Volume 3: Rethinking the Climate Crisis as an opportunity to transform international education for the better

Climate Crisis Introduction

For the past few years, I have been looking into international education’s response to the climate crisis, exploring the ways in which global mobility generates emissions, studying how institutions are addressing the challenge, and thinking about what types of action may have fallen through the cracks.

Much higher education institutions are at the forefront of climate science, conducting vital work in research and teaching, and there are numerous examples of ambitious programs to make campus buildings and infrastructure more sustainable. These contributions are incredibly valuable but I want to approach the topic from a slightly different angle and look not at those areas where higher education is already making a difference, but at where it is not: examining the gaps and the opportunities thrown up by the climate challenge, with a particular focus on international education.

Climate status report

The 2018 United Nations IPCC Report stated we have at most till 2030 to radically reverse course on greenhouse gas emissions or face catastrophic climate change. This was not hyperbole. This was a warning from scientists increasingly and genuinely scared by the mounting evidence of global heating’s consequences kicking in even faster and more fiercely than many models had predicted. Since the report’s publication, global emissions have continued to rise.

There is of course a terrible injustice here as the worst impacts from climate change will generally fall most heavily on people in lower-income countries which have contributed the least to the cause, but whether you are suffering from flooding in Kerala or have been evacuated to escape the fires in California, it is all part of the same global problem. Tackling this complex social and environmental problem will take unprecedented levels of international collaboration and leadership and our future rests on developing the right skills and mindset in people today.

International education as part of the problem

There is an element of cognitive dissonance around this issue for most people working in international education, given that our business model and raison d’être frequently depend on our ability to fly around the world and to convince others of the benefits of following suit. There are numerous gaps in our knowledge about our sector’s emissions but thanks to some recent research we know that the carbon emissions associated with student mobility are rising due to increasing numbers of globally mobile students, despite a fall in emissions per individual student. They are now estimated to be in the region of 14-39 megatons of CO₂ per year, a significant proportion of which is caused by air travel. The high end of that range is equivalent to taking 8 million cars off the road for a year.

We conducted a mini-experiment at last month’s Australian International Education Conference (AIEC) in Perth when the University of Tasmania’s Sustainability Office kindly ran some calculations to work out attendees’ air travel emissions. At a very conservative estimate, assuming that everyone flew economy class direct from their capital city, the flight emissions of this medium-sized conference of around 1,500 people came out at 1,513 tCO2-e. To put that figure into context, that’s 5% of the total emissions to run the University of Tasmania for a year.

How do we redress the environmental costs?

Many organisations are starting to experiment with ‘no-fly’ conferences where everyone attends virtually unless they can reach the venue by low-carbon means, and a number of environmentally aware academics are pushing for change to how academic promotions are rewarded in order to remove incentives for frequent travel. The Symposium on Reducing Academic Flying which will take place this month at the University of Sheffield will likely not be the last such event.

I foresee that in a few short years it will be the norm for international offices to consider carbon emissions in the decisions they make about where to send students, where to recruit and who to partner with, in the same way, that these decisions currently factor in travel costs, staff availability and student preferences. Such a change will no doubt have wide-ranging implications for the broader international education landscape, making transnational education more attractive, and adding another reason to base recruitment staff offshore rather than to service markets remotely.

In the world of study abroad we have seen two excellent examples of action in the last few months: AFS Intercultural Programs will offset the travel emissions from all their school exchange programs, and CIS Australia have produced a ‘Green Book’, a guide to help their students travel more sustainably.

A number of other initiatives are being trialled and implemented around the world. In New Zealand, Massey University launched a ‘FlyNeutral’ program to purchase carbon credits in partnership with Air New Zealand, while the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and several institutions in Switzerland now operate climate levies on flights to encourage staff and students to use lower-carbon modes of transport.

International education is an opportunity to build employability and leadership skills

The global mindset, intercultural competence and broader horizons that are part of an international education experience have never been more important in light of the existential challenge we face.

A valuable by-product of teaching students about climate action is that it can actually serve to strengthen and reinforce this very skillset. The climate crisis is the ultimate wicked problem requiring international collaboration and multi-disciplinary skills to solve under time pressure, and so it offers the ideal platform to build the kind of transferable core skills valued by employers, including complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity (the top three skills needed for a successful career according to the recent World Economic Forum Future of Jobs survey).

An opportunity for sectoral transformation

An estimated 4 million young people in 163 countries took part in the school climate strikes this year, many of whom will enter higher education in the next few years. Thanks to the recent launch of the THE Impact Rankings, they now have a tool to rate universities on their climate action as they make that selection. Coupled with the trend away from flying to more low-carbon modes of travel, particularly in Europe, we should expect to see some significant disruption to patterns of global mobility.

While these shifts do pose some risk to established business models, the climate crisis could actually serve as a useful spur to help us more clearly articulate the value proposition of international education and to reimagine our business models and reshape our partnerships to speed up the transition to a low carbon world.

In summary, my wish list for a climate action manifesto for international education includes:

  • An institutional and sectoral commitment to reducing carbon emissions with clear and ambitious targets
  • Climate action literacy as a required graduate attribute
  • Employability and experiential learning initiatives using climate action as platformEnvironmentally friendly procurement policies to drive change among suppliers.

Our sector’s role in generating emissions and the profound and urgent nature of the challenge we face means the gap between the action being taken and the action required is still far too wide. This gap will have to be bridged sooner or later. For all our sake we should make it sooner.

About the Author

Ailsa Lamont is the Director of Pomegranate Global, specialist in strategy development and climate action services for the international education sector. She has 20 years of senior experience in the field, including 12 years as Pro Vice-Chancellor International/International Director at three Australian universities.

She recently co-founded CANIE: Climate Action Network for International Educators, a grassroots initiative by people working in international education around the globe who see the need for our sector to step up to act on climate. You can follow CANIE on Twitter @CANIEglobal.