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26th Jul 2023

Climate action barometer offers a new benchmarking tool for international education’s response to climate change

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • There is a growing conversation about the impact of international education on the climate
  • Students and institutions alike are increasingly committed to reducing their contribution to climate change, and recent surveys indicate that prospective international students are becoming more likely to consider an institution’s response to global warming when deciding where to apply
  • A new benchmarking tool aims to make it easier for institutions to measure and reduce climate impacts related to international student mobility

The International Education Sustainability Group (IESG) is a social enterprise focused on tools and insights that can help international educators "understand and mitigate [their] climate impact." The group announced a new benchmarking tool this week designed to do just that with the launch of the Climate Action Barometer for international education™.

The CABie relies on self-reporting from participating institutions. The aggregated data from that reporting will be rolled up into an index of key metrics, with an anonymised summary shared publicly and with each participating institution getting a tailored report that allows them to benchmark their performance against the index. "They don’t know how their rivals are doing," says IESG Co-Founder Will Archer. "They just know how they compare."

The new barometer launches with the support of seven founding member universities: Charles Darwin University, Curtin University, University of Auckland, The University of Newcastle, The University of Sydney, University of Tasmania, Western Sydney University, and Flinders University. Those institutions will collaborate in a pilot for the new benchmarking effort beginning in August 2023, and with subsequent reports coming back from the CABie in October.

IESG Co-Founder Ailsa Lamont adds: “There is an inevitable tension between international education as a force for good and the reality of students travelling across borders. For the world to be a better place, we need students to travel to study. And for that to be sustainable, universities need to address and own the question around the inevitability of associated emissions. It is time for the international education sector to step up, to measure and to track its policies and practices, demonstrating the sector’s commitment to climate change.”

CABie aims to contribute to a more sustainable practice of international education by empowering participating institutions to benchmark their performance against a range of important sustainability indicators with the end goal of making it easier for institutions and schools to reduce their respective carbon footprints.

How big is that footprint?

Robin Shields' landmark 2019 study makes an important contribution to the field by examining the specific climate impacts of international education, especially in the form of emissions related to international student travel.

"The rapid rise in international students has been roughly contemporaneous with increased advocacy for sustainable development and the role of higher education therein," notes Dr Shields, quoting as well from a 2010 Universities UK paper which argues, "Universities have a unique and critical role in helping to address the challenge of climate change. Our higher education sector is a major player within the global search for solutions to environmental problems and in the development of more sustainable ways of living."

Dr Shields' study is concerned with the period 1999 through 2014 and, by his reckoning, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to international student mobility were between 14.01 and 38.54 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year as of 2014. This is a near doubling of the estimated emissions levels of between 7.24 and 18.96 megatons in 1999, even as the number of internationally mobile higher education students roughly tripled over that 15-year period. In other words, his analysis finds that GHG emissions scale in relation to increasing student mobility, just not quite as quickly as total student volumes.

The link to recruitment

Times Higher Education has reported that, based on its survey results, 82% of prospective international students say sustainability is an important factor in decision-making, and nearly three in ten (27%) already use sustainability indicators to inform their study decisions.

In a similar vein, a 2019 survey from QS found that:

  • Only 35% of responding international students agreed strongly that universities care about the environment;
  • 91% felt universities could do more to reduce the environmental impact of their institution’s operations;
  • 79% would be more likely to choose a degree that helped to teach them how to reduce their environmental impact;
  • 98% agreed that universities should publicise their sustainability efforts on social media channels, on the institutional website, at student fairs and events, and in their brochures.

A broadening response

The CABie arrives in the midst of a growing conversation, and an expanding effort, to manage and reduce the climate impacts of the international education industry. The co-founders of IESG, for example, are strongly linked to another leading group in this space, the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE). Meanwhile, Green Standard Schools is focused on promoting environment sustainability in the language school sector. And specialized consultancies, such as Alethea Global Cooperative, are providing bespoke training and advisory services for institutions, schools, and other stakeholders in international education.

For additional background, please see:

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