Travel and transport

Transport might be the greatest challenge for a greener ELT industry. Thousands of students fly to the UK every year, which is one of the most emission-intensive activities. So what can we do?

We welcome over half a million students from around the world a year. It’s hard to imagine it any other way and it’s what everyone is hoping to return to. People come to the UK not only for a great education, but for new experiences and immersion in the language. Yet there is no ignoring the negative environmental impact of their journey. UK ELT transport emissions may be the largest contribution to our industry’s carbon footprint.

At first most people saw a tension or even an impasse here, in our July 2021 discussion. But as the conversation progressed, lots of great suggestions emerged to help start cutting UK ELT transport emissions, as well as other actions and considerations to increase our positive environmental impact.

Participants noted how effective online international meetings, conferences and learning can be; how showing students how to use public transport and bike rentals can lower emissions and help engage them with wider environmental issues; that we can prioritise long stays; more ambitiously cut emissions elsewhere; and fund positive environmental projects.

Travel accounts for around a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions and around a quarter of Europe’s. We need to think creatively about travel and reap the benefits of healthy, active travel, cleaner air, quieter, safer roads – and more affordable and accessible courses and conferences!

Fly less (and lighter)

Flying is almost always the most carbon intense form of travel. It is dependent on fossil fuels and, while small efficiencies may be made, there are no technological solutions to aviation’s emissions on the horizon.

So, staying on the ground is one of the best steps you can take to help prevent the worst effects of global warming. If flying is truly unavoidable, fly light and direct.

✓ Ask international partners about meeting digitally
✓ Quit short-hop and domestic flights (or pledge to go completely flight free!)
✓ Encourage train travel for European students
✓ Share information about new sleeper trains and coaches to raise awareness with staff and students
✓ Fly economy and pack light – the more space you take up, the higher your emissions
✓ Fly direct (take-off and landing create most emissions)
✓ Encourage students to fly unaccompanied if they can
Keep your conference travel as low-waste as possible

How bad is flying for the environment?

At first the role of air travel can feel exaggerated as it accounts for only 3.5% of global warming (a little higher than its 2.5% global carbon dioxide emissions due to the effect of gases in the air). But aviation is only a small portion of the global warming pie because relatively few people fly: just 11% in 2018, with at most 4% taking international flights.

Per person, however, flying is an incredibly high impact activity. A return flight from Shanghai to London emits around 2 tonnes of CO2 per person – almost half of what the average person in the UK emits in a year (5.3t CO2). If global aviation were a country, it would rank in the top ten emitters.

So for the few of us who do fly it is a significant portion of our contribution to global warming. And this means it will be a large part of UK ELT transport emissions.

Plus aviation is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. So while there is the possibility of decarbonising light, local transport (e.g. electric vehicles charged by renewable energy sources), aviation is difficult to decarbonise. With little sign of a technological solution, we need to change our behaviour.

Encourage and support cycling and public transport for students and staff

Walking, cycling and taking the train are the most energy efficient ways to travel.

Walking or cycling short trips instead of taking the car or a taxi can reduce your travel emissions by 75%. Especially if you are running low carbon fuel (plants not steaks). And choosing the train for medium journeys or instead of a domestic flight, will reduce your emissions by 80% or more. Driving from Edinburgh to London, for example, contributes almost 4x the emissions of taking the train, and even more if you fly.

By helping your staff and students keep their emissions as low as possible while they work and study, you can help cut UK ELT transport emissions dramatically.

✓ Teach students how to use local trains, buses or bicycle rental
✓ Celebrate and reward green travel
✓ Use public transport wherever possible for activities and trips
✓ Choose efficient, low carbon vehicles and make sure they are full
✓ Support and facilitate carpooling and ride-sharing
✓ Consider installing an electric car charging point for staff

Keep international ELT events online

We have seen how well meetings, conferences and presentation work online during the Covid-19 pandemic. And there is no reason not to keep up this new habit for the same reason – saving lives. But this time from the disastrous effects of climate change – the floods, fires and droughts we are already seeing around the world.

Plus online events not only reduce travel emissions, but they also save money, reduce waste (think of all the plastic debris and uneaten catering), and can be more inclusive, affordable and accessible.

✓ Run your events online
✓ Ask industry event organisers to keep conferences and workshops online
✓ Ask to deliver your sessions and presentations digitally

Enhance your online offer and prioritise long stays

While our green ELT community discussions have reflected a general feeling that UK ELT will still involve students visiting the UK for the foreseeable future, some delegates suggested slowly tipping the ratio towards online learning.

This will cut UK ELT transport emissions and help protect our industry against future disruptions (like pandemics). It will also help prepare us for a possible future without flying – some researchers say we can only achieve net zero emissions by gradually closing our airports. Zero emissions might mean zero flying.

✓ Invest in dynamic, quality online learning
✓ Emphasise long stay experiences
✓ Set goals to shift your in-person:online and short:long-stay ratios

Raise awareness among students

The problem of transport emissions, especially from flights, can feel impossible to overcome – but we mustn’t be discouraged.

Not only are there lots of ways to reduce and improve our journeys as we’ve seen above, but we can boost our positive environmental impact through our classrooms.

We must make the most of the opportunity to raise awareness among people from around the world.

✓ Share information about environmental impact and responsibility
✓ Include sustainability across the curriculum
✓ Engage students in greening their classrooms and school
✓ Display environmental information and action prominently – both online and onsite

Support environmental projects

While we work hard to reduce our negative impact on the environment, we can also try to increase our positive impact by supporting projects that enhance biodiversity, protect forests, offer climate education and support social justice.

This reflects a ‘contribution’ rather than an ‘offsetting’ model.

Carbon offsetting is increasingly under scrutiny, with scams and unjust activities revealed in the news. Scientists, environmental organisations and other investigators have found they are often ineffective and even suggest they are dangerous because they discourage people from the real work – reducing their emissions.

Contribution on the other hand more honestly reflects the fact that we cannot ‘cancel out’ our emissions but that we can do more than reduction by supporting environmental projects. It also protects our sector against the greenwashing associated with offsetting.

Good examples include: projects that reduce reliance on fossil fuels, local biodiversity projects, climate education, supporting indigenous people (who protect 80% of all biodiversity) or provide emergency relief for victims of climate change disasters.

✓ Choose local projects for greater accountability – and then staff and students can visit too!
✓ Understand contribution is not a substitute for reduction
✓ Support other social and environmental projects
✓ Support emission reduction projects (more effective than offsetting)

Offsetting: what you need to know

The idea of balancing out our emissions feels intuitive, but carbon offsetting is complicated, often ineffective and regularly part of greenwashing efforts by large corporations.

At best, offsetting can mean making an additional, positive investment in environmental and social projects, alongside work to reduce your emissions. At worst, however, it is a dangerous distraction from meaningful action and act as a guilt-free pass for polluters.

Fundamentally, there are not enough carbon capturing opportunities to account for all the carbon we are producing. Offsetting is very hard to monitor and verify. It has also been connected to human rights abuses and environmental destruction.

We must proceed with caution when choosing projects to support and always prioritise cutting emissions.

To be effective, offsetting projects must:
  • generate additional climate benefits (improvement or protections that would not have happened otherwise)
  • lock emissions away forever (trees for example, die, can be cut down or are caught in wildfires)
  • capture more carbon than is emitted
  • and must not shift emissions (this ‘leakage’ can include new protections pushing deforestation elsewhere as well as other harms like violating local community rights)

Unfortunately, these requirements are hard to achieve and rely on rigorous and transparent accounting. A lack of independent monitoring makes already hard to measure carbon savings unverifiable.

Further concerns

What’s more, the profit-driven carbon offsetting market is inclined to the cheapest and easiest solutions, leading to: poorly planned and maintained plantations that don’t survive, decimate local freshwater or increase climate warming; chemical plants creating a potent greenhouse gas in order to destroy it and earn offsetting profits; destroying peat bogs, which are carbon sinks, to plant trees; and violent evictions and human rights abuses.

If you do choose to offset:

✓ Do a lot of research
✓ Choose local projects for more accountability
✓ Assume offsetting projects overestimate their impact
Choose Gold Standard projects

Exploring collective action

A particularly interesting discussion that came out of this meeting was how important it is to work together as an industry and make sure no one is left behind.

Unlike reducing energy use or food waste, some steps to reduce transport emissions can feel risky. You may fear losing your competitive edge if you only offer local student activities or don’t fly out to meet agents and ETOs.

We will explore collective action more in future meetings. Do get in touch with us if this is something you are interested in.