Reducing aviation emissions in the tertiary education and research sector: International Education

Aviation emissions in international education, with Ailsa Lamont

For the fourth instalment of our Reducing Aviation Emissions blog series, we have an informative blog by Ailsa Lamont, Co-Founder of the International Education Sustainability Group (IESG). Ailsa was a senior leader in Australian universities before switching focus to help the higher education sector act on climate. She has trained with Al Gore as a Climate Reality Leader and served as a NAFSA Senior Fellow for Sustainability. She is a recipient of the 2023 IEAA Excellence Award for Distinguished Contribution to International Education.

Read on to discover how our institutions can reduce their aviation emissions related to international education, without compromising on global reach and impact.

Clearing the haze: Aviation emissions in international education
When climate scientists talk about CO2e filling the atmosphere, it gets hazy very quickly. It’s hard to visualise the intangible. In 2014, for example, aviation emissions associated with international student travel were between 14.01 and 38.54 megatons of CO2e. Professor Robin Shields puts these figures into perspective in his must-read paper from the Journal of Cleaner Production (2019). In megatons, the lower estimate was equivalent to the annual emissions of Latvia (13.94) or Jamaica (15.47). The higher end? That was comparable to the national emissions of Croatia (30.42) or Tunisia (39.72). These comparisons were based on 2014 data. Ten years later in 2024 the number of globally mobile students has more than doubled.

The good news? It’s not all bad. Shields notes that although they are substantial, emissions per student are decreasing thanks to regionalisation and a growing share of students studying closer to home. But providers aren’t so great at keeping track of (or being accountable for) their carbon footprint. Although many report on staff air miles, emissions generated by international students on the move have typically been seen as outside their responsibility.

But so long as students and staff need to travel, international education is part of the problem, even while simultaneously being vitally important to universities’ financial health and, at its best, a real force for good. International study can transform students’ lives, broaden their perspectives and develop exactly the kind of problem-solving skills the world needs to tackle the climate emergency.

The challenge for international education
The internal challenge for institutions is how to marry their climate ambitions with maintaining a strong international program. International teams can find themselves caught in the horns of this dilemma, without clear guidance around what practical steps to take. This was a key driver for developing the Climate Action Barometer (CAB) - the only climate benchmark designed specifically for the field of international education.

The CAB exists to help participating institutions make better decisions around climate action, to learn from and share examples of great practice with others in the benchmark group, and to demonstrate how a commitment to climate action can be translated into action, over time.

It also contains the ClimateEye instrument that calculates and compares the emissions associated with travel for international staff and student mobility.

It is not a ranking; results are anonymised and each institution sees only how it compares to others.

As Jo Byng, the Director of International Strategy, Mobility and Operations at Western Sydney University, currently ranked #1 for sustainability in the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking, put it: ‘Taking part in the Climate Action Barometer helped us gain meaningful insights and identified areas for improvement without any concerns about public disclosure.’

The Climate Action Barometer (CAB)
The Climate Action Barometer (CAB) survey tool tracks and compares climate action policies, practices and emissions across the core functions of international education: staff travel to support internationalisation, and student mobility from students crossing international borders for degree study, exchange or short-term programs, or for transnational education (‘TNE’). An example of this might be a student from China travelling to Malaysia to study at the campus of a Scottish university. It also encompasses core supporting activities around international strategy, staff and student engagement and sectoral collaboration.

Measurement is, however, just the beginning. CAB participants also receive a tailored set of recommendations and join the CAB Good Practice Exchange (GPX). Here they learn from each other how to adopt more climate-friendly strategies.

Examples include:
  • Working with the agent network to implement less carbon-intensive student recruitment models;
  • Tracking the extent to which prospective international students factor in institutions’ sustainability credentials to their choice of where to study;
  • Adopting in-country staffing strategies that reduce distance from market;
  • Encouraging and promoting student participation in climate-themed study abroad programs;
  • Improving and tracking climate literacy for international students and staff.

Lessons from the Australasian pilot – a wake up call
In late 2023, we completed our pilot study with a pioneering Founders Group of nine Australian and New Zealand institutions.[1] We found great examples of practice but overall, the pilot showed clearly that there is more work to be done.

Image 1: Climate Action Barometer Founders Group Institutions for the Australia/New Zealand Pilot Wave (Source: IESG 2024).

Although climate action was core to the strategy and positioning of the majority, and most anticipated that extreme weather exacerbated by climate change would have a significant impact on their international operations within the next 3–5 years, most of the participating institutions had not systematically embedded climate into their decision-making or planning around internationalisation. Nor had most of them previously calculated emissions from student mobility.

So, we now have our base year and in future we hope to be able to point to tangible emissions reductions. What we can say for certain already is that taking part in the CAB ignited conversations across campuses about how international teams can ally with their sustainability counterparts, how student touchpoints such as pre-departure briefings and orientations can be harnessed to raise levels of climate literacy and awareness, and how international operations can be tweaked to embed more climate-friendly practices and encourage partners and third-party providers to do the same.

One of the CAB recommendations already taken up by Flinders University was to appoint a member of their international team as their climate action leader, and Sebastian Raneskold, their Vice President and PVC International reports there is now a greater focus within the university sustainability strategy on reducing Scope 3 emissions from international operations.

Professor Scott Bowman, the Vice-Chancellor of Charles Darwin University added, ‘Being part of the (CAB) Founders group has really woken us up to the fact that we need to do more in this space’.

Just some of the changes they have already introduced include:
  • Reconstituting their sustainability committee;
  • Doing a baseline study of what they are doing (around sustainability and climate action);
  • Considering where sustainability best fits in the organisation;
  • Strengthening their travel policy on economy class flights.
Jo Byng echoed this sentiment, ‘It was quite eye-opening … to learn how many gaps there were in our approach, but it was a wake-up call to the work that lies ahead for us if we want to get serious’.

A common theme from the pilot group was that it was a relief to see that the other institutions also had room for improvement. For example, no one had embedded climate action throughout their international strategy and only half had a formal process for considering the physical climate risk at overseas destinations when sending students out.

Image 2: Climate Action Barometer Founders Group Institutions for the Australia/New Zealand Pilot Wave Key Statistics (Source: IESG 2024).

Get involved
We’re now rolling out the CAB globally, with more institutions joining from Australia, the UK and Europe and we will be launching later this year in North America and Asia.

Among the Founders Group is the University of Edinburgh, a recognised leader on sustainability. “As a founding member of the CAB we demonstrate our commitment to climate conscious internationalisation – working with partners to deliver change – and support for our whole-of-institution approach to climate action across research, learning, operations and investment” says Alan Mackay, Deputy Vice-Principal International and Director of Edinburgh Global.

As Jenny Wilkinson, the International Director of London Metropolitan University says, ‘’A plea from me for more institutions to join the CAB. The more participants there are, the richer the data set we can pull from and the more ability we have to share good practice and learn from one another in an area where we are in uncharted territory.’’

Systemic change is no easy feat. But with each commitment from institutions across the globe, we’re clearing the haze for a greener international education sector.

The International Education Sustainability Group (IESG) is now recruiting institutions to join the global wave of the Climate Action Barometer. Contact Ailsa Lamont at or check out, watch this webinar (see below) or listen to this podcast to learn more.

Video 1: Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) & ISEG Climate Action Barometer webinar, featuring Sebastian Raneskold (Flinders University) and Jenny Wilkinson (London Metropolitan University) (March 2024).

[1] The University of Auckland, Charles Darwin University,  Curtin University of Technology, Flinders University, Navitas, the University of Newcastle, the University of Sydney, the University of Tasmania, and Western Sydney University. 

Note from EAUC:
To read more on the topic of measuring and reducing aviation emissions within the international student sphere, we would also recommend viewing the following tool:

The "Domestic and International Student Relocation Travel Emissions Calculator Tool" provides UK FHE institutions with a user-friendly, prepopulated framework for reporting scope 3 domestic and international student travel at the start and end of the academic year. 

Developed by the University of Aberdeen, and in collaboration with EAUC Scotland to open the tool up to the UK FHE sector, the tool helps institutions fulfil the principles of emissions reporting under the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, aligns with the sector’s Standardised Carbon Emissions Framework, and, for Scottish institutions, will help the sector meet the expectations set out in the latest public sector bodies guidance from Scottish Government.

This blog is the fourth instalment in our 'Reducing aviation emissions in the tertiary education and research sector' series. Please visit the series landing page to navigate to EAUC's aviation briefing paper for the sector and the other blogs.

Do you have an article or opinion to share? Please email us at quoting ‘Reducing Aviation Emissions Series’.
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