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The Environmental Impact of International Students

With more than 25 years of experience in economic development, cross-cultural communications, international education and social innovation spanning 60 countries, Ailsa Lamont has kindly agreed to sit down with us and tell us more about the environmental impact that international students can have around the world.

Climate change: the ‘not my problem’ problem

The science is clear. How people live, how they get around and what they buy is making carbon emissions rise to record levels. Time is running out to avert catastrophic global warming. Sure, the politics and economics of switching to new energy sources are complicated but the technical solutions exist, so just why is it so hard to get people to take action against climate change?

Basically, it’s the ‘not my problem’ problem, or to use psychologists’ term, the passive bystander effect. People wait for somebody else to take action and exaggerate their own ignorance so they don’t have to confront unpleasant realities or make changes to their own lifestyle. The delayed lead time for the worst consequences of climate change makes them even easier to ignore.

Are millennials really greener than their parents’ generation?

Yes! Your generation is more focused on the environment than your parents by a whopping 76% to 24%, according to a poll by the Clinton Global University Initiative and Microsoft. 66% of young people accept the reality of climate change, and 75% believe human activity is responsible for it. Yet this increased environmental awareness has not translated fully into action. You recycle less than the Baby Boomers, use more disposable plastic and still forget to turn off the lights.

Lots of you do care and want to look after the long-term welfare of the planet, but to help bring more people on board, maybe it’s time to focus on the practical, even self-interested benefits you can get from taking a more eco-friendly approach.

Helping the environment can help you get a job!

Two of the biggest challenges, when you study in a new country, are making friends, and getting a good job once you graduate. These two points are related because employers want people who can communicate well and understand the local culture. It may be tempting to stick with your own nationality or language group when you arrive, but the students who do best long-term are those who take the leap right from the start and actively become part of the local community.

The best learning comes from action, and working on real-life problems. Employers look for people who can be creative and initiate change, so anything you can do to practise and develop these skills will boost your career prospects or help prepare you to become an entrepreneur yourself in future. What better way to combine making friends and practise innovating than by coming up with ideas to cut your carbon and help protect the environment at the same time?

Going green is the way of the future. Even big businesses are starting to get on board, with huge global companies like IKEA, Mars and even Global Motors going green(er) and investing in renewable energy projects.

Look for local events and student groups that are working to tackle climate change and get involved. They might be sustainability groups or meetups, community gardens or environmental workshops run by your university or local council. Your uni might offer elective courses where you can work on a practical project, or workshops and hackathons where you build your network while you learn. Working on eco-projects might even get you credit towards your course, or be counted towards your university’s leadership program.

Saving the planet – how can you help?

There are lots of simple and cost-free ways to lower your carbon emissions. Take your bike or walk instead of driving sometimes, unplug your appliances when not in use and think about what you buy and how you recycle. You can find more easy tips here, which will also save you money and make you healthier!

You can measure your own carbon footprint too to see how much difference your own actions can make. Take small actions at first to make them stick, and feel the pleasure of making a positive impact. You will have the personal satisfaction of having helped make the air cleaner, a back yard or balcony greener, have fresher food and save on power bills.

Social Media – a positive force?

Great inventions and ideas spin around the globe faster than ever before thanks to social media. The Seabin Project from Australia is a great example – two surfers invented an automated bin that catches floating oil and rubbish in the ocean and they found international business partners thanks to their video being shared on Facebook and raised their investment on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site.

Environmental activism now relies heavily on social media – calls to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline in the USA spread like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook and helped put a global spotlight on the issue. There is another way in which the online world helps the environment – getting your information online is much more eco-friendly than having to cut down trees for brochures!

Where can you study climate change?

Some university courses now focus on global warming, particularly environmental and marine science degrees, and some universities have climate change research centres. Tackling climate change is so complex that it will need people skilled in most disciplines, including social sciences, engineering, education and even business.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a great way of learning more, for example, Coursera has a ‘From Climate Change to Action’ course you can study free online. If you are looking for something specifically for international high school students, Stanford University in California runs an International Student Carbon Footprint Challenge, and Pomegranate Global in Australia is developing intensive Carbon Footprint Think Labs for university students.

After 25 years working in cross-cultural communications and international education, Ailsa Lamont set up Pomegranate Global in 2016 to help people access improved education, training and career opportunities globally. Read more about Pomegranate Global and see how Ailsa helps people reach their potential, every day.

How to Save the World on a Student Budget

As students (and the future generations) we must demand that our governments and politicians listen to our demands about the climate crisis. Getting our voices heard through public protests, strikes, petitions and social media campaigns is very important in educating people and spreading the word about climate change. And we’re doing a good job, so let’s keep it up.

But not all change needs to be a world effort and there are lots of things that we can do at home to make a difference. With small changes to our daily lives, we can lower our carbon footprint, reduce the amount of greenhouses gases we produce and take the pressure off our environment. Here are our top ways to save the world on a student budget.

Recycle, recycle, recycle

This one is obvious but important. Be it glass bottles, cans, paper, cardboard or plastic, there’s so much that we can recycle now. Make sure to separate your recycling into different materials and clean all glass and plastic properly to avoid spoiling the whole batch. If we all keep up with recycling and don’t get lazy, it can make a huge difference.

Don’t buy bags

Remember to take your carrier bag with you when you go to the shop or supermarket. This will not only save you money but also significantly reduce the amount of single-use carrier bags that you buy, cutting down on plastic pollution. Did you know that plastic doesn’t actually decompose? Instead, it breaks down into smaller bits of plastic, called microplastics. These microplastics often end up in our environment and waterways and can be damaging to wildlife.

Say goodbye to single-use

Single-use items such as coffee cups, plastic straws, plastic cutlery and water bottles are designed to be used once and thrown away. But they can’t be recycled, so they often end up polluting our environment and contributing to the climate crisis. Did you know that 90% of plastic bottles are binned rather than recycled? Why not invest in a reusable metal water bottle instead. You’ll look good, and feel even better.

Switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs

Energy-efficient lightbulbs are better for the environment because they use less energy. This means that your energy bill will be cheaper, saving you money, and there will be less energy wasted. It’s a simple swap that’s a win-win for you and the environment!

Have a vegetarian day

The meat production process isn’t environmentally friendly. In fact, it produces lots of carbon emissions, methane (a greenhouse gas) and uses a lot of water. By eating less meat, we can all do something to benefit the environment and save some money in the process. Happy days!

Buy things second-hand

Fast fashion is a huge problem for the environment. Instead of throwing clothes away as soon as they go out of fashion, give them to a charity shop. Buying second hand gives things a brand new lease of life, that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

Being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. We only have one world, and it is our duty (and privilege) to look after it. Share this post and perhaps it can help persuade more people to do their part.

If you would like to read more about the long-term choices you can make to saving the planet, click here.

Reflections on Studying Abroad in a Changing World & a Warming Climate, Part 2

The Carbon Footprint of International Education

Many education institutions do essential work around climate change. Universities and research institutes produce much of the data and are often the source of the loudest voices calling for action. They are home to many of the researchers seeking technical solutions and many of them invest heavily in making their buildings more sustainable and cutting their operating carbon footprint. This is, of course, all very positive but there is an element of cognitive dissonance when it comes to international education. Those of us working in the field can be a little reluctant to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that the whole business of studying abroad contributes to global warming.

So, how exactly do we contribute to the problem? Well, our operating and business models depend on our ability to fly around the world and encouraging others (students) to fly. This travel (mainly flying) by students, international office staff, and academics, as well as other activities such as the production and shipping of brochures and prospectuses generates the emissions that help warm the planet.

The carbon emissions associated with global student mobility have been rising due to growing numbers of mobile students (at least pre-coronavirus), despite a fall in the emissions per student. They are estimated to stand at 14-39 megatons of CO₂ per year (Shields, 2019) – an amount equivalent to having more than 3 million cars on the road for a year – and a significant proportion of this is caused by air travel.

Some research done by a former colleague of mine, Rob MacDonald, on the emissions associated with international students coming to Australia estimated that the 350,000 commencing international HE students in 2014 generated 1.5 million tonnes from aviation emissions alone. To put that another way, you would have to plant almost 9 million trees, or enough to fill the entire Sydney harbour just to offset the flights of that single arriving cohort. Anyone wishing to find out more should read the excellent article calculating the flight-related carbon footprint of international students to Australia (IEAA Vista, 2015). What action did we take as a sector to offset those flights? Why, none at all.

You might wonder why the emphasis on flying, particularly when it only accounts for around 2.5% of total global emissions, but according to Peter Kalmus, NASA scientist and founder of NoFlyClimateSci, ‘Hour for hour, there’s no better way to burn fossil fuel and heat the planet.’

A round-trip flight in economy from Melbourne, where I live, to London on the other side of the world would generate 6.3 tCO₂. To visualise that another way, my one trip would have melted 18.9m² of Arctic sea ice. That latter figure incidentally is courtesy of a website called shameplane.com where you can see the emissions from any flight and contrast it with the impact of various sustainable actions, such as going vegetarian or car-free for a year.

Why Studying Abroad is more Important than Ever

So, studying abroad has an environmental cost but that does not mean that it isn’t worth it. To solve wicked problems like climate change, the world needs people who have a global perspective, who have developed the skills to work across borders, and who can communicate effectively. In a real sense, it has never been more important that we have global citizens who understand the importance of evidence-led action and who respect scientific findings. In other words, we need people who are not just educated but who are globally educated.

Once the borders are open again and it is possible to travel, the advantages and skills that you gain from studying abroad will be as valuable as ever. My suggestion is that you don’t feel guilty about travelling to study abroad, but that you take the time to understand the carbon cost of it so you can also decide how to balance out that cost through other choices. For example, you could reduce emissions elsewhere in your life and you could at least choose to offset our flights. If you would like to measure your own carbon footprint, a useful place to start is the free online calculator from footprintcalculator.org. You can also find practical tips on what action you can take at sites like climate7.com.

How Student Attitudes to Climate Influence University Behaviour

There is growing awareness of the need for radical and immediate action, as evidenced by the global school climate strikes – 4 million young people in 163 countries took part in school strikes for climate last year. There has also been a shift in public attitudes to flying, notably in parts of Europe, and a new-found preference for lower-carbon travel options.

These changes are starting to affect international study choices; for example, many universities across Europe are actively working to funnel students towards study abroad options they can reach by train. This works reasonably well for people in many parts of Europe who want to study in another part of Europe but it’s not a great option for people in most other regions of the world with less extensive train networks, or in island nations like Australia and New Zealand.

There are early indications that students may choose to study in countries or at institutions with strong green credentials. In a recent QS report on Sustainability in Higher Education, an overwhelming majority (94%) of respondents agreed that universities could do more to be environmentally sustainable. The new Times Higher Education Impact Ranking rates universities on their performance against the Sustainable Development Goals and means that prospective students now have a tool they can use to rate universities on their climate credentials.

This is important because universities pay close attention to what students want, and to what drives their behaviour. So, if you would prefer to study abroad at an institution that takes environmental issues seriously it is important to use your voice and let them know.

Risk and Opportunities

So where does this all leave us?

The current pandemic has given us a brief respite. Universities are experimenting with teaching online and with virtual recruitment events, all of which will help reduce emissions now, and potentially in the long term if these changes take hold.

On a grander scale, while the planes are grounded, many factories lie shut and cars stand idle we are actually reducing global emissions slightly, but this is just a pause. What is important is what we do next.

I mentioned at the start that we have a widening of our narrow window of hope and it is this: the unprecedented, large-scale action that is being taken right now around the world to fight the coronavirus shows us what is possible. It shows that we are still capable of taking difficult decisions when the need is upon us and the greater good demands. My hope is that, once learned, this lesson will become a habit that we are unable to shake.


*One hour of flying generates CO₂ emissions of 250 kg (Carbon Independent web site).

Ailsa Lamont, Director and Founder at Pomegranate Global and Co-Founder of CANIE: Climate Action Network for International Educators. 

Reflections on Studying Abroad in a Changing World and a Warming Climate, Part One

I have spent much of the last three years talking to people who work in international education about the need to cut down how much they travel because of the damage that flying does to the environment …. I suppose the lesson here is to be careful what you wish for as the COVID-19 crisis bites and forces much of the planet into lockdown.

The coronavirus pandemic is understandably absorbing everyone’s attention right now but unfortunately, the underlying problem of climate change has not gone away. Maybe, just maybe though, this strange new world we have entered offers us a new window of hope for how we might resolve it.

But first, let me go back to the beginning to talk about how global student mobility contributes to the climate crisis and then how the international education sector might serve as a catalyst for positive action.

The Scale Of The Climate Challenge

The world has warmed by roughly 1°C since the time of the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century because of human activity. This temperature rise is already causing stronger storms, more erratic weather, dangerous heatwaves, longer droughts and extended fire seasons.  At even a 1.5°C temperature rise – the lower end of the Paris Agreement targets – this trend will intensify and be accompanied by large-scale disruption to climate systems, infrastructure and migration patterns.

If we stay on our current emissions trajectory, we will see warming of more than 4°C by the end of this century which would mean that many major cities in India and parts of the Middle East would literally become lethal on some days due to extreme temperatures and heatwaves (Mani M, et al. 2018), and whole regions of Africa, Australia and the United States, as well as parts of Asia and South America would be uninhabitable as a result of direct heat, desertification or flooding.

We still have a little time – around 10 years – to prevent such a catastrophic outcome according to the UN report (IPCC 2018). To do this, the 15 largest economies must cut their carbon-dioxide emissions in half over the next four decades. The scale of that task is immense, however.

According to Vox Magazine in 2014,

“to put that in perspective global emissions declined by just 1 percent in the year after the 2008 financial crisis, during a brutal recession when factories and buildings around the world were idling. to stay below 2°c, we may have to triple that pace of cuts, and sustain it year after year.’’


The COVID-19 situation means we have to update this current picture as normal life has closed down for a staggeringly large part of the world’s population. This has pressed pause on our greenhouse gas emissions which up until the pandemic had still been rising.

So, we have a little room to breathe, and a chance to reflect on how the world works and how we might perhaps remake it a little differently once the current threat of the virus has passed.

Ailsa Lamont, Director and Founder at Pomegranate Global and Co-Founder of CANIE: Climate Action Network for International Educators.