The Elephant in the Sky

By Sam Brier posted 06-09-2021 11:07 AM


The Elephant in the Sky

We in the education abroad community need to acknowledge the elephant in the sky - that each person we send abroad is emitting more CO2 than a person living in dozens of other countries emit in an entire year. Air travel is the main, but not sole, culprit for this pollution. Most of us recognize climate change as an imminent danger, if not to ourselves, then to our children and grandchildren; yet few of us do much about it. It’s complicated, to say the least.

So, let’s simplify it:

First, show our study abroad participants how much carbon they emit with their flight - compared to which countries emit less carbon per person in a single year. We can fairly accurately - and painlessly - calculate this using The Guardian’s carbon calculator. For example, a direct, roundtrip flight in economy from NYC to LON is more than the average citizen would emit throughout the year in 54 countries.

Second, give participants realistic options to remove or omit the same amount of carbon (or more) from the sky. These options can be impossibly cheap and least effective (paying companies to plant trees); too expensive (paying a company to literally remove carbon from the air); or more challenging (not emitting in the first place). 

I propose a 3-prong attack:

  1. Direct Removal: Pay a company per pound to remove carbon from the air and store it in rocks in the ground. Climeworks is doing just that for Microsoft as a part of their plan to go carbon neutral. We, at AEA, also pay Climeworks to remove more carbon than our company operations emit annually. It’s expensive now, at $1/kilo removed. That roundtrip, direct flight to London emitted 973 kilos (2,000 pounds) of carbon. To remove that through Climeworks would cost an additional $973 over the course of the year, or $75/month for a year. Too expensive for most people. Show students and faculty this, though, and suggest they contribute what they can and figure out the remainder using other options:
  2. Don’t put it in the air to begin with: Many of us already take public transport, ride bikes, bring bags shopping and take water in a reusable water bottle. Other ideas include taking direct flights rather than those with stops; buying used clothing when appropriate; subscribing to a sustainable energy plan; making your next rental car a hybrid; eating vegan or vegetarian an extra meal per day (and on your next flight); and feeding your dog a plant-based diet.
    1. Make a Social (Carbon) Impact: This option comes in many forms, with some less effective or proven than others, and harder to calculate. Buy from benefit companies and others who have social impact at the core of their business model; Plant trees while you search on Ecosia instead of Google, or use Brave (which is faster and doesn’t track you) to save on bandwidth and energy usage; buy books from BetterWorldBooks, (or even better your local used bookstore); and fill half your luggage with donations to organizations you can find through your travel partner or and bring back sustainable, local products. And don't forget to volunteer!

    With intentional practice, you and your students can come up with ways to track and plan to save carbon as a group - and even offset your study abroad flight. Don’t ignore the elephant in the sky. You can make a difference.

    Additional Readings & Information:
    Join others who want to do something about climate change at the NAFSA Sustainability SIG Open Meeting June 16th at 11am EST

    Learn about greenhouse gases intersecting with agriculture and travel

    Learn about the Social Cost of Carbon

    Learn why planting trees is not the answer:

    Learn about Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Academic Travel


    by Sam Brier

    Founder of Academic Experiences Abroad, a carbon-negative study abroad company and Flight Goddess, the first transparent group flight booking company with a focus on carbon reductions and humanity.