International student mobility and climate change

Estimating the environmental costs associated with the internationalisation of higher education.

The challenge

Increasing numbers of students are pursuing degree-level education abroad. While this international study has many benefits for students and universities, it also has considerable environmental costs. Many universities have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint in other ways, but emissions associated with international student mobility are rarely taken into account when considering the sustainability of higher education, despite rising faster than overall global emissions, so new evidence is needed to inform better strategies to address this issue.

Research impact - Informing debate on the sustainability of student mobility

Universities are often vocal about their efforts to lead a transition to more sustainable societies, with many taking steps to ‘green’ their campuses and use sustainable energy. However, recent research by Professor Robin Shields has highlighted that such steps form just one part of higher education institutions’ role in supporting sustainability, with much more attention needed on the unsustainable models of international student mobility that currently underpin many universities.

Studying for a degree abroad and other education-related travel (including staff travel) have many benefits, both for students and the institutions they join, with Professor Shields highlighting “intercultural awareness, international cooperation and knowledge transfer” among others. But it is clear that some types of student mobility are more beneficial than others, indicating a need for universities to give more consideration to the advantages and disadvantages of opportunities they offer, and, in particular, to the environmental costs they bring with them.

This research forms a key contribution to the campaign for climate justice within international education led by CANIE (Climate Action Network for International Educators), and has led to increased discussion on the sustainability of student mobility within a range of international media outlets, including Times Higher Education (THE), International Educator magazine, and Inside Higher Education.  

The Peoples’ Sustainability Treaty on Higher Education from the Rio+20 conference argues that higher education needs to transform itself before it can make a genuine contribution to sustainable development. This research, identified as “groundbreaking” by International Educator magazine and by Ailsa Lamont of Pomegranate Global in a 2020 CANIE webinar, provides empirical evidence of the need for this type of transformation. Using new analysis to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the current unsustainable models of student mobility, it calls for universities and other higher education institutions to start a conversation around the topic. As a result of such calls, Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol, recently discussed the “difficult balancing act” universities face between retaining opportunities for international student mobility while also considering the substantial environmental costs of the status quo and the potential for other, less damaging, alternatives.

While recognising the many benefits of the internationalisation of higher education, Professor Shield’s research emphasises the need for a much greater consideration of the environmental costs of student mobility. It also provides much-needed evidence for those aiming to do this more, as explained by CJ Tremblay (founding member of CANIE) in a 2021 podcast, “[this research] has transformed my ability to communicate this intersection [between international education and climate change] to so many of my colleagues”. It has also inspired greater discussion of sustainability in other areas of university life, such as energy efficiency on campus, climate policy at national or international levels, or consideration of measures such as ‘offsetting’ greenhouse gas emissions linked to student mobility, as well as alternatives to student mobility, many of which (such as greater use of online or distance education) have gained greater recognition in the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic has presented its own challenges to student travel.

Underpinning research

This research finds that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with international student travel were between 14.01 and 38.54 megatons in 2014, double those seen in 1999. Putting this into context, the lower estimate is comparable to the national annual total emissions for Jamaica, while the higher estimate is more similar to that for Tunisia or Croatia. The research finds that, while emissions per student are decreasing as students now travel more within their geographic region rather than further afield, growing international enrolment still means that overall emissions from student travel have increased. This shift is driven in part by higher education organisations’ push for ever-increasing levels of student mobility – with little acknowledgment of the environmental consequences of such a goal.

The study is based on three sources of data: bilateral flows of degree-mobile international students from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics; the locations of all international airports and scheduled flights from the OpenFlights dataset; and the World Bank’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions. These datasets are combined to build a model of greenhouse gas emissions associated with international student mobility, including both travel-related emissions and the change in emissions that result from students’ personal consumption while studying abroad. This enables greater reflection on the substantial environmental costs of student mobility, and will allow future researchers the opportunities for a more empirical comparison of both the costs and benefits it offers.

Key facts

  • More and more students now travel internationally for higher education, although a larger proportion now stay within the same geographic region.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions associated with international student mobility doubled between 1999-2014, and are now equivalent to the annual global emissions for Jamaica (at the lower estimate) or Tunisia (the higher estimate).
  • Despite the substantial carbon emissions associated with international student mobility, virtually no university includes this within calculations of the institution’s carbon footprint.


Date published

June 2021

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