International education’s addiction threatens our planet

The international education sector has a glaring problem to which few will admit. The sector is addicted to growth and this addiction runs counter to global climate goals and institutional pledges to act with the urgency that is commensurate with the severity of the crisis.

The language of the 2015 Paris Agreement was appropriate for the time. It recognised the need for coordinated global action to address the impending threat of climate change. Within five years of inadequate response, “climate crisis” routinely replaced “climate change” among those pleading for action.

As we approach 2023, “climate breakdown” more accurately captures the severity of the coalescing crises of biodiversity loss, public health threats, collapsing natural systems, forced migration and more.

It is time for international educators to reflect on what sustainability looks like for the sector. Rather than striving for ever-increasing numbers of students, sustainability implies maintenance of a level of activity determined to have positive climate impacts greater than or equal to its negative climate impacts.

To sustain is to maintain, not to shrink or to grow. If we are to align with the global goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C degrees, the international education sector must reassess our priorities and aim for nothing short of true sustainability.

This is not a call to shrink international education or to diminish international mindsets. On the contrary, this is an appeal to expand the positive climate impacts of the work by centring sustainability to gradually mitigate the harm the sector inflicts on the planet and its inhabitants.

As a sector comprised of individuals committed to justice, equity and human rights, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the impacts of the emissions from our work. Climate pledges, such as those outlined in the CANIE Accord and reinforced by the Glasgow Paper, must be supported by thoughtful, deliberate and science-based implementation.

Ambitious and achievable

Until sustainable aviation fuel is widely accessible, reducing emissions while continuing to develop student global learning and maintaining critical research collaborations remains the most pressing challenge facing the sector.

To make up for years of insufficient action, we must radically decarbonise our work without further delay.

Radical decarbonisation of international education can be defined as the purposeful implementation of three components:

• Redirecting resources and effort from growth towards sustaining 2019 (pre-COVID) levels of activity,

• Adopting and enforcing policies and practices that halve 2019 emissions levels every decade to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and

• Limiting the use of offsets to no more than 10% of 2019 emissions levels.

Business travel

To align with the Carbon Law and 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% annually from a 2019 baseline.

Decreasing emissions by 8% year-on-year would lead to a 2023-24 GHG travel budget which is 72% of the 2019-20 baseline. Once the budget is exhausted, additional emissions-intensive travel must not be permitted.

Strict enforcement will encourage creativity in stretching the GHG travel budget. For example, using ground transport to and from major hubs to minimise flights, travelling coach instead of business class and extending stays to combine purposes are some of many ways to maintain current activity levels while cutting emissions.

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