Glasgow Paper - Emissions Accounting and Reduction

Immediate, systematic, and permanent reductions of GHG emissions are required to bring the sector in alignment with the global aim of keeping temperature rise below 1.5℃. Emissions from all international education operations and activities should be incorporated in emissions reporting inclusive of business travel and student travel – both related to academic programs and personal. International student non-program related travel, such as touristic visits and holidays, is a consequence of being outside their home country and, therefore, would not take place otherwise. For this reason, emissions from student personal travel are the result of international education activity and should be included in IE GHG accounting. The same holds true for emissions from travel from visits from students’ family and friends. International educators should also account for differences in personal energy consumption while abroad compared to likely consumption at home (Shields, 2019).

A four-step approach to creating an organization-specific climate action plan could include 1) establishing a baseline year, 2) setting science-based targets, 3) determining GHG measuring methods, and 4) identifying the role of verified carbon credit projects in the strategy. While determining a comprehensive strategy may take time, it is critical that international educators undertake rapid emission reductions immediately, not as a final step to the planning process.

Establish a Baseline Year

Measuring and reporting GHG emissions should occur regularly, preferably on an annual basis. The academic year, fiscal year, or calendar year may be most appropriate in different organizational contexts. International units operating within a broader organizational structure should select the term that coincides with established timelines, as appropriate. The baseline year should represent peak emissions and serve as a reference point to demonstrate progress. Historical emission reductions (those prior to the baseline year) should not be included in reduction reporting.

Set Science-Based Targets

Decarbonization targets are considered to be “science-based” if they align with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement (see SBTi and the latest from the IPCC). In all cases, targets shall represent a progression beyond the baseline year and reflect the highest possible ambition and shortest possible time frame.

Examples of science-based targets are illustrated in Figure 1. Achieving net zero by 2030 requires GHG emissions reductions of at least 25% every year. Achieving net zero by 2035 requires reductions of 16% every year. Achieving net zero by 2040 requires reductions of 12% every year. In all examples, the reductions required in the initial years are the largest.

Figure 1

Achieving Net Zero by 2030, 2035, or 2040.

Determine Methods of Measuring Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Numerous GHG calculators (or ‘carbon footprint calculators’) are available online at no cost. Organizations that have developed calculators include the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, Carbon Independent, Atmosfair, and others. A simple internet search will yield many more results. When selecting, or developing, a calculator to measure emissions, international educators at HEIs and others who are part of broader organizations, should consult with their colleagues in sustainability offices and facilities units to ensure their data is formulated in a manner that supports organizational reporting. At the time of this writing, a CANIE project is underway to develop guidance for IE emissions calculations at the program level.

Carefully Determine the Role of Verified Carbon Credit Projects
Climate action plans should focus on permanently reducing emissions today and reaching near-term decarbonization targets. However, climate action plans often include financing carbon credit projects (via insetting and/or offsetting) with the aim of counterbalancing continued emissions. Importantly, carbon credit projects should be carefully vetted and should never be used as a substitute for decarbonization measures nor as justification for delaying emissions reductions (Exponential Roadmap Initiative, Race to Zero, & SME Climate HUB, 2020). As indicated by Project Drawdown (2021), “When companies delay or offset feasible emissions reductions, they are inadvertently contributing to an extractive economy that has disproportionately put people at risk based on race, age, gender, location, economic standing, and other social categorizations.”

Carbon credit projects should be verifiable, additional, and permanent. To determine if the project removes additional GHG emissions, it may be useful to ask, “Would these emissions reductions have taken place without the project?” (Project Drawdown, 2021). For example, replacing gas stoves, which leak methane, with electric stoves would immediately and permanently reduce emissions. While tempting, do not invest in unproven technology or future promises. Instead, choose to remove emissions today and permanently. Also consider that carbon credit projects within your local community are more easily monitored and verified than those taking place farther away.

Tree planting has become common in offsetting schemes. However, critiques of planting trees include the time it takes for them to sequester GHGs, issues around displacement of local communities and wildlife, the appropriateness of the type of tree planted, the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, and many others. For example, the GHGe of driving a standard passenger vehicle for one year would take more than 76 saplings ten years to sequester (US EPA, 2015). This assumes that all 76 saplings survive the 10 years and they contribute to the well-being of the land, plants, animals, and humans in the area. International educators are strongly cautioned to closely examine prospective carbon credit projects and evaluate them regularly as best practices evolve.

Carefully selected and verified carbon credit projects may be employed in tandem with reducing emissions. Projects may account for a larger than ideal percentage of baseline year emissions early in a plan then taper in later years as emissions decline. In other words, there should be an inverse relationship between GHG emissions and the emissions accounted for in carbon credit projects. Ultimately, it will likely be impossible to mitigate all emissions from international education activities and residual emissions may be balanced with high-quality carbon credit projects. Figure 1 assumes residual emissions of no more than 10% of the baseline year.

Emissions accounting and reduction actions are defined in Article 5 of the CANIE Accord.