The Carbon Footprint of International Education

Team Green OfficeGeen categorie

By: Ben Lever

Recently, there is growing attention on the amount of carbon emissions associated with the International Education industry, which may not be surprising – if there’s any group of people who are acutely aware of their emissions, it’s young university students. Travelling such long distances to pursue an education makes the emissions quite conspicuous, to the point where some are questioning whether this practice should continue at all.

An international educational experience is incredibly valuable – to the students themselves, the communities they go back to afterwards, and the host institution that benefits from a more diverse student body. It can contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in many ways – it can directly contribute to Goal 4 by improving access to quality education, but a quality education can also give students the skills to contribute to many of the other goals. At the professional level, researchers and professors benefit hugely from sharing ideas and learning from world’s best practice – which they can then apply in their home countries and pass onto their students.

So having these international connections is certainly something worth doing – completely shutting down these international links would not be a good idea. But this doesn’t mean we get to ignore the negatives associated with the international education industry.

Students who fly to another country for their education will generate a lot of carbon emissions through their flights – as will researchers flying to conferences. Indeed, in geographically large countries like the USA or Australia, there will be a lot of flights within the country that generate these emissions as well. There are also lots of International education professionals – student recruitment teams, marketing teams, admissions teams – who fly overseas for work, attending education fairs and other events to recruit International students. We have to question whether all of these flights are necessary.

It may be possible to reduce the amount of flying by improving teleconferencing options – allowing academics to participate in a conference on the other side of the world without travelling there. These options do exist, but tend to not be well-developed or used – this needs to change.

Within Europe, it’s relatively easy for staff and students to travel by land instead of flying – taking the train or bus will be substantially greener, and even driving may be better in some circumstances, especially if people carpool. However this isn’t necessarily a solution for everyone – a student from Asia will really need to fly, whether travelling to Europe, Australia or America. And by the same token, staff travelling from these places to Asia will need to fly.

Another tactic people can use is to chain trips together. For example, rather than flying from Australia to the Philippines and back, then a few weeks later flying to Vietnam and back, then China and back, it would be greener to chain these country visits into a single trip: Australia to the Philippines to Vietnam to China, and only then back to Australia. This means the visits can still take place but with less time spent in the air.

While the value of carbon offsets is sometimes questioned, these can at least do something to mitigate the emissions from flying when trips are absolutely necessary – although we can’t let offsetting become an excuse for still taking unnecessary trips.

Ultimately this is a complex problem that will require us all to think hard about our habits, and be creative in our solutions. Groups like the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) are helping start this process, but ultimately all universities around the world will need to be part of that conversation.