical experience in monitoring the carbon cycle and analysing data.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Outline the changes that are taking place in the Earth system that may influence future greenhouse gas uptake and release from terrestrial ecosystems
  • 2. Evaluate and synthesise information, and make judgements on the potential for using terrestrial ecosystems in climate change mitigation
  • 3. Quantify carbon stocks and fluxes, and consider the challenges in monitoring sinks and sources of carbon

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Discuss and critically evaluate contested and controversial research
  • 5. Present and discuss data/results clearly and concisely
  • 6. Evaluate how decisions may need to be made in the face of uncertainty

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 7. Identify, acquire, critically evaluate and synthesise data from a range of sources
  • 8. Develop a well-reasoned argument

Syllabus plan

The main content of the course will be delivered during 12 hours of lectures. Topics covered will include:

  1. Reasons for current carbon uptake;
  2. Future climate change impacts on carbon uptake and GHG emissions;
  3. Opportunities and challenges for managing terrestrial ecosystems for climate change mitigation.

There will be two 3-hour field and laboratory-based practical classes in which we will measure both carbon storage in an ecosystem, and fluxes of carbon to and from the ecosystem. This will form the basis of a report that students will need to prepare on the best ways of determining how carbon storage has changed in managed ecosystems.

There will also be 3 hours of directed preparation for three class discussions on hotly-contested issues, answering questions related to the literature which is being read. The three class discussions will each take 1-hour to run.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities12Lectures
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities62 x 3 hour practical classes
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activities3Preparation for class discussions
Scheduled Learning and Teaching activities3Presentation of the arguments for and against the discussion topics, and feedback
Guided Independent Study40Reading around the lectures
Guided Independent Study16Preparation for class discussions
Guided Independent Study30Essay writing
Guided Independent Study40Report writing

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Class discussions1 hour1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8Verbal, one-hour feedback session

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay, critical evaluating the evidence for and against one of the discussion topics401000 words1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8Written
Report, presenting the results from the practical classes in the context of carbon sequestration601500 words1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay (1000 words, 40%)Essay (1000 words, 40%)1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8Referral/Deferral period
Report (1500 words, 60%)Report (1500 words, 60%)1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you have been deferred for any assessment you will be expected to submit the relevant assessment. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be expected to submit the relevant assessment. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Critical reading of a wide range of literature sources is an essential element of academic learning, research, and career success in environmental science – a rapidly changing field! At its core, this module will repeatedly refer two IPCC reports; the 2021 Report on The Physical Science Basis and the 2022 Report on Mitigation of Climate Change. Details of the two reports are as follows:

Physical Science Basis:

IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R.Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. elekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 2391 pp.  doi:10.1017/9781009157896.

This report is available online and Chapter 5 “Global Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles and Feedbacks” is especially relevant to this course (follow the link below):

Mitigation of Climate Change:

IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926

This report is also available online and Chapter 7 “Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses (AFOLU)” is especially relevant to this course (follow the link below):

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources


Indicative learning resources - Other resources

A list of research articles will be distributed via Web-CT during the course from leading academic journals including Nature, Biogeochemistry, Global Change Biology.

Key words search

Carbon, climate change, soil, decomposition, drought, elevated CO2, fire, global warming, photosynthesis, permafrost, nitrogen deposition, respiration, management, rewilding

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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