For international educators, climate action must come first

Very early in my career in international education, some 20 years ago, I had a memorable chat with a colleague named Randy. Now retired, Randy worked at a sister university campus and was far more seasoned than me.

I recall sharing with him how much I was enjoying my then-new line of work. An added plus, I claimed, is that travelling overseas to engage with prospective international students didn’t damage the environment, unlike, for example, the oil and gas industries.

Randy furrowed his brow, and looked at me with sage, kindly bemusement. He dutifully proceeded to school me about the fact that international education was hardly as ‘green’ or clean as I’d naïvely assumed. He explained that the pollution from the international air travel our line of work entails – and indeed, massively encourages – was significant.

It was an eye-opening moment, and I was confused that I’d been so completely unattuned to this reality before that conversation.

Fast forward two decades to today. The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, aka COP27, has just concluded in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. So has International Education Week in the United States.

Regarding the latter, it was a time of rightful celebration of the immeasurably positive impact international education and exchange has on our world. Many of us are drawn to this field because we’re certain our efforts are a net good for individuals, institutions and society. And in my humble opinion, we’re surely right about that.

But that’s not the whole story.

Sustainable higher education

In 2019 UK-based Professor Robin Shields published what may go down as a seminal study in our field: “The sustainability of international higher education: Student mobility and global climate change”. Shields asserted that “although international exchange is increasingly important, a meaningful consideration of higher education for sustainable development should take account of environmental costs of international mobility alongside its benefits”.

Professor Shields modelled the collective greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by the air travel undertaken by “degree-mobile international students” between 1999 and 2014. His results indicated that “GHG emissions associated with international student mobility were between 14.01 and 38.54 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year in 2014, having increased from between 7.24 and 18.96 megatons in 1999”.

To contextualise these findings, Shields explained that the low-end estimates were comparable to the annual national emissions of Latvia and Jamaica, while the high-end results were comparable to those of Croatia and Tunisia.

Because the study excludes exchange (ie, short-term) student mobility and other GHG drivers, it almost certainly undercounts the actual emissions produced by international education-related mobility, and likely by a wide margin.

However, new and existing organisations are rallying to the climate crisis cause. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) recently announced it is striving to achieve climate neutrality in its business operations by 2030. This was accompanied by DAAD’s first ever Climate Report on the results of the organisation’s climate assessment related to its business operations.

In 2021 the US-based Forum on Education Abroad introduced guidelines for advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals through Education Abroad.

And the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) has emerged as a global grassroots network of international educators committed to embedding climate solutions in our work. CANIE is now driving broad adoption of the CANIE Accord, designed to accelerate the international education sector’s commitment to climate action.

Students are taking note

Others are also taking note, most importantly, students. A survey conducted last spring by Times Higher Education’s consultancy team found that more prospective international students said they’re likely to choose a university based on its commitment to sustainability than would regarding its location.

A similar survey conducted by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) asked the question “How important is it to you that a university takes action to reduce its environmental impact?” Eighty-eight percent of students said it was either “essential” (47%) or “very important” (41%).

It is no coincidence that each of these organisations have also introduced rankings that report on universities’ work in this arena. Further, in response to the Princeton Review’s 2022 College Hopes and Worries Survey, 74% of responding students and parents said a college’s environmental commitment would affect their decision to apply to or attend that school.

The number of prospective students looking to see what climate action colleges and universities are taking as they consider where to apply will inexorably grow as the severity of the climate crisis worsens. And, as these and other findings reveal, students will increasingly vote with their enrolment decisions to reward winners and punish laggards in the fight for climate solutions and justice.

Centring climate action

So, for both moral and pragmatic reasons, it is high time for the international education community to centre climate action in everything we do and to make it our number one priority.

The following are just a few options and possibilities:

• Join CANIE (it’s free) to tap into a network of kindred spirits and know-how;

• Advocate within your institution or organisation to sign the CANIE Accord and-or to make other concrete environmental commitments;

• Choose train travel instead of air travel when practical;

• Prioritise virtual activities (for example, student recruitment events and international study programmes) to simultaneously mitigate the growth in air travel-related emissions and increase educational access – a quintessential win-win;

• Measure greenhouse gas emissions from air travel using one of the freely available emissions calculators. Germany-based atmosfair is an award-winning non-profit organisation offering one such tool;

• Press not just your own institution but also international education organisations to address the climate impacts of our work more urgently. For example, the Institute of International Education recently released its latest Open Doors report.

The Institute of International Education, and comparable organisations in other countries, can do a great service by also measuring and publishing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with this mobility, along with stories of actions institutions are taking to ameliorate them.

No time to waste

The modus operandi of too many international educators’ efforts for too long is that all growth in global student mobility is good growth, as this recent opinion piece by Adrienne Fusek, founder of the climate non-profit In Good Company, explains.

But that proposition is impossible to reconcile with a moment in time when the fight against global warming is framed as a “battle for human survival” and with the head of the United Nations António Guterres, telling COP27 delegates that the world is on a “highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”.

Students are demanding urgent action more vocally than most other ‘stakeholders’ because they both understand the severity of the threat and will also be most harmed by it.

It is time for international educators to own up to what economists euphemistically term the “externalities” of our work, namely, lethal greenhouse gas emissions that are materially exacerbating social injustices worldwide, and to take bold action to redress them.

As Guterres asserted at COP27: “Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish.” International educators are uniquely positioned to respect and act upon this existential challenge and opportunity. And there is no time for us to waste.

Eddie West serves as assistant dean, international strategy and programmes, at San Diego State University, United States. West is co-author of International Student Recruitment Agencies: A guide for schools, colleges and universities.