Studying Abroad: A Collective Carbon Footprint

Managing for sustainability major Theresa Schaffner ’15 studied abroad in Africa and discovered conflicting goals between her environmentally-minded program, her conscience, and her experiences. Through travel to and from Tanzania alone, Schaffner accumulated 8,844 miles of air travel–a large carbon footprint in comparison to that of most people in the world.

“I experienced a lot of internal conflict when I came back to the U.S. … We waste so much electricity, food, and materials here that air travel seems to be the least of my impact,” Schaffner said.

The example of Schaffner’s air mileage is all too representative of University students as a whole. The total carbon emissions generated by University-related air travel is startling to those who believe that their individual carbon footprint is negligible. Consider this:

  •  45 percent of University students take part in off-campus experiences through University-approved programs located around the world at some point during their college career (more than 400 students each year)
  • The University’s European study-abroad programs have generated over 1,229,088 miles of air travel during the summer of 2014, fall of 2014, and spring of 2015 in total
  • University students traveling to Europe during the summer of 2014, fall of 2014, and spring of 2015 have caused the emission of over 615 tons of carbon dioxide; this does not include the hundreds of students studying on other continents
  • The University enrolls approximately 50 international students with each incoming class; 49 international students were enrolled within the class of 2018

The above points don’t include the carbon footprint of students traveling to and from campus from their hometowns, or students traveling on domestic vacations.

“There are many ways to offset our carbon footprint and probably the easiest way is to purchase Renewable Energy Credits (RECs),” Director of the Sustainable Design Program Dina El-Mogazi said.

El Mogazi said that the University took notice of its seemingly ever-increasing carbon footprint in 2008. In response, it has been attempting to purchase RECs. By purchasing these RECs, it would be as if the University used wind power (which reduces campus carbon emissions by about 10 percent). El-Mogazi said that this alternative is “much more reasonable than attempting to limit student opportunity to travel abroad.”

The University also attempts to reduce its carbon footprint through the use of carbon offsets, usually by planting trees in an attempt to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The use of these carbon offsets was  investigated by a group of students participating in the Environmental Residential College one year ago.

“Our motivation was to expose the carbon footprint that we leave on this earth via our airplane travel. We wanted to try to spread some awareness about this often overlooked issue,” Pierce Whiting ’17 said.

During their investigation into the University’s carbon footprint, the group further investigated the environmental impact that study-abroad programs have. This led to the discovery that a typical Boeing 747 aircraft emits one ton of carbon dioxide per 2,000 miles traveled. Based on statistics from the University’s Office of Global & Off-campus Education, this means that students traveling to Europe alone in the summer of 2014, fall of 2014, and spring of 2015 have caused the emission of more than 615 tons of carbon dioxide. The amount of trees that would need to be planted to offset this number is about one tree per ton of carbon dioxide, and even then it would take each tree its full lifetime to absorb just one ton of carbon dioxide.

The University is not the only school that has recognized the paradox of sustainability and studying abroad. In fact, there are many other colleges and universities that are attacking the issue head on, though it is not an easy task. Middlebury College has a program called Sustainable Study Abroad, which takes the angle of limiting your ecological footprint while studying abroad. The program grabs students’ attention by providing harsh facts, such as that traveling 2,000 miles in an airplane emits one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger, and that during the academic year each Middlebury student is responsible for nearly three tons of carbon dioxide emission for energy use. Schools like Middlebury are offering grants to students doing research on sustainability while abroad, purchasing carbon offsets, and taking charge of other green initiatives.

Similarly, larger schools such as Georgetown University are providing students with useful information on how they can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that they produce. They also provide green passports and money for sustainability research. Additionally, they endorse sites such as Sustainable Travel International, which allows you to calculate how much carbon dioxide you will be producing in the hopes of preemptively decreasing your emissions.

“Your experiences overseas and your actions when you return to the U.S. may be the most important carbon offset of all. If you make new discoveries about environmental sustainability while abroad and begin to challenge your local community to develop more ecologically sound practices after your return to the U.S., the environmental costs of your travel will become a valuable investment in our collective future,” Georgetown University’s Office of Global Education said.

The fact that the University promotes sustainability while causing the emission of more than 615 tons of carbon dioxide through study-abroad programs to one continent alone is not as well-known on campus as the University’s highlighted sustainability efforts themselves. As a result, the University may find itself needing to adopt more aggressive programs such as those of Middlebury or Georgetown that highlight the damage as well as the solution.

For now it seems that Whiting sums it up succinctly:

“Bucknellians should care about this topic because they should know what impact they are having on this earth. Carbon footprint is an afterthought for most students, so bringing this to attention may help students become more interested in reducing their carbon footprint,” Whiting said.

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