International education’s addiction threatens our planet

The international education sector has a glaring problem to which few will admit. The sector is addicted to growth and this addiction runs counter to global climate goals and institutional pledges to act with the urgency that is commensurate with the severity of the crisis.

The language of the 2015 Paris Agreement was appropriate for the time. It recognised the need for coordinated global action to address the impending threat of climate change. Within five years of inadequate response, “climate crisis” routinely replaced “climate change” among those pleading for action.

As we approach 2023, “climate breakdown” more accurately captures the severity of the coalescing crises of biodiversity loss, public health threats, collapsing natural systems, forced migration and more.

It is time for international educators to reflect on what sustainability looks like for the sector. Rather than striving for ever-increasing numbers of students, sustainability implies maintenance of a level of activity determined to have positive climate impacts greater than or equal to its negative climate impacts.

To sustain is to maintain, not to shrink or to grow. If we are to align with the global goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C degrees, the international education sector must reassess our priorities and aim for nothing short of true sustainability.

This is not a call to shrink international education or to diminish international mindsets. On the contrary, this is an appeal to expand the positive climate impacts of the work by centring sustainability to gradually mitigate the harm the sector inflicts on the planet and its inhabitants.

As a sector comprised of individuals committed to justice, equity and human rights, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the impacts of the emissions from our work. Climate pledges, such as those outlined in the CANIE Accord and reinforced by the Glasgow Paper, must be supported by thoughtful, deliberate and science-based implementation.

Ambitious and achievable

Until sustainable aviation fuel is widely accessible, reducing emissions while continuing to develop student global learning and maintaining critical research collaborations remains the most pressing challenge facing the sector.

To make up for years of insufficient action, we must radically decarbonise our work without further delay.

Radical decarbonisation of international education can be defined as the purposeful implementation of three components:

• Redirecting resources and effort from growth towards sustaining 2019 (pre-COVID) levels of activity,

• Adopting and enforcing policies and practices that halve 2019 emissions levels every decade to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and

• Limiting the use of offsets to no more than 10% of 2019 emissions levels.

Business travel

To align with the Carbon Law and Science-Based Targets necessary to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century, international education practitioners must cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from travel by 8% annually from a 2019 baseline.

Decreasing emissions by 8% year-on-year would lead to a 2023-24 GHG travel budget which is 72% of the 2019-20 baseline. Once the budget is exhausted, additional emissions-intensive travel must not be permitted.

Strict enforcement will encourage creativity in stretching the GHG travel budget. For example, using ground transport to and from major hubs to minimise flights, travelling coach instead of business class and extending stays to combine purposes are some of many ways to maintain current activity levels while cutting emissions.

Micro international experiences

In 2018-19, nearly 19% of United States education abroad programmes were shorter than two weeks. These micro programmes represent upwards of 65,000 roundtrip flights by students.

Incorporating estimated climate impact in programme approval and evaluation criteria would provide practitioners with a metric to determine which programmes support institutional climate goals.

Given the urgency of the climate breakdown, one could argue that a programme requiring travel by air that is shorter than two weeks should be offered only if the content focuses on climate action and it has measurable decarbonisation outcomes.

In many institutional contexts, transformational cultural engagement does not require international travel. Consequently, intentionally designed local programmes could serve as valuable alternatives to non-climate focused micro international experiences.

Major cities in international education source countries around the world tend to be home to vibrant immigrant communities. Programmes designed in partnership with these communities could be as impactful as a programme abroad.

Student recruitment, retention and travel

The shift in focus from growth to maintenance must apply to international student recruitment and retention.

International educators are aware of the need to provide various types of support to international students so they may engage with their host institution and thrive while reaching their academic goals. The retention benefits of financial support, help combating loneliness and engaging with the campus community tend to be obvious to the institution and the student.

However, the climate impact of a student returning home should also be quantified. Similarly, emissions from international education activity can be avoided by providing services to students to reduce independent air travel. For example, international students might opt to stay in their host community during holiday breaks if they have engaging cultural programming arranged for them.

Likewise, students could be encouraged to participate in pre-planned excursions to surrounding areas rather than travelling independently. Group travel by train or coach could be an enjoyable opportunity to engage with peers.

At what cost?

International education is fundamental to fostering respect for different cultures and to building dispositions necessary to collaboratively solve global problems. The climate breakdown is the most urgent problem of our time and international education both contributes to the problem and has the capacity to serve a critical role in solving it.

While it is unlikely that the sector will compensate for its historical emissions, there is still time to get on track to meet the global climate target of net zero by mid-century.

Radical decarbonisation is the path to a sustainable future for international education. It is ambitious and achievable, but it will be far more difficult than maintaining the momentum of the status quo.

When facing the difficulty of fundamentally transforming an entire global sector, it might be helpful to remember that nothing is more worthy of our effort – not even international education – than ensuring our planet can support life.

Adrienne Fusek is a lecturer at San Diego State University, United States, and board member of the Climate Action Network for International Educators.