Sustainable study abroad. “It almost seems like an oxymoron,” says Daniel Greenberg, executive director of Living Routes, an Amherst, Mass.-based provider that runs study abroad programs in eco-villages.
The perception of paradox, Greenberg says, has in some ways frozen the field. The prevailing sense is this: "You can’t be sustainable studying abroad, so how can you talk about it?”
In the past two years, some people have started to -- within an industry powered by greenhouse-gas emitting jet fuel. On the national level, last spring a task force on environmental sustainability in study abroad (chaired by Greenberg) submitted a report  to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. And as for the Forum on Education Abroad, a subcommittee (also chaired by Greenberg) is at work on draft sustainability standards being proposed as additions to the Forum’s Standards of Good Practice .
On an institutional level, campus-wide sustainability initiatives -- including the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, in which colleges commit to pursuing "climate neutrality" -- can be catalysts for considering off-campus impacts, too. As part of the commitment, signatory colleges are asked to incorporate in their reporting and climate action plans all air travel paid for by or through the institution.
“My personal feelings aside, if my president has signed this climate commitment and it’s my responsibility to reduce my carbon footprint by 80 percent, I’ve got to start working on that, especially with study abroad,” says Andrea Dvorak, coordinator for faculty-led programs at Augsburg College and vice chair of Augsburg's Environmental Stewardship Committee. Aside from reducing emissions at a program site (by, for example, using public transportation), "At this point, yes, there aren't a lot of good choices. We can buy carbon offsets, which are controversial at best," Dvorak says.
“I think that if there is in the context in which we live today a defensible kind of travel, it would be study abroad,” says William Edelglass, a professor of philosophy at Marlboro College, in Vermont, and co-editor of the journal , Environmental Philosophy. “Even if you’re in Europe, you can see they’re consuming half the energy we consume per person; their lives are not diminished. You see windmills, you see people reusing their shopping bags, you see public transportation. You can see all that, and you can bring some of that home."
In terms of U.S. policy, “I think a lot of the changes that need to come will really be aided by many kinds of study abroad programs," Edelglass says.
At the same time, he adds, “All these questions arise in this context where individually, any one person flying, the consequences are virtually negligible. But collectively they’re catastrophic. And that’s what makes it such a difficult and thorny issue, and a moral issue, and a political issue."
Education as the Objective
At Warren Wilson College, a Presidents Climate Commitment signatory, international flights associated with study abroad represent the college’s third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s hard. I often feel like I’m having to defend the mission of the international, cross-cultural program in terms of the cost. It’s a heavy cost on the carbon footprint, that’s for sure,” says Naomi Otterness, director of international programs and a member of Warren Wilson’s greenhouse gas reductions task force. “But we are an educational institution, so we have to think over the long run what effect this will have on the life of the student who's having these experiences.
"I think that when students are traveling abroad and observing these different ways of living and how other cultures may be living more simply, this has a lasting impact on them."
In short, the argument is simple and straightforward: Education abroad can best address the planet's woes through, well, education abroad (and in fact many study abroad programs have specific curricular emphases on sustainability).
Education is the idea behind the Green Passport Program , a new social networking site intended to raise students’ own ecological and social consciousness abroad.
Green Passport is low maintenance, explains Rodney Vargas, the Latin America, Africa and Middle East programs director at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It requires nothing more of study abroad advisers than that they include a link to it in their pre-departure materials.
“Everybody was talking about the numbers of students from the U.S. going abroad, the numbers going up,” says Vargas. (The oft-stated goal is to increase participation  about four-fold, to one million students a year.) “We were kind of worried. What about the environmental impact or the social impact of all these students?
“It’s not just getting on the plane, the carbon emissions, but just by being there in large numbers, they will have an impact. And what we try to do with this program is make them be aware of the impact and in a way try to minimize the negative impacts,” Vargas says of Green Passport.
“I always tell the students: ‘I know you’re still going to have parties on the beach, but at least you’re going to pick up the empty beer bottles and cans and not leave them behind.’ ”
"A couple years ago we committed to trying to be a 'carbon-neutral' organization. So that means basically three things. You measure your carbon emissions, you reduce your emissions and you try to offset,” says Greenberg, of Living Routes.
“I was a strong proponent of offsetting for a long time. ... [But] I’ve come to a place where I say carbon offsetting is not enough. It does give a perception that you’ve given money to this organization and you’re good to go.
“Instead of calling ourselves ‘carbon neutral,’ we’re starting to call ourselves a ‘carbon conscious’ organization," Greenberg says.
Offsetting is still part of Living Routes' operations, although through informal and individual channels and outside of the carbon offset market. Basically, here’s how they do it: After estimating the per-student carbon footprint, students determine how much of that footprint they can individually offset by, say, becoming a vegetarian for a year or taking shorter showers. Living Routes offsets the balance, through “nano”-scale projects (like installing solar panels or building composting toilets) in the eco-villages.
Middlebury College recently started promoting  carbon offsets to students studying abroad. The study abroad office offers the option to offset travel via a $36 check to Native Energy, of Vermont (the money goes either to support Native American-owned wind power or family farm methane digesters, per the student’s choice). Students even get a coupon for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, upon return, for participating.
Middlebury also started a program in 2008 to award grants of up to $500  to students interested in pursuing sustainability-related projects while studying abroad. “Middlebury is a real leader in environmental studies and sustainability and a lot of things we’ve been doing on campus have become examples for other institutions,” says Stacey Woody Thebodo, assistant director of international programs and off-campus study. “We decided this should also apply to study abroad the best that we can.”
At last month’s Forum on Education Abroad conference in Portland, Oregon, a roundtable session focused on proposed sustainability standards for the field. The true believers were in the room, one audience member pointed out -- but what would someone in a one-person study abroad office think of all this discussion?
“It feels like one more thing to worry about,” acknowledges Augsburg’s Dvorak, who presented. “I don’t think we have a choice, but I don’t feel that that case has been compellingly and concisely made.”
Emissions associated with study abroad, however, should be considered within the context of the whole college -- and its total carbon budget, explains Nathan Sivers Boyce, associate professor of economics and chair of the Sustainability Council at Willamette University. “Part of what I like about this [Presidents] Climate Commitment, it gives us a budget,” he says. "Look at the different things that might service our educational mission and look at costs not only in financial terms but also the carbon footprint or ecological footprint more broadly.”
In its 2007-8 greenhouse gas inventory, completed as part of the Presidents Climate Commitment, Willamette found that the impact of local commuting by students was about the same as the impact of student travel to and from off-campus study locations. The two activities each made up about 8 percent of Willamette’s total emissions.
"Isn't that interesting by itself?" Sivers Boyce asks. "You say to a student, 'OK, these two are basically the same cost. What would you rather do? Would you rather use your car less while you're here on campus and walk more and be able to go abroad? Or would you rather be able to commute?' "