• University of Leicester

Concepts in Sustainable Development: An Introduction to the Key Issues

Explore some of the key issues in sustainability, tackling the big questions with examples from around the world.

12,330 enrolled on this course

Concepts in Sustainable Development: An Introduction to the Key Issues
  • Duration6 weeks
  • Weekly study3 hours
  • LearnFree
  • Extra BenefitsFrom $59Find out more

Get an introduction to the key issues in sustainability

In this course you will study the conceptual foundations of sustainable development, and discuss the issues around sustainability as a complex problem.

We’ll look at the flow of energy and materials worldwide; social and political issues; wealth inequality; the impact of geography, history and culture on sustainability today; and the problems of collective action. Finally, we’ll conduct a SWOT analysis, looking at our resilience and prospects in the face of climate change and other global issues in sustainability. We’ll ask: are we doomed?

Download video: standard or HD

Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds For most of human history, the world has experienced sustainability without development. But since we’ve moved from foraging to farming, we’ve seen development without sustainability. Growth and world population has come as a result of advances in science and technology. Societies have adapted to these changes, but now population growth threatens to outrun technology. And the material resources required to support unrestrained development are no longer available. Sustainable development is one of the greatest challenges of our time. In this course, we’ll learn about the fundamental concepts and ideas that underpin sustainability on a global level.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds Universities especially have a major role to play in sustainable development not only through education, but also through their example. Here at Leicester, we’ve put this at the heart of what we do. The new centre for medicine is the UK’s largest nonresidential Passivhaus building. Here the green wall and roof planting promote biodiversity, whilst the building itself has the highest standards of air tightness and temperature control. The building’s intelligence systems include a subsoil heat exchange system to prewarm or precool the incoming air. There are heat recovery mechanisms within the ventilation system and automated blinds to keep rooms cool in summer.

Skip to 1 minute and 45 seconds The large array of solar panels on the roof and the connection to a heat and power district energy scheme means that the building is largely carbon neutral. Our values of sustainability extend into all facets of our university life. The University of Leicester aspires to develop students who can think and act sustainably. Sustainable development is not just a difficult practical problem where we all do our bit for recycling and turn off unnecessary lights. It’s also a conceptual, political and moral problem. In this course, we’ll look at what this means. How it implies there are no simple answers to the issues of sustainable development and on the other hand, how an understanding of the complexities can help shape approaches to solutions.

Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds This course raises fundamental issues about the fair use of resources, which will investigate why some countries are less developed than others and the interplay between development and technology. At the University of Leicester, our commitment to a sustainable future for all will cause long term thinking and socially responsible behaviour. Sustainable development isn’t just one part of the curriculum in higher education, it’s all of the curriculum in one aspect. We aim to develop the talents of our students. In this way we hope to encourage our students to grow as individuals and to contribute to their communities in positive and sustainable ways.

Skip to 3 minutes and 31 seconds In this course we concentrate on the large scale picture and hope to provide a deeper understanding of what it means to be a global citizen.

What topics will you cover?

  • Week 1: Sustainable development and complexity
  • Week 2: The economy and ecology as a metabolic system
  • Week 3: Economic growth and inequality
  • Week 4: The importance of geography, history and culture and the impact of human activity on the environment
  • Week 5: The problem of collective action
  • Week 6: Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and learn at your own pace. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explain what is meant by a complex system and its relevance to sustainability
  • Evaluate the Brundtland definition of sustainable development
  • Explain how economy and ecology work together as one system
  • Summarise the prospects for a circular economy
  • Identify the effects of the agricultural and industrial revolutions
  • Identify and discuss the practical and moral issues around inequality
  • Evaluate the difficulty in assigning causation in complex systems
  • Discuss the implications of past actions for current generations
  • Describe what is meant by the term 'tragedy of the commons'
  • Explain what is meant by globalisation, and its implication for sustainability
  • Discuss the major problems of sustainability and the prospects for solutions
  • Discuss the range of views on approaches to development

Who is the course for?

This course is open to anyone interested in exploring the general technical and social issues around the concept of sustainability and sustainable development. The course explores the theoretical basis of sustainability from the natural sciences, political and economic perspective. This course is aimed at learners who wish to engage with the challenges and potential solutions to sustainability at a conceptual level.

Who will you learn with?

Derek Raine MBE is emeritus professor of interdisciplinary science at the University of Leicester and the recipient of several awards for novel approaches to science teaching in higher education.

Who developed the course?

University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is a leading research led university with a strong tradition of excellence in teaching. It is consistently ranked amongst the top 20 universities in the United Kingdom.

Learner reviews

Join this course

Start this course for free, upgrade for extra benefits, or buy Unlimited to access this course and hundreds of other short courses for a year.


Join free and you will get:

  • Access to this course for 8 weeks


Upgrade this course and you will get:

  • Access to this course for as long as it’s on FutureLearn
  • Access to this course’s tests as well as a print and digital Certificate of Achievement once you’re eligible

Unlimited (New!)
$279.99 for one year

Buy Unlimited and you will get:

  • Access to this course, and hundreds of other FutureLearn short courses and tests for a year
  • A printable digital Certificate of Achievement on all short courses once you’re eligible
  • The freedom to keep access to any course you've achieved a digital Certificate of Achievement on, for as long as the course exists on FutureLearn
  • The flexibility to complete your choice of short courses in your own time within the year
Find out more about upgrades or Unlimited.