The climate clock is ticking – is the international education sector listening?

“Travel-related carbon emissions originating from international education are a sustainability problem that cannot be ignored”

Climate change is the defining challenge of our time; we need rapid action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. To reduce carbon-related emission we need action from governments, industries and individuals across the globe.

Towards this backdrop, the travel-related carbon emissions originating from international education are a sustainability problem that cannot be ignored. However, hitherto, the international education industry has been a laggard when it comes to discussing and tackling the issue of climate change. For instance, many international education strategies and key industry conferences have either overlooked or marginalised this topic.

Improved awareness of the carbon footprint of this industry would be the first step. After that, institutions need to start measuring their international education related carbon footprints and start taking actions to reduce their emissions.

The sector can learn from the number of promising carbon emission reducing or resetting practices adopted by educational institutions in countries such as Sweden, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, and Canada and the United States. The leadership shown by these institutions is laudable, but often the carbon emissions related to international education are only partially, if at all,  accounted for.

A significant change will need sector-wide action. Could we expect one of the leading destination countries to show leadership in this area by announcing their willingness to offset all international education related emissions?

“Travel-related carbon emissions originating from international education are a sustainability problem that cannot be ignored”

Besides the ethical responsibility, educational institutions have also a great opportunity to integrate climate change-related curriculum content to engage both international and domestic students. The climate change action taken by children and teenagers across the world demonstrates the generational change that is occurring. How can we expect these young people – domestic or international – to come and study with us if we as tertiary institutions do not embed the values of sustainability in our own operations?

Moreover, the future willingness of young people to engage in international education is likely to be affected by the increasing understanding of travel-related carbon emissions as a problem and the way individual institutions, and the sector as a whole, demonstrates their willingness to tackle this challenge.

Finally, the international education sector needs critical discussion about the potential future scenarios. One of these includes urgent transformation to a zero-carbon economy. The sustainability of the sector is largely dependent on the airline industry’s ability to quickly transform to zero carbon alternatives, including examples such as biofuels or electric planes.

Unfortunately, these innovations are unlikely to be available in the scale and timeframe needed. Hence, the international education industry would be wise to prepare for different future scenarios, including the rapid transformation to regional and smaller scale operations, or delivery in the form of, sustainably designed, transnational arrangements or distance-online delivery modes.

The clock is ticking. Hence, the international education sector needs to start the discussion about these future scenarios now. Institutions in many countries will be facing a major sustainability challenge due to the significant per-student carbon footprints. The diverse economic and social-cultural benefits of international education are worth protecting.

However, it is possible that the preferred smooth ‘business as usual’ trajectory with minor adjustments is not an alternative. Hence, the international education sector needs to initiate active discussion on its responsibility to tackle climate change and the potential future zero carbon scenarios.

About the author: Dr Pii-Tuulia Nikula is a Senior Lecturer at the Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand. She has been involved in international education for almost 20 years. Most of Pii-Tuulia’s current research focuses on sustainability and ethical behaviour in the international education industry and pertinent policy frameworks.