Use these tips to link UN sustainable development goal 13 to your lessons on atmospheric pollutants, climate change, solutions, pH and acid/base reactions

A digital illustration of the number 13 as iceberg with a penguin and molecular structures as coloured balls

Source: © hitandrun/Debut Art

Show students how their chemistry lessons will help them tackle climate change

Of all the topics and concepts we teach our students, those relating to climate change are potentially the most important. As they become global citizens, it is crucial that students are aware of the causes of climate change as well as the impact it has had and could have in the future.

At age 14–16, students are exposed to the various processes which release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, their action as greenhouse gases and resultant changes to the climate, which has direct relevance to Goal 13: take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Context is crucial and there are many opportunities to bring students into the subject through real life examples.

The Sustainable Development Goals logo

This article is part of the Sustainability in chemistry series, developed to help you integrate the UN’s sustainable development goals into your teaching of chemistry. It supports Goal 13: take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Put it in context

The real-world effects of climate change are, sadly, not difficult to find and relate to a wide range of concepts that students learn across biology, chemistry and physics. For example, greenhouse effects studied in chemistry and physics lessons result in milder winters and earlier springs in the UK. Far from being a pleasant tempering of local weather patterns, researchers are concerned that domestic bird populations could radically change, with some birds disappearing from the countryside. Chemistry students who learn about carbon dioxide, solutions, pH and acid/base reactions will be both interested and worried when that knowledge is placed in the context of ocean acidification and damage to marine ecosystems. There is a strong public science element too, with initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol showing the difficulty of effecting change on a global level.

Download this

Flow diagram with questions, for age range 14–16

Draw a flow diagram with your learners to help them bring together their learning about the greenhouse effect and climate change. Use the questions provided, including short-answer, calculation and longer-response, to explore and consolidate this understanding.

Download the teacher resource as pdf or MS Word and the student worksheet as pdf or MS Word.

DOWNLOAD ALL

Download the teacher resource and student worksheet from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/xxxxxxx

Put it into practice

There are two key points to emphasise in the classroom, as they get to the crux of what we are trying to communicate and are often areas of weak or partial understanding.

The first relates to the origins and effects of different pollutants. In most curriculums, students study at least six atmospheric pollutants. There is a lot of content and students can struggle to retain it over the long term. There are also overlaps between the pollutants and students tend to confuse them. There is no substitute in this case for a clear summary like the table below.

PollutantSourceEffect

Carbon dioxide

Combustion of fossil fuels

Greenhouse gas, causes global warming

Methane

Paddy fields and grazing cattle

Greenhouse gas, causes global warming

Carbon monoxide

Incomplete combustion of fossil fuels

Toxic to humans

Sulfur dioxide

Combustion of fossil fuels with sulfur impurities

Causes acid rain and respiratory illness

Nitrogen oxides

Reaction of nitrogen and oxygen near an engine

Cause acid rain and respiratory illness

Carbon particulates

Incomplete combustion of fossil fuels

Cause respiratory illness

Compound Chemistry’s excellent infographic can help, though the more pollutants you teach, the greater the danger that students will confuse them.

The second point is that as long as there has been life on this planet, there have been organisms releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by respiration and the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have fluctuated over time. Recent changes, however, have been far larger than any natural fluctuations in terms of the rate of change (brilliantly depicted in this xkcd temperature timeline). It is crucial that students realise that the issues today with carbon dioxide are caused mainly by combustion of fossil fuels (and deforestation) and not via respiration. Too often, students will argue that the amount of carbon dioxide has increased due to respiration, so you must tackle this misconception head on.

Climate change is a big topic to teach, consisting of many parts, each of which is detailed and content-rich. Show your students how the parts fit together into one integrated whole. Constructing a simple flow diagram can help them gain a more holistic view of the problem; see the example in the downloadable resource.

Get more resources

Finally, a question I am often asked is: ‘why can’t we just remove the carbon dioxide by converting it into something else’? The answer relates to what students have learned about reversible reactions. If combustion produces carbon dioxide and releases energy (ie exothermic), to turn that carbon dioxide into something else we would need to use energy (ie endothermic). We would have to get the energy for that process from somewhere, which leads to further problems down the line. Again, a simple graphic can help.

This series publishes every Wednesday. Check out the articles so far