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The case for carbon-free international education

Some estimates suggested that bushfires in Australia killed one billion animals in 2020. Alongside scientific surveys proving the shrinking of ice caps and permanent damage to our planet, the climate emergency is evidently here. Is the international education sector paying attention to the crisis?

Should educators be responsible for indirect emissions that academics and students emit? Photo: pexels

"We need people with intercultural skills, but creating those individuals via international mobility adds very high emissions"

“I think it’s fair to say that most [educators] haven’t been thinking about it,” warns Ailsa Lamont, director and founder of Pomegranate Global and co-founder of CANIE: Climate Action Network for International Educators. “It’s a pretty recent phenomenon that any of them are.” 

However, since CANIE’s grassroots initiative began in August 2019, global awareness has increased, she says. “I’m sure that’s connected to the school strike movement and the general increase in climate awareness. And there’s this growing unease by people of having to fly”.

“How can we have international opportunities for students without actually flying them overseas?”

Herein lies one of the big conundrums for our sector: how to balance the need and belief in travelling and learning abroad with the inherent problems that flying creates for our planet.

Research has estimated that the upper levels of annual carbon emissions from the HE and study abroad sector is on par with overall emissions of countries such as Tunisia or Croatia.

Transporting 360,000 students to the US, 210,000 to Australia or 120,000 to the UK from the world’s top source of international students – China – without air travel would be impossible. Plane travel is a commodity that cannot be substituted in this instance. 

Certain regions may offer exceptions. Local train services in Europe offer a unique proposition for international travel. A number of Swedish universities – including Lund, Uppsala, Chalmers, Gothenburg – offer outbound Erasmus+ students grants if they choose to travel by rail.

In January 2020, one student from Umeå in Sweden made the 4,000km journey to Porto in Portugal by train. Airports in Sweden saw a four per cent drop overall in passengers in 2019. It is also where the term Flygskam – flight shaming – originates. 

On the wider continent, the European Commission suggests Erasmus participants take advantage of Europe’s comprehensive rail network. 

There is, according to another CANIE founder and education policy & management scholar, Pii-Tuulia Nikula, an “inherent conflict” for the international education sector in respect to the climate crisis. 

To solve it, we need more people with intercultural skills, but creating those individuals via international mobility adds very high emissions, she warns. 

“We have to start thinking about how we can have more of those low carbon emission modes. How can we have international opportunities for students without actually flying them overseas?” asks Nikula, who works at New Zealand’s Eastern Institute of Technology School of Business. 

“Shifting the money is hugely important,” states Lamont.

Divesting from fossil fuels, ensuring institutions use renewable energy, and even thinking about who they bank with, are some “more impactful things” universities could do that don’t necessarily cost them anything, she says.

Increasing international student numbers and cutting emissions may be two incompatible targets, says Robin Shields, professor of education at the University of Bristol in the UK.

With no alternative for long haul travel at this stage, “the question for us, as educators, is what can we do?”

To read the longer version of this article online, please visit The PIE Insider or access the digital version of The PIE Review here.

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3 Responses to The case for carbon-free international education

  1. This is such an interesting topic, I would say not many people think of the environmental impact of studying abroad as education is such a priority. Do you think the adjustment needed from Covid-19 will help this initiative and come up with innovative ways for overseas students to learn too?

  2. One way to mitigate the carbon footprint of the overseas flight is to share with students all the local ways they can be green while in their host country. Favoring train travel over low-cost short flights, using local bike rental schemes in the host city over UBER or taxis, pointing out what the local recycling facilities look like and where they can be found.

  3. It is impossible to replace the full experience of being immersed in another country and culture. One established way to offset and even surpass the C02 from air travel is to use Ecosia “the search engine that plants trees”, which is now quickly approaching 100 million planted trees. All students will need to do research, so why not do it with Ecosia.

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