The international education sector has a big problem that few will admit. The sector is addicted to growth and this addiction goes against global climate goals and institutional commitments to act with the urgency that matches the severity of the crisis.
The language of the 2015 Paris Agreement was appropriate at the time. He recognized the need for coordinated global action to address the impending threat of climate change. Within five years of an inadequate response, “climate crisis” regularly replaced “climate change” among those pleading for action.
As we approach 2023, “climate change” provides a more accurate picture of the severity of the combined crises of biodiversity loss, public health threats, collapsing natural systems, forced migration and more.
It is time for international educators to consider what sustainability looks like for the sector. Rather than seeking an ever-increasing number of students, sustainability is about maintaining a level of activity determined to have positive climate impacts that are greater than or equal to its negative impacts climate.
Maintenance is maintenance, not contraction or growth. If we are to align with the global goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C degrees, the international education sector needs to reassess our priorities and look for less than absolute sustainability.
This is not a call to shrink international education or to diminish an international mindset. On the contrary, this is an appeal to expand the positive climate impacts of work by targeting sustainability to gradually mitigate the damage the sector does to the planet and its inhabitants.
As a sector made up of individuals committed to justice, equity and human rights, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the impacts of emissions from our work. Climate commitments, such as those set out in the CANIE Agreement and reinforced in the Glasgow Paper, must be supported by thoughtful, deliberate and science-based implementation.
Ambitious and achievable
Until there is widespread access to sustainable aviation fuel, the most pressing challenge facing the sector remains reducing emissions while developing global student learning and maintaining vital research collaborations.
To make up for years of insufficient action, we must radically decarbonize our work without further delay.
The radical decarbonisation of international education can be defined as the purposeful implementation of three components:
• Redirect resources and effort from growth towards maintaining 2019 (pre-COVID) activity levels,
• Adopt and enforce policies and practices that halve 2019 emission levels every ten years to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and
• Limit the use of offsets to no more than 10% of 2019 emissions levels.
To align with the Carbon Law and the 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% per years from the 2019 baseline.
Reducing emissions by 8% year-on-year would result in a 2023-24 GHG travel budget of 72% of the 2019-20 baseline. Once the budget is exhausted, no additional emission-intensive travel will be allowed.
Strict enforcement will encourage creativity in stretching the GHG travel budget. For example, using ground transport to and from major hubs to minimize flights, coach travel instead of business class and extending layovers are in many ways combined objectives of maintaining current activity levels and reducing emissions. reduction.
In 2018-19, nearly 19% of US education abroad programs were shorter than two weeks. These microprograms represent more than 65,000 accurate student flights.
Incorporating the estimated climate impact into program approval and evaluation criteria would provide practitioners with a metric to determine which programs support institutional climate goals.
Given the urgency of climate change, it could be argued that a program requiring air travel of less than two weeks should only be offered if the content focuses on climate action and has measurable results decarbonized by him.
In many institutional contexts, transformative cultural engagement does not require international travel. Therefore, intentionally designed local programs may be valuable alternatives to micro-international experiences that are not climate-focused.
International education source countries around the world tend to have vibrant immigrant communities living in large cities. Programs designed in partnership with these communities could be just as impactful as a program abroad.
Student recruitment, retention and travel
The shift in focus from growth to maintenance must apply to the recruitment and retention of international students.
International educators are aware of the need to provide various forms of support to international students so that they can engage with their host institution and be successful in achieving their academic goals. The retention benefits of financial support, helping to combat loneliness and connecting with the campus community are obvious to both the institution and the student.
However, the climate impact of a student returning home should also be quantified. Likewise, emissions from international educational activity can be avoided by providing services to students to reduce independent air travel. For example, international students may choose to stay in their host community during holiday breaks if attractive cultural programs are arranged for them.
Similarly, students could be encouraged to take part in pre-planned trips to the surrounding areas rather than traveling independently. Group travel by train or coach can be an enjoyable opportunity to socialize with peers.
International education is fundamental to fostering respect for different cultures and building attitudes necessary to solve global problems cooperatively. Climate change is the most pressing problem of our time and international education contributes to the problem and has the potential to play a critical role in solving it.
Although the sector is unlikely to make up for its historic emissions, there is still time to get on track to reach the net-zero global climate goal by mid-century.
Radical decarbonisation is the path to a sustainable future for international education. It is ambitious and achievable, but it will be much more difficult than maintaining the momentum of the status quo.
As we face the challenge of fundamentally transforming an entire global sector, it may help to remember that nothing worth our effort – not even international education – is ensuring that we can with our planet to support life.
Adrienne Fusek is a lecturer at San Diego State University, United States of America, and a board member of the Climate Action Network for International Educators.