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The international education sector has a glaring problem that few admit. The sector is addicted to growth and this addiction goes against global climate goals and institutional commitments to act with urgency proportional to the severity of the crisis.

The language of the 2015 Paris Agreement was appropriate for the times. He recognized the need for coordinated global action to address the imminent threat of climate change. In five years of inadequate response, “climate crisis” routinely replaced “climate change” among those calling for action.

As we approach 2023, ‘climate disruption’ more accurately captures the severity of the converging 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 involves maintaining a level of activity determined to have positive climate impacts greater than or equal to its negative climate impacts.

To maintain is to maintain, not shrink or grow. If we are to align with the global goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the international education sector needs to reassess our priorities and aim for real sustainability.

This is not a call to reduce international education or to diminish the international mindset. On the contrary, it is a call to expand the positive climate impacts of the work by focusing on sustainability to progressively mitigate the damage that the sector inflicts on the planet and its inhabitants.

As an industry made up of people committed to justice, equity and human rights, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the emissions impacts of our work. Climate pledges, such as those outlined in the CANIE Agreement 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 global student learning and sustaining critical research collaborations remains the most pressing challenge facing the industry.

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 proposed implementation of three components:

• Redirect resources and growth effort towards maintaining 2019 (pre-COVID) activity levels.

• Adopt and enforce policies and practices that halve 2019 emissions levels each decade to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and

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

Business travel

To align with the Carbon Act and science-based targets needed to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century, international education professionals must reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from air travel 8% annually compared to the 2019 reference line.

Reducing emissions by 8% year-on-year would result in a 2023-24 GHG travel budget that is 72% of the 2019-20 baseline. Once the budget is exhausted, no additional emission-intensive trips should be allowed.

Strict enforcement will encourage creativity when stretching GEH’s travel budget. For example, using ground transport to and from major hubs to minimize flights, traveling by coach instead of business class and extending stays to combine purposes are some of the many ways to maintain current activity levels while reduce emissions.

Micro international experiences

In 2018-19, nearly 19 percent of U.S. education abroad programs lasted less than two weeks. These micro-programs represent more than 65,000 round-trip student flights.

Incorporating 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 breakdown, it could be argued that a program requiring air travel of less than two weeks should only be offered if the content is focused on climate action and has measurable decarbonisation outcomes.

In many institutional contexts, transformative cultural engagement does not require international travel. Accordingly, intentionally designed local programs could serve as valuable alternatives to non-climate-focused international micro-experiences.

Major cities in international education source countries around the world are often home to vibrant immigrant communities. Programs designed in collaboration 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 be applied to the recruitment and retention of international students.

International educators are aware of the need to provide various types of support to international students so that they can engage with their host institution and thrive while achieving their academic goals. The benefits of retaining financial support, helping to combat loneliness, and engaging with the campus community are often self-evident to the institution and the student.

However, the climate impact of a student returning home must also be quantified. Similarly, 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 they have cultural programming that appeals to them.

Similarly, students could be encouraged to participate in pre-planned excursions in the surrounding area rather than traveling independently. Group travel by train or coach can be an enjoyable opportunity to bond with fellow travelers.

At what price?

International education is essential to foster respect for different cultures and to build the dispositions needed to collaboratively solve global problems. Climate disruption is the most pressing issue of our time and international education contributes to the problem and has the ability to play a critical role in solving it.

Although the sector is unlikely to offset its historical emissions, there is still time to be on track to meet the global climate goal of net zero 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 can be helpful to remember that nothing is more worthy of our effort, not even international education, than ensuring that our planet can support life.

Adrienne Fusek is a professor at San Diego State University, United States, and a board member of the Climate Action Network for International Educators.

Source: Addiction to international education threatens our planet

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