ENVR 410 · Energy, Environment, and Society

The role of energy in human societies throughout history and the environmental and social implications of energy use. Coverage of both the science and policy of energy use. Energy supply and demand, energy transitions, analytical tools, impacts, and alternatives. [3-0-0] Prerequisite: Fourth-year standing in B.Sc., B.A.Sc. or related programs.

Course Availability & Schedule

Learning Goals

This is a course on the complex interactions between energy use, human societies and the environment.  The Learning Objectives of this course are geared towards both the substantive understanding of those interactions and the possible tools that can be brought to bear to understand them.  More specifically, upon completion of the course, students should:

·       Have an understanding of the role energy has played and continues to play in the transformations of human society

·       Have an understanding of both natural and man-made energy flows and their environmental impacts

·       Have a more in-depth understanding of the science, economics, policy and human dimensions of a specific energy issue (e.g. climate change, energy poverty, nuclear power, etc.)

·       Be able to apply simple models to better understand energy and environmental problems

·       Be familiar with the various tools that can be used to analyze energy and environmental problems


Dr. Hisham Zerriffi

Course Content

The story of human civilization and our impact on the environment cannot be separated from the story of how humans have used energy.  From the first time animal energy was harnessed for transport and farming to the fossil-fuel driven industrial revolution and through to our current electricity dependent society, human use and transformation of energy has been the underlying engine of growth and resulted in fundamental environmental changes.  The first part of the course will be a brief overview of the relationship between energy and human civilization.  We will trace the flows of energy in our society and how they make our current civilization possible.  We will also look back into history to see how transformations in how humans harness energy were fundamental to the progress of humans from hunter-gathers to agriculturalists to industrialists and beyond.  Throughout this section of the course we will discuss the impact that this has had on the local and global environment. 

The second part of the course will be an exploration of some of the major energy and environmental challenges of the 21st century.  This will be done through group student projects.  Students will be expected to work together to research a particular energy/environment challenge, report back regularly on their progress and produce a written report at the end of the term.  Possible topics include:

·      Climate Change: Climate change is arguably the most visible and pressing environmental consequence of the rapid process of human civilizational growth over the last 200-300 years.  Understanding and solving the climate problem involves combining both science and engineering with human values and decision-making. 

·      Nuclear Waste: The nuclear power era has created an ever-growing stockpile of highly radioactive waste.  Finding a long-term solution to that waste problem is a problem that remains elusive and advocates exist for both long-term disposal underground and for using the waste to produce more energy.  Each pose challenges and entail risks to society and the environment.

·      Biofuels: Biofuels have held the promise of meeting human energy needs for transportation with fewer consequences for the climate.  However, they are not without controversy.  First is the question about how much of a contribution they could make in reality.  Second is the impact they have on local ecosystems, food production and the welfare of communities near biofuel plantations.

·      Energy Poverty: There are currently ~1.5 billion people without electricity access and ~3 billion that rely on solid fuels (e.g. coal, wood, charcoal) for their primary cooking fuel.  This has immense consequences on both human welfare and the environment.  However, solving this problem may come with its own challenges as energy consumption patterns change. 

This section of the course will also feature periodic lectures and discussions on key skills and methods useful for energy and environmental analysis.  This includes benefit-cost analysis, engineering economics, life-cycle analysis, and policy analysis.  There is no single text for this course.  Readings will come from a variety of articles, books and reports.