Use these tips and activities to link UN Sustainable development goal 15 to synthesising ammonia, lithium batteries, biofuels, recycling and keeping your school laboratory green

A bush in the shape of a number 15

Source: © hitandrun/Debut Art

Plant UN Sustainable development goal 15 in your learners’ minds with tips and activities linked to the terrestrial environment

The issues associated with life on land are met throughout 11–16 chemistry education, where learners are encouraged to reduce, recycle and reuse finite resources and understand the impact human activities have on ecosystems and the atmosphere. Chemistry for 16–18 students looks at industrial activities and the role of green chemistry in improving sustainability by designing production methods with fewer steps that have a high percentage atom economy. Learners are also asked to consider the wider societal and environmental implications of energy sources such as cells and bioethanol.

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 15: protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Put it in context

Goal 15 seeks to restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, halt biodiversity loss and halt and reverse land degradation. Human activity has altered almost 75% of Earth’s surface, forcing wildlife and nature into an ever-decreasing corner of the planet. And yet, nature is critical to our survival: it provides us with oxygen, regulates weather patterns, pollinates crops and produces our food, central to which is soil. Soil is a finite resource: approximately 2.6 billion people depend on agriculture, but 52% of the land used for agriculture is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation. The UN estimates that agricultural land is lost at a rate of 230,000 metres squared per minute, affecting 74% of the poor globally. See the UN Life on land poster for a summary.

Introducing topics related to Goal 15 provides an opportunity to make links with core curriculum topics such as resource management, ammonia production, fertilisers and sustainability. The reciprocal reading activity provided includes a discussion framework, roles and text about agriculture and ammonia which could be used in conjunction with this Alchemy: ammonia resource or this anecdote about Fritz Haber.

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A reciprocal reading task, for age range 14–16

This activity provides context and helps build cultural and science capital, while improving learners’ reading skills. The resource includes teacher notes, a handout on the reciprocal reading roles and a text on agriculture and ammonia. 

Download the reciprocal reading task as MS Word or pdf.

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Download the reciprocal reading task from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/3AhcTe0

Put it into practice

Sustainability requires humans to fix existing problems with alternatives that will not prove to be harmful in the future. Mining lithium for electric car batteries is discussed in the article, Your place or mine?  and the Recharge your batteries resource, aimed at the 14–16 curriculum, is concerned with lithium batteries’ use and disposal.

Forests are home to 80% of all land animals and plants but also play a major role in the fight against climate change. Discuss the environmental and ethical issues that surround the production and use of bioethanol. Biofuel critics report that these fuels compete with feeding a growing global population but also contribute to deforestation as forested areas may be cut down or burned to make way for agricultural expansion. Life-cycle accounting of biofuels reveals that ethanol yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas biodiesel from soybeans yields 93% more. Biodiesel reduces more than three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions compared to bioethanol relative to the fossil fuels they displace. However, dedicating all US corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12% of gasoline demand and 6% of diesel demand.

The book Inspirational chemistry: resources for modern curricula has a strong emphasis on sustainable development and green chemistry. Resources from the book include a debating activity, which considers the benefits and drawbacks of using artificial fertilisers, and a research activity that will get students thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of using plastics. For recycling teaching ideas use the University of Bristol’s Green chemistry resource pack. It’s aimed at 16–18 students but the activities can be modified for younger learners.

The Challenging plants series offers the potential for cross-curricular links with biology and geography depending on the school curriculum. There are excellent materials on fertilisers for 14–16 learners and stretch and challenge reading for 16–18 learners studying intermolecular forces, hydration, ion exchange or kinetics. You could also use it as wider reading, as a detailed glossary is included.

Keep your school laboratory green: good practice

  • Minimise the amount of materials used – focuses on developing smaller-scale experiments for use in the classroom.
  • Recycle and reuse materials whenever possible – place sieves over plugholes to collect unreacted metals.
  • Use glassware instead of plastic and recycle disposable plastics where possible.
  • Use less energy – switch off equipment, appliances and lights when not in use.
  • Order supplies from sustainable vendors.
  • Keep freezers clear of frost build-up and keep refrigerator/freezer filters and coils clean and free of obstructions.
  • Keep fume hoods closed and fix faults like dripping taps quickly to reduce inefficiencies – one dripping tap can waste 180 litres of water per day.
  • Prevent waste rather than treating or cleaning up after it is formed – decant solutions into beakers to make pouring easier.
  • Label the recycling bins clearly so rubbish goes in the appropriate bin.

Get more resources 

  • Help create context with real-life examples of molecules, such as Acmella olerace.
  • Link to careers with this job profile of an environmental chemist who assesses the risks to life from certain chemicals in soil, water and air; find more inspiration with our Fixing the future video. 
  • Why not partner with students and colleagues to work towards becoming an Eco-school

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