Hire a tutor
IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS): A Complete Guide

IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS): A Complete Guide

10 min Read|February 01 2024
|Written by:

Charles Whitehouse


Welcome to our comprehensive guide on IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS). As an engaging and insightful course, ESS explores the intricate connections between environmental systems and global societies, fostering a profound understanding of the contemporary world we inhabit. From grasping complex scientific principles to scrutinising societal responses to environmental issues, ESS equips you with essential knowledge and a multi-disciplinary perspective. Whether you're on the brink of choosing your IB subjects, or merely seeking more insight into this intriguing discipline, we've compiled this guide to offer you an in-depth look at what to expect from the course, how it's structured, assessed, and how to excel in it. Ready to dive in? Let's get started!

Why study IB Environmental Systems and Societies?

Studying Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) at the International Baccalaureate (IB) level holds a myriad of benefits for students who have an innate interest in our planet's health and future. ESS encourages students to gain a deep understanding of the environment from both a scientific and socio-political perspective, which is increasingly crucial in our modern, interconnected world.

According to UNESCO, there's a critical need to promote environmental awareness in young people. Research suggests that education is a vital tool in fostering sustainable behaviours and attitudes, and IB ESS is aligned perfectly to this need.

Additionally, a study conducted by Cambridge showed that IB students, particularly those studying ESS, were notably more likely to pursue environmental science or related degrees at university, compared to students of other programmes. It is also worth noting that the ESS course provides a holistic understanding of many of today's pressing issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and resource depletion, making it an important subject for the leaders of tomorrow.

Lastly, from an employability standpoint, there's a growing demand for environmental professionals. The UK's National Careers Service projects a 9% growth in Environmental Science jobs between 2020 and 2030, and students with an IB ESS background would have a solid foundation for such roles.

So, if you're driven by a desire to understand and potentially solve the complex environmental issues of our time, the IB ESS course might just be the perfect fit for you.

Get expert help with your IB ESS

The world's leading online IB ESS tutoring provider trusted by students, parents, and schools globally.

4.92/5 based on480 reviews

Is Environmental Systems and Societies hard?

How difficult one finds IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) is largely subjective, as it depends on individual interests, prior knowledge, and the effort put into studying. It's worth noting, however, that ESS is a unique subject within the IB curriculum, being inherently interdisciplinary, integrating both the sciences and social sciences.

Data from the International Baccalaureate Organization indicates that the average score for ESS was 4.48 out of 7 in the November 2021 examination session. This places ESS somewhere in the middle in terms of scoring when compared to other IB subjects. However, it's important to consider that ESS tends to be less content-heavy than subjects like Biology or History, which may account for the slightly higher average.

Academically, ESS is considered as an SL (standard level) subject, which means it may not delve as deeply into certain topics as HL (higher level) subjects would. However, the course content is wide-ranging, covering various topics from ecology and climate science to environmental policy and ethics.

What sets ESS apart, and can make it challenging for some, is its emphasis on critical thinking and interdisciplinary understanding. The course requires you to constantly make links between environmental systems and societies, and this can be challenging if you're more accustomed to subjects with clearly defined boundaries.

However, if you have a genuine interest in understanding the environment and human interaction with it, then you might find ESS not just manageable, but truly fascinating.

Sarah Jones was a top scorer in IB ESS, 2021 and this was her experience:

"Studying IB Environmental Systems and Societies was an enriching and enlightening experience for me. It deepened my understanding of our planet and the intricate systems that maintain its equilibrium. ESS challenged me to apply my learning to real-world issues and made me more aware of my responsibility as a global citizen. I gained a broad skill set, including critical analysis, data interpretation, and report writing, which has been invaluable in my university studies. The course was demanding, but the dedicated teaching and comprehensive resources provided made it manageable and ultimately very rewarding."

Below is an overview of the grade obtained in 2021 for ESS:

IB ESS grade distributions in 2021

IB ESS grade distributions in 2021

The IB Environmental Systems and Societies syllabus

The IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) syllabus is divided into seven topics, each designed to provide students with a well-rounded understanding of the interplay between the environment and societies.

1. Foundation of Environmental Systems and Societies: The course begins with an introduction to the ESS systems approach and the ecosystem theory. Students learn about the concept of a system, its models, and flows.

2. Ecosystems and Ecology: This topic covers the study of species, communities, ecosystems, and the critical principles of ecology.

3. Biodiversity and Conservation: In this section, students will explore the value of biodiversity and the issues surrounding its conservation.

4. Water, Food Production Systems and Society: This part of the syllabus tackles the crucial resources we rely on for survival, their production systems, and the impact on society.

5. Soil Systems and Terrestrial Food Production Systems and Society: Students examine soil systems, the role they play in food production, and the related societal issues.

6. Atmospheric Systems and Society: This topic is centred on the study of the atmosphere, climate change, and how society is impacted and responds.

7. Human Systems and Resource Use: The course concludes with a thorough study of resource use, its environmental impacts, and the exploration of potential solutions.

Each topic is interrelated, mirroring the interconnectedness of environmental issues in the real world. With such a comprehensive syllabus, students of ESS are exposed to an array of environmental topics that span across natural and social sciences, enabling a holistic approach to environmental understanding and problem-solving.

Have a look at our comprehensive set of IB ESS Study Notes and IB ESS Questions, developed by expert IB teachers and examiners!

How does subject selection work with Environmental Systems and Societies?

Selecting subjects in the IB Diploma Programme is a strategic process, and understanding how Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) fits into this framework is crucial. ESS is distinctive within the IB curriculum as it’s an interdisciplinary subject, bridging both Group 3 (Individuals and Societies) and Group 4 (Sciences) in the subject groups.

Therefore, ESS provides students with the unique flexibility to fulfil a requirement in either of these groups. For instance, if you're keen on studying History (a Group 3 subject) and also wish to take two science courses (Group 4), you could opt for ESS as it's considered a science and would allow you to maintain that balance.

It's essential to note that ESS is only offered at standard level (SL), not higher level (HL). Hence, if you're looking to study an environmental-related course at university, you may want to supplement ESS with a related higher-level subject, like Biology or Geography, to demonstrate the depth of your study.

Remember, subject choice should align with your higher education aspirations and personal interests. It’s always a good idea to consult with your IB coordinator or careers counsellor when finalising your selection, to ensure it serves both your short and long-term academic goals.

Understanding the IB Environmental Systems and Societies grading system

The grading for IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS), like other IB subjects, is done on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the highest achievable score. The overall grade is calculated based on both external and internal assessments.

External assessments account for 75% of the final grade. This includes two papers: Paper 1 (50%) is based on the core factual content and involves short-answer and data-based questions. Paper 2 (25%) assesses the extension topics, containing short-answer questions and an essay question.

The remaining 25% of the grade is determined by the internal assessment (IA). This component involves a practical project, where students have to design and conduct an original field investigation. This investigation is then written up as a report, and it's a chance for students to demonstrate practical research skills and a deep understanding of an environmental issue that interests them.

Each of these components is marked using IB-specific criteria, which focus not just on factual recall but also understanding, application, and critical thinking skills. Therefore, preparing for ESS involves a mix of understanding the theoretical content, refining exam techniques, and honing practical research skills.

IB Environmental Systems and Societies exam format

The IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) external assessment comprises two written papers, making up 75% of the final grade.

Paper 1 contributes to 50% of the final grade. It has two sections, A and B. Section A consists of several short-answer questions, each focusing on the core factual content from the syllabus. Section B presents students with a choice of two structured essay questions, again based on core content.

Paper 2 makes up the remaining 25% of the external assessment. It contains three structured questions based on the extension material in the syllabus. Each question has short-answer questions and one extended-response question.

These papers evaluate the students' ability to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the syllabus content, apply this knowledge to new situations, formulate, analyse and evaluate hypotheses, research questions and predictions, and present and communicate findings and reasoned arguments effectively.

It's vital to approach these papers with a deep understanding of the syllabus content, strong analytical skills, and a solid strategy for time management.

What is a good IB Environmental Systems and Societies score?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) grades students on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the highest score achievable. In terms of IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS), a "good" score is often considered to be 6 or 7, aligning with the higher end of the grading spectrum.

However, it's worth noting that the perception of what constitutes a "good" score can vary, depending on a student's academic aspirations and universities' entry requirements. For instance, if you're looking to study an environmentally-related course at university, a score of 6 or 7 in ESS could help demonstrate your commitment and understanding of the subject.

According to the May 2022 IB statistical bulletin, the mean grade for ESS was 4.47, while in the November 2022 session, the mean grade was 4.12. So, scoring above this average would be seen as performing relatively well. Nonetheless, the most important factor is to aim for a score that fulfils your university entry requirements and aligns with your personal academic goals.

Remember, while achieving a high score is significant, the real value of studying ESS lies in the knowledge, skills, and understanding that you gain about the intricate relationship between environmental systems and human societies.

How to revise and get a 7 in IB Environmental Systems and Societies?

Securing a high score in IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) involves strategic revision and a deep understanding of the subject's interdisciplinary nature. Here are a few tips on how to revise effectively for ESS:

Understand the syllabus: The ESS syllabus is structured around several core topics and extension material. Familiarising yourself with the syllabus can help guide your revision and ensure you cover all necessary areas.

Practice Past Papers: The IB provides past papers and mark schemes. Regularly practicing these can familiarise you with the format, style of questions, and improve your time management skills.

Master the Key Concepts: ESS involves several critical theories and models. Understanding these, and their real-world applications, can significantly boost your exam performance.

Prepare for Internal Assessment: The ESS IA is an original field investigation, accounting for 25% of the final score. A high-quality IA can bolster your final grade, so choose your research question wisely and dedicate sufficient time to carry out the investigation.

Study from Various Resources: Use textbooks, online resources, and revision guides to vary your study material. Websites such as IB Guides offer useful resources to complement your revision.

Seek support: Collaborate with classmates, form study groups, or seek guidance from your teacher or IB ESS tutor. Exploring different perspectives and discussing challenging topics can enhance your learning experience.

Remember, achieving a high score not only requires knowledge but also the ability to apply, analyse, and evaluate that knowledge effectively. Consistent and smart revision, coupled with a keen interest in the subject, will put you on the right path to securing a 7 in ESS.

Overview of IB Environmental Systems and Societies internal assessment

The Internal Assessment (IA) is a significant component of the IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) course, contributing 25% towards the final grade. The ESS IA involves conducting an individual investigation of a chosen environmental issue or topic. This project gives students the opportunity to demonstrate the application of their skills and knowledge in a practical context.

The IA must be an original piece of work conducted over 10 hours, with a final report length of 1,500 to 2,250 words. The report is expected to outline the issue under investigation, provide a methodological approach, present collected data, and analyse and evaluate these findings.

A successful ESS IA should demonstrate a clear understanding of the environmental issue investigated, the ability to formulate a focused research question, and employ relevant research methodologies. It should also exhibit the student's ability to critically analyse data and draw valid conclusions.

Moreover, ethical considerations are an integral part of any IA. Students must ensure their investigations do not harm the environment and that any interactions with living organisms are carried out ethically.

Finally, it's recommended to seek regular feedback from your teacher to ensure you're on track and meeting the necessary criteria.

Top resources for IB Environmental Systems and Societies preparation

Preparing for the IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) course requires quality resources that cover the broad and interdisciplinary nature of the syllabus. Here are some top resources to aid your ESS preparation:

Official IB ESS Guide: The official guide by the IB provides a comprehensive overview of the syllabus, assessment components, and grading criteria. It should be your primary reference throughout the course.

IB ESS Textbooks: Textbooks like 'Environmental Systems and Societies for the IB Diploma' by Paul Guinness and Brenda Walpole cover the complete syllabus with real-world case studies.

Revision Guides: Guides such as 'Oxford IB Diploma Programme: Environmental Systems and Societies Study Guide' are excellent for focused revision, offering condensed summaries of the syllabus content.

Online Platforms: Websites such as IB Guides provide detailed subject-specific resources, including topic notes, practice questions, and revision strategies.

Past Papers and Mark Schemes: Regularly practicing past papers can help familiarise yourself with exam structure and question types.

ESS Teachers and Study Groups: Engage actively in class discussions and make full use of your teacher's expertise. Additionally, forming study groups with classmates can enhance your understanding of complex topics.

Remember, the key to effective preparation lies in understanding and applying concepts rather than rote memorisation. Utilise these resources to gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and refine your critical thinking skills.

Exploring career opportunities with IB Environmental Systems and Societies

The interdisciplinary nature of IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) opens up a broad spectrum of career opportunities. ESS equips students with a comprehensive understanding of the environment, along with critical thinking and analytical skills, making it an excellent foundation for a range of careers in the environmental sector and beyond.

Environmental Consultancy: With a strong grounding in environmental science, graduates can advise businesses on environmental policies and corporate sustainability.

Conservationist: The knowledge and skills acquired in ESS are well suited for a career in wildlife conservation.

Environmental Education: Students with a passion for sharing their knowledge and promoting environmental awareness might consider a career in education, teaching the next generation about sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Sustainable Development: ESS graduates can contribute to the planning and implementation of sustainable development projects, ensuring that economic progress does not come at the expense of the environment.

Public Policy: ESS students, with their grasp of environmental issues and solutions, are well-positioned to influence public policy, working within government agencies or non-governmental organisations.

Research: The research skills developed in ESS can lead to a career in environmental research, contributing to scientific understanding of environmental systems and how they can be protected.

It's important to note that further study at the university level is often necessary to pursue these career paths. However, ESS provides a strong basis for further study in fields such as environmental science, ecology, conservation biology, environmental law, and many others. Whatever career you pursue, the skills and knowledge gained from ESS will equip you to contribute positively to environmental sustainability.


In conclusion, the IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) course is an excellent choice for students with a keen interest in the environment and sustainability. The course not only offers a broad interdisciplinary understanding of environmental systems but also enhances vital skills such as critical thinking and research. Including IB tutoring can provide tailored support, helping to deepen understanding and application of the course material. Studying ESS prepares students for an array of rewarding careers, from environmental consultancy to public policy. As environmental concerns increasingly shape our future, ESS offers valuable insights and tools to address these challenges. Regardless of the path you choose, the knowledge and skills acquired from ESS will equip you to contribute positively to environmental sustainability.


How long does the ESS course take to complete?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) ESS course runs parallel to the duration of the IB Diploma Programme, typically taking two years. This is because ESS is intended to be studied in depth, addressing a wide range of interconnected environmental issues, which require time for students to fully understand and appreciate.

What is the structure of the ESS internal assessment?

The ESS internal assessment (IA) is a significant part of the course, contributing 25% towards the final score. Students are expected to conduct their own investigation, focusing on a topic of personal interest related to environmental systems and societies. This investigation should be presented in the form of a written report, which should include a clear statement of task, data collection, analysis, conclusion, and evaluation.

What topics are covered in the ESS course?

The ESS course covers a diverse range of topics, providing a comprehensive understanding of the environment from both a scientific and societal perspective. Students delve into ecosystems and ecology, biodiversity, conservation, atmospheric systems and climate change, soil systems and terrestrial food production, aquatic systems, resource use, and energy production, among others. Each topic is designed to help students understand the complexities of environmental issues and how they relate to society.

Can ESS count as a science subject in the IB diploma?

Yes, ESS is considered an interdisciplinary course that can count as a science (Group 4) subject within the IB Diploma Programme. It's designed to combine the methodologies and techniques of both social and natural sciences, offering a holistic view of environmental issues.

How many hours of study per week does ESS require?

While individual learning pace may vary, on average, students can expect to dedicate around 3-5 hours per week on ESS. This includes classroom learning, personal study, homework, and preparation for assessments. It's essential for students to consistently engage with the subject matter for a thorough understanding.

Is there any fieldwork required in the ESS course?

Yes, practical activities, including fieldwork, form an integral part of the ESS course. These activities form the basis of the Practical Scheme of Work (PSOW), contributing to the internal assessment. Fieldwork allows students to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world situations, enhancing their understanding of environmental systems and societies.

What are some common challenges students face in ESS?

The ESS course's interdisciplinary nature could pose a challenge for some students, as it requires understanding and integrating concepts from both social and natural sciences. Additionally, students might find the internal assessment demanding as it requires independent research, data collection and analysis, and report writing. Being successful in ESS requires consistent effort, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

How does ESS relate to other subjects in the IB curriculum?

ESS has a unique position within the IB curriculum due to its interdisciplinary nature. It bridges the gap between Group 3 (Individuals and Societies) and Group 4 (Sciences), connecting well with subjects like Geography, Biology, and Business Management. It provides a broader context for understanding environmental issues, encouraging students to draw connections between their ESS studies and other subjects.

What is the role of the ESS teacher?

The ESS teacher plays a crucial role in guiding students through the complex world of environmental systems and societies. They are responsible for delivering the curriculum, facilitating classroom discussions, assisting students with their internal assessments, and preparing them for the final examination. The teacher's role extends beyond knowledge transmission to fostering critical thinking and developing research skills.

Are there any prerequisites for taking ESS?

There are no specific prerequisites for ESS in the IB curriculum. However, having a solid foundation in basic science can be helpful due to the course's scientific components. Above all, a genuine interest in environmental issues and a willingness to engage with complex, real-world problems are crucial for success in ESS.

What skills can I gain from studying ESS?

ESS equips students with a range of skills. The interdisciplinary nature of the course encourages critical thinking and the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives. The internal assessment develops research and data analysis skills, while the emphasis on real-world issues fosters problem-solving abilities. Furthermore, ESS nurtures an ethical and global mindset, empowering students to become informed and active participants in addressing environmental challenges.

How is the ESS course assessed?

The ESS course is assessed through a combination of internal and external assessments. The Internal Assessment, a student-conducted investigation, contributes 25% to the final grade. The remaining 75% comes from two externally assessed papers. Paper 1, which accounts for 30%, consists of short-answer and data-based questions. Paper 2, making up the remaining 45%, includes short-answer and extended-response questions based on the core material and the option chosen by the school.

Can ESS be beneficial for university applications?

Absolutely, studying ESS can be a strong advantage for university applications, particularly for those interested in environmental science, sustainable development, conservation biology, and related fields. Universities value the holistic, interdisciplinary approach of ESS, as well as the research and critical thinking skills it cultivates. Moreover, ESS demonstrates a commitment to global issues, a trait many universities appreciate.

What resources are available for ESS preparation?

A variety of resources are available for ESS preparation. Apart from the prescribed textbooks, you can use online resources like the IBO website, revision websites, forums dedicated to ESS or make use of an IB ESS tutor. Educational platforms such as Khan Academy may also be useful. Moreover, past exam papers provide valuable practice in answering exam-style questions. Remember, the key to mastering ESS is consistent and engaged learning.

Is ESS offered in SL and HL?

ESS is currently only offered in one standard. From 2024, it will be launched in both SL and HL with the first assessment taking place in May 2026.

Need help from an expert?

4.92/5 based on480 reviews

The world’s top online tutoring provider trusted by students, parents, and schools globally.

Study and Practice for Free

Trusted by 100,000+ Students Worldwide

Achieve Top Grades in your Exams with our Free Resources.

Practice Questions, Study Notes, and Past Exam Papers for all Subjects!

Need Expert ESS Help?

If you’re looking for assistance, get in touch with the TutorChase team and we’ll be able to provide you with an expert IB ESS tutor. We’ll be there every step of the way!



Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Charles Whitehouse

Written by: Charles Whitehouse

Oxford University - Masters Biochemistry

Charles scored 45/45 on the International Baccalaureate and has six years' experience tutoring IB and IGCSE students and advising them with their university applications. He studied a double integrated Masters at Magdalen College Oxford and has worked as a research scientist and strategy consultant.

Get Expert Help
background image

Hire a tutor

Please fill out the form and we'll find a tutor for you

Phone number (with country code)

Still have questions? Let’s get in touch.