How can internationalisation be compatible with carbon neutrality?

A much wider use of sophisticated video conferencing will help – but no one is saying this will be easy, reflects Richard Davies

October 22, 2019
Climate protester dressed as a giant carbon footprint
Source: Alamy (edited)

As pro-vice-chancellor global at a university that has just declared a climate emergency, I face the daunting challenge of taking forward our ambitious plans for further internationalisation without increasing our carbon footprint.

I am not alone, of course. This is one of the biggest challenges currently facing every university around the world. So how do we go about it – or is it an impossible task?

As well as increasing our international student numbers, we at Newcastle University want to double the number of our students with international experience, both in terms of those coming to the UK to study and also UK students gaining valuable experience abroad.

Our two successful branch campuses in Malaysia and Singapore can play a big role in this, and we have recently announced that we will continue to underwrite our participation in the Erasmus student mobility programme regardless of the Brexit outcome. Bringing together bright young people from all walks of life, with different perspectives and experiences, is not just invaluable for our university communities: it is also the only way we are going to tackle the really big problems, such as antibiotic resistance, food poverty – and the climate emergency itself.

There is, however, an inevitable conundrum. Already, 20 per cent of Newcastle’s carbon dioxide is produced by staff business travel, of which more than 80 per cent is air travel. And many of our international students come from Asia; currently, we have 2,300 Chinese students alone, across undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and we are expecting Asian enrolment to be an area of significant growth over the next few years. If we add the associated emissions to our footprint, the picture becomes even more challenging.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that our Asian students fly from Beijing to Newcastle twice a year, a quick calculation shows that every one of them creates over 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide during a three-year degree. This is similar to the carbon footprint left by building a new car, and is probably many times larger than the one they would leave if they stayed in China.

Moreover, while we encourage our students to gain experience in Europe, the emissions from shorter flights add up quickly and budget airlines are ranked among Europe’s top polluters.

So how can we hope to meet our commitment – far from unique among UK universities – to be carbon-neutral by 2040?

First, we need accurate and granular data on the carbon cost of different activities, so that we have a baseline against which we can inform choices. A key role for me is to commission a full carbon inventory of our global strategy and extrapolate this to what it might be in 10 years’ time.

Against this, we are making changes to the way we conduct our global business. In the past 12 months, we have recruited more in-country staff for international student recruitment, reducing the number of flights we need to make. We have also appointed one of our International Office team to act as sustainability officer for this specific area, ensuring we can track progress. We are investing significantly in digital marketing, which will reduce – though not replace – the face-to-face activities, and we are looking into reviving our former practice of holding graduation ceremonies in China, relieving parents of the need to travel to the UK.

We are also talking to our students – both home and international – about other changes we could make that would have a real impact without diminishing the invaluable experience of a university education. Being the generation facing an uncertain environmental future, they are rightly demanding action from us and the "climate conversation" we are organising on 15 November will be an opportunity to bring together students and staff to visualise the university in a net-zero carbon future, discuss the changes required to get there, and identify opportunities for working together. It is an important next step in the consultation process.

One step we have already agreed on is to increase our use of video-conferencing technology, so that our Newcastle-based students can take courses or modules at institutions around the world without ever boarding a plane. I am also exploring the option of setting up a “Global Centre”, which would be a dedicated space where students and staff could gain the whole international experience remotely, linking up with institutions, students’ unions, academics and businesses abroad, as well as sampling the local culture and even the food. Clearly this would still come at a carbon cost, but it would be offset against flights saved.

We have also commenced an iterative process of reviewing and revising the university’s travel policy. This includes ruling out business-class air travel, which has a bigger carbon footprint than economy travel, encouraging greater use of rail travel to European destinations, and ensuring we have all the correct and complete data from across the university on what student and staff travel is actually taking place. Ultimately, our aim is to achieve absolute reductions in carbon emissions from business travel.

Of course, we are also focusing on the difference we can make through the impact of our research, working with policymakers, industry, students and the public to find solutions that can be shared. But it is time to acknowledge that this is not enough by itself. Academia must also respond to the climate crisis threat via its teaching, estate, global activities and everyday decision-making.

Speaking to my counterparts at other universities, there is a general recognition of the enormity of the challenge ahead. Tough decisions will need to be made individually and collectively. But they can no longer be put off.

Richard Davies is pro-vice-chancellor global at Newcastle University.


Print headline: Global expansion without global destruction

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Reader's comments (1)

Well, this is timely.