An academic climate change activist has argued that the coronavirus crisis offers global universities a real chance to get to grips with their addiction to flying staff around the world to encourage other people to fly.

Speaking by video-link to the UK’s International Higher Education Forum, or IHEF, Ailsa Lamont, said a study published by British academic Robin Shields estimated the carbon footprint associated with global student mobility was somewhere in the region of 14 to 39 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in 2014.

Ailsa Lamont, climate change academic activist

And that figure is much higher today, with another study that noting that 1.5 million tons of aviation emissions were generated from the 350,000 commencing international students coming to Australia to study in 2015.

Nine million trees

“To offset those emissions you would have had to plant about nine million trees, which would have been enough to fill the whole of Sydney Harbour.  But, of course, the international education sector in Australia didn’t offset those flights and didn’t take any action,” the co-founder of Climate Action Network for International Educators, or CANIE told IHEF delegates.

Lamont, who helped launch CANIE and Pomegranate Global to encourage the international higher education sector to take greater action on climate change after working in international education for 30 years in Australia, said the pause in mobility – and aviation emissions caused by COVID-19 – offers a great opportunity to rethink the business model of the sector and create a fresh vision of what it could be like in 20 or 30 years time.

She agreed that wonderful work being done in terms of education, teaching, research and sustainable campus infrastructures to help the environment, but that still didn’t offset the damage being done by higher education’s obsession with flying.

“It is pretty clear that given the technology that we have today and our knowledge of the carbon cost of travel, that if we were to start from a clean sheet and redesign the whole business of international higher education, it probably wouldn’t look like it actually does today,” she said.

And she seemed to have some support from Professor Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and chair of the International Policy Network at Universities UK, who opened Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF 2020).

Prof Smith predicted that within a very short time, professionals within higher education and elsewhere “will become so used to working remotely, via online platforms, that in some cases we will never go back to our old habits of gathering in stuffy rooms with bad coffee and biscuits we shouldn’t be eating.”

Zero targets within reach?

Just think of all that time we will get back that we would have spent on planes and trains, he suggested, adding: “Those carbon zero targets may not look so quite so impossible”. 

And not behind time said Lamont, who congratulated the organisers of IHEF 2020 for rearranging their annual conference online at short notice because of the coronavirus.

She said the impact of global warming was already being felt, particularly with the bush fires over the summer in Australia.

“Unfortunately, because of coronavirus, we are not going to be able to tell what the impact of the bush fires was on international student behaviour. But we know from some surveys that they had a negative impact of international student perceptions of Australia as a safe study destination,” she said.

And with four million people around the world taking part in the climate and school strikes last year and a recent QS report on Sustainability in HE showing that 94% of respondents want universities to do more on sustainability, global universities need to urgently respond.

Lamont suggested the Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings now gives students a tool to assess which institutions are “really taking climate change seriously”. She also welcomed the move by the international student barometer surveys to start asking questions about sustainability.

Students care

“We know students care, but to what extent will students start choosing study destinations or institutions based on sustainability is still unknown,” she said.

Phil Baty of Times Higher Education

Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education, who chaired the IHEF 2020 session, told delegates there was “an extra-ordinary tension” between universities being at heart of finding solutions to these massive problems of climate change and the addiction to face-to-face meetings and the huge movement of people through international education and research and the need to connect.

“This (coronavirus) crisis might have at least one positive in helping to wean ourselves off face-to-face and understand the technology that exists,” said Baty, who congratulated the 850 universities worldwide now participating in his paper’s Impact Rankings – up from 500 the previous year.

  • This blog is a slightly abridged and tweaked version of a news report that was published by University World News under the headline ‘Will coronavirus end international HE’s flying addiction?’ on 26 March, 2020.