International educators can be part of the climate solution

We are experiencing a planetary crisis. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change notes that our planet is facing a triple challenge of climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity.

In its sixth assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that “climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health”. It also cautions that without immediate and global action, we will “miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”.

Climate change is impacting all our lives, albeit differently, and tackling the climate crisis is everyone’s business. As people working in international education, we have a special responsibility in that regard because our field contributes significantly to climate destruction.

This is particularly true of internationalisation practices that are reliant on international mobility. International travel, specifically by air, is a major and growing concern due to the very high levels of carbon emissions linked to this mode of transport. We recently tackled these and other issues in a live podcast session forming part of the Climate Action Week organised by the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) in April 2023.

CANIE was established by a group of grassroots volunteers from different regions in the world who “see the need and the opportunity for our sector to step up and act on climate”.

Aligned with its mission to “lead and support international educators around the world to take bold climate action by providing open access to information and networking opportunities”, CANIE hosts a variety of initiatives including a podcast series called Climate Dialogues.

Internationalisation inequities

In our podcast discussion, moderated by Antonio Gutiérrez Pérez, head of Celei Regenerative Education, we addressed the question of how sustainability, equity and justice intersect with higher education internationalisation. In doing so, we provided Global South perspectives, informed by our work as practitioner-scholars in higher education internationalisation in South Africa.

Specifically, we drew on our paper titled “Towards more sustainable, equitable and just internationalisation practices: The case of internationalisation conferences”, published in the Journal of Studies in International Education at the end of 2022.

In our paper, we critically reflect on the interrelationship between higher education internationalisation and sustainability, particularly the environmental impact of carbon emissions linked to practices involving short-term mobility. Focusing on in-person internationalisation conferences, we argue that such practices are harmful and unsustainable.

Apart from considering the carbon footprint of internationalisation conferences, we interrogate inequities in conference mobility patterns and note that attendance is typically dominated by Global North countries and institutions.

Internationalisation inequities, where people and institutions from different regions across the globe participate in and benefit from internationalisation differently and inequitably, are linked to climate inequities. The Global North has historically been the major contributor to climate destruction, while the Global South disproportionately suffers its consequences.

We highlight that, due to these inequities, justice concerns emerge with regard to both climate change and internationalisation. In these contexts, we have to critically consider ‘Who benefits? Who loses out? In what ways? Where and why?’.

Justice-related considerations are inherently linked to the need for practical and transformative change. This means we have to ask ourselves what we can do to bring about positive change towards securing a “liveable and sustainable future for all”.

Online engagement

Air travel is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and finding ways to reduce it is therefore a good place to start. Regarding internationalisation conferences, host organisations should contemplate hosting online or hybrid events instead of in-person only events.

Online engagements do not only reduce carbon emissions but also facilitate higher levels of access and participation for under-represented groups. In line with this, the CANIE COP26 Glasgow Paper argues that virtual attendance options for conferences should become standard practice in the higher education internationalisation field.

Where face-to-face gatherings are held, host organisations need to carefully consider their frequency, location and sustainability practices. The latter includes consideration for sustainable venues, catering options and materials as well as initiatives to offset the event’s carbon footprint.

In addition, we argue that host organisations have a responsibility to not only gather environmental impact data but also to share data regarding the carbon footprint of their conferences openly and transparently.

At the individual level, we have to start by acknowledging that air travel remains one of the most carbon-intensive activities we can undertake, and we need to critically reflect on our own practice.

Accepting responsibility

Hyper-mobile elites of internationalisation practitioners and academics, in particular, bear a very special responsibility in this regard. Frequent flyers who routinely travel for conferencing and other activities involving short-term mobility on grounds of internationalisation and competitiveness are among the highest emitters in higher education.

They need to ask themselves pertinent questions including, for example: ‘Can I travel less? Can I travel using different modes of transport? Can I avoid travelling for the purpose of a short intervention or a single event? Do I have to travel at all? Can I engage virtually instead?’

When it comes to climate change, international educators are part of the problem, but we can also be part of the solution, especially if we come together as a sector and commit to moving towards more sustainable internationalisation practices. We need to act responsibly and ethically, with empathy, solidarity, concern and care for people and the planet, even if this might require us to forego privileges, make sacrifices and painful choices.

As intended by CANIE’s recent Climate Action Week, we must “consider how we can collaborate, innovate and educate to take climate action steps to transform international education into a sustainable field”, and we must do so urgently and boldly. Our planetary survival and well-being depend on it.

Dr Samia Chasi is the manager of strategic initiatives, partnership development and research at the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA). Dr Savo Heleta is an internationalisation specialist in the International Education and Partnerships Directorate at Durban University of Technology, South Africa.