Calculating the carbon footprint of international education can be an uncomfortable proposition.
“The huge elephant in the room is that we’re all binge flyers and our whole sector is built on the need to fly people,” said Ailsa Lamont, the director and founder of Pomegranate Global, an international education consultancy in Australia.
“People are a bit reluctant to draw attention to the negative sides of that, and I think as well there’s been a lack of awareness about what you can actually do to make a difference without shutting the whole thing down.”
Lamont is one of the founders of a new group of international education professionals focused on climate change, the Climate Action Network for International Educators. The network is trying to bring renewed attention to the emissions generated by air travel associated with student mobility and to call for increased action.
No one is calling for ending study abroad or other education-related travel. But some are calling for more thoughtfulness on this subject, and for environmental considerations to be weighed alongside other factors.
“I don’t think that we should be stopping or trying to cut back on global mobility -- I think that it actually helps generate a lot of the main skill sets that we’re going to need to solve the climate crisis -- but I do think we have to factor that environmental cost in when we’re making our decisions in the same way that in the past we’ve factored in financial costs, safety and all sorts of other things,” Lamont said.
Richard Slimbach, a professor of global learning at Azusa Pacific University, has called for doing more global learning locally, in domestic sites where students can interact with diverse communities, and for reimagining study abroad.
“For now, study abroad numbers continue to rise, even though over 60 percent of all U.S. students earning academic credit abroad participate in short-term programs of eight weeks or less,” Slimbach wrote in a blog post. “This is to be expected, given the growing number of working students who simply can’t afford to quit work, leave family dependents, and pay thousands of dollars in program fees for a semester or year abroad. And yet the amount of greenhouse gases produced by flying to Sydney or Shanghai is the same whether students stay for one week or one year. Especially in programs of compressed duration, it is hard to see how the educational benefits might adequately compensate for the environmental harms.”
Slimbach raised a series of questions international education professionals can consider in evaluating whether environmental costs outweigh the educational benefits of any given program. He argued that programs run the risk of environmental and social harm not only when the distance traveled is far but also “when the size of the student group is such that it is forced to set up a separate and self-sustaining foreign enclave within the host community”; “when the backgrounds of participants allow for only limited intercultural contact, perspective taking, and foreign language learning”; and “when the primary motivation of participants has more to do with the promised thrill of travel and immediate goal gratification than the opportunity to learn from and with community residents,” among other factors.
“Do the benefits outweigh the costs?” Slimbach asked in an interview. “It takes a very, very honest and informed program director to even begin to answer that question. They’re incentivized to multiply and manage programs.”
In general, people who have been involved in the sustainability space in international education say the conversation about climate change has been somewhat marginalized over the years -- a topic of odd conference sessions and poster presentations, even a NAFSA: Association of International Educators task force, but not a widespread subject of discussion. But they see increased attention and some momentum -- what Lamont calls the “Greta effect,” a reference to youth climate activist Greta Thunberg.
A major professional organization in study abroad, the Forum on Education Abroad, has made sustainability its theme for its upcoming annual conference, when it will host the second of two “critical dialogues” it’s held on the topic.
Melissa Torres, president of the forum, said the organization will soon be releasing a new edition of its Standards of Practice for the field that will address environmental sustainability (it's already addressed in the group's Code of Ethics). One relevant section of the new standards document states that “each organization should consider the social, cultural, economic, and environmental impacts of its education abroad programming.” Another section, under the student learning and development section, says, “Responsible parties shall support students’ understanding of the social, historical, political, economic, linguistic, cultural, economic and environmental context(s) for each program and location.”
“Students are passionate about environmental sustainability and I think they’re hungry for answers: If I’m going to get on a plane and I am going to spend my time abroad, how can I make the most of that, and how can I limit my environmental impact?” Torres said.
“Some of the answers to that are by program choice,” Torres continued, “whether it’s a faculty member who's putting together a program and looking at their choice of destination. Do they need to go to, I’ll use as an example, South Africa, when they perhaps could do the same program and achieve their learning objectives in the Dominican Republic? Also, if you’re going to get on a plane to spend a week in a short-term program, could you choose a longer program where perhaps you’re living with a home-stay family instead of staying in a hotel? Or if you’re on a semester program, you’re not getting on a plane every weekend to visit 15 cities in Europe; you’re spending time in your host community. I think there are a number of interesting things that we as a field can do to educate students about making good choices.”
At the same time, Torres said, “there's tremendous value in being on the ground and seeing things for yourself that cannot be replicated in a classroom. I do think we can all do a better job of deepening and broadening students' experiences and taking full advantage of having them on the ground to deepen their understanding of global issues.”
Some colleges and study abroad providers purchase carbon offsets to mitigate the environmental impact of study abroad-related travel. The Foundation for International Education, for example, announced last week that it would be offsetting all round-trip student travel from the U.S. to the United Kingdom and Ireland starting this spring.
The University of Maryland, College Park, started purchasing carbon offsets for all study abroad travel, with the cost of the offsets -- about $85,000 cumulatively for 2017 to 2018 -- being paid for by the provost’s office. Maryland offsets all faculty and staff business travel -- including research travel -- as well as athletic travel.
Sally DeLeon, the senior project manager for carbon, energy and public reporting for Maryland’s Office of Sustainability, said that as Maryland was trying to reduce its emissions, emissions from air travel kept growing.
“Given that the university’s goal is to be globally connected, restrictions on flying would inhibit certain university work, so in order to be a responsible steward of the environment and accomplish that goal of being globally connected, the only way we could do that was to offset the air travel,” DeLeon said.
American University also has been offsetting study abroad travel since 2017: for all study abroad-related travel, the university purchases offsets related to a project in Kenya -- the site of one of American's study abroad centers. The project helps individuals transition from cooking over open fires to using cookstoves, resulting in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The university announced it achieved carbon neutrality in 2018.
“For all of our other sources of emissions universally, our first priority is to reduce emissions up front,” said Megan Litke, the director of sustainability programs at American. “Study abroad is an incredibly unique source of emissions for universities, an indisputably valuable program that students have this opportunity to study somewhere else and learn the new culture and engage with people around the world in unique and interesting ways. It’s not a program that we’re trying to cut back on. We thought it was a perfect place to start looking at offsets. We knew it was a program that was going to rely on them while we wait for a technological advancement that will help us move aviation to a cleaner realm.”
Both American and Maryland also purchase offsets for commuting-related travel, but they factor in only local commutes, not the big commutes students take to get to a campus in the first place, whether they’re coming from across town, across the country or across the world.
More students than ever are crossing borders for their educations. Robin Shields, a professor of education at the University of Bristol, in England, estimated in a paper published in the April edition of the Journal of Cleaner Production that greenhouse gas emissions associated by international student mobility measured between 14.01 and 38.54 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in 2014, an increase from between 7.24 and 18.96 megatons in 1999.
“I definitely don’t want to give the message it's a bad thing that people are studying abroad, but there’s really no conversation that happens around it,” Shields said in an interview. “Whether it’s a low estimate or a high estimate, the [environmental] costs are substantial, and we should probably stop assuming it is all worthwhile and have an intelligent conversation where we say some things are worth the costs and some things are not worth the costs.”
“At this moment in time, the important thing for everybody who is involved in the industry is to understand the issue we’re facing and then incentivize institutions to start actually measuring their carbon footprints,” said Pii-Tuulia Nikula, a senior lecturer at the School of Business at New Zealand's Eastern Institute of Technology and one of the founders of the Climate Action Network for International Educators. “A lot of institutions do it already, but quite often international student travel is outside the scope of the measurement. It’s kind of thought, ‘well it’s not our responsibility; it’s the student's responsibility.’ But we may have to start thinking about it differently, and actually start offsetting the flights, because the students can't otherwise actually use the service we’re providing.”
“Offsetting is the first thing we should definitely start thinking about, but in the long run we have to start thinking about the transition as well,” Nikula continued. “What if it's not acceptable anymore to fly? What if young people decide, ‘no, I don’t want to fly,’ or what if it otherwise becomes too expensive … How are going to still be providing international education opportunities?” Distance programs are possible options, she said, as are transnational programs where small groups of faculty and staff move to students, rather than vice versa.
“I think people are ready to start taking small steps, and any steps are positive, but a lot of people are probably not yet ready to think about a kind of major transition,” Nikula said. “It’s not necessarily something that will happen, but I think any smart industry or education provider should have a plan for different scenarios.”