Glasgow Paper - Travel

Transportation accounts for approximately 14% of global GHG emissions with air travel responsible for approximately 2.5% (Project Drawdown, 2020a). At present, this appears relatively low compared to other industries such as food, agriculture, and land use, which stands at approximately 24%. However, emissions from air travel are projected to grow sharply with the expansion of low-cost airlines (Pidcock & Yeo, 2016) and post-COVID “revenge travel” (Associated Press, 2021). Consequently, if the aviation industry meets its emissions targets, it would consume 12% of the global “carbon budget” by midcentury. If it fails to reach its targets, its share could be as high as 27%. (Pidcock & Yeo, 2016). Prior to the pandemic, research suggested that emissions from international degree seeking student mobility were comparable to those of Croatia or Tunisia and projected to increase at a greater rate than global GHG emissions (Shields, 2019). While additional research is needed in this area, it can be assumed that the emissions from all student travel, and related international education business travel, is significantly higher than the sample examined by Shields. Until the introduction of sustainable aviation fuels, reducing emissions from air travel represents the sector’s greatest opportunity for meaningful climate action.

Degree-seeking international students represent a major segment of the IE sector so we can assume that their travel accounts for a significant portion of the sector’s overall emissions. Consequently, to continue making valuable contributions to society through internationalization, it is imperative that we find ways to reduce emissions from travel without reducing student mobility. Prioritizing high-impact travel and lower-carbon means of travel will be key to reaching our science-based targets.

High-impact Travel

Evidence of the societal benefits of international education abound. However, we currently lack data on the climate impacts, both positive and negative, of the sector as a whole. The concept of the carbon handprint is helpful when considering the impacts of IE. Where the footprint is a measure of negative climate impact, the handprint is a measure of positive climate impact. The handprint shifts focus away from the overwhelming devastation of the climate crisis toward taking action and effect positive change. Future research assessing the positive and negative climate impacts of the international education sector is needed. Until then, we must ensure that climate impact becomes an integral part of the decision making when planning business travel and that learning outcomes from overseas study programs are clearly demonstrated.

Lower-carbon Travel

There are numerous ways to reduce GHG emissions from travel. The efficiency of different modes of travel is greatly influenced by many factors including the number of passengers in a vehicle, the altitude of a flight, the distance traveled, and many others. A passenger on a long-haul flight, for example, would reduce their emissions by 399% by choosing economy class instead of first class (Our World in Data, 2019). For international educators accustomed to flying first or business class, this simple change can aid significantly in reaching decarbonization targets.

International educators should consider coordinating student travel to ensure a balance between affordability and the lowest climate impact. Examples include arranging bus or train travel to major transportation hubs to mitigate short domestic flights and to ensure the most direct route. Similarly, when advising student groups and independent travelers, we should provide the lowest emission travel mode as the preferred option. Directing students to GHG calculators can help them incorporate climate impact in their transportation planning and should be a standard practice.

Reducing Air Travel

Reductions in GHG emissions from IE travel should first occur in the area of business travel, not student travel necessary for participation in high-impact educational programs. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, international educators enjoyed frequent international trips to conduct site visits, attend conferences, conduct student outreach and recruitment, and engage with partners. We have benefited immensely from international travel, find great enjoyment in it, and have created a sector-wide travel culture that celebrates frequent flyers. However, if we are to make meaningful progress toward reducing the sector’s GHG emissions, we must dramatically reduce IE business travel and reserve any residual emissions for those who will likely benefit the most; students and junior faculty and staff. de Wit and Altbach (2021) have suggested that international educators reduce travel to at least 40% of pre-pandemic levels until 2024 then by at least 60% for the subsequent 5 years. Doing so could allow carefully considered student travel to continue, or grow, while reducing overall emissions across the sector.

Internationalization without travel. The climate crisis paired with the pandemic and increasingly charged political climates all point to the advantages of redoubling internationalization at home (IaH) efforts. Beelen and Jones (2015) emphasized that IaH intentionally includes intercultural components into curricula in a purposeful way and benefits students across all programs of study regardless of their desire or ability to travel. In today’s technologically advanced and culturally diverse societies, students no longer need to traverse the globe to encounter deep cultural differences. So we must ask ourselves, is it now possible to achieve the student learning and development outcomes we seek through IaH, virtual mobility, transnational education (TNE), or all of the above? Leveraging various internationalization strategies will result in decreased GHG emissions as well as increased student access to the transformative benefits of IE.

Travel actions are defined in Article 6 of the CANIE Accord.