A week ago, they held a series of virtual events around COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, bringing together global-education leaders from around the world to talk about how the field can respond to pressing needs around sustainability and climate change. Lamont told me she was heartened by the progress but acknowledged it wasn’t always easy:
“In international education, we’ve seen ourselves as the good guys, but hang on, there’s a cost to what we do.”
I sat in on one of the leadership forums, and afterward, I caught up with Lamont to talk about strategies for moving the ball and the challenges to making change:
International educators appreciate the opportunity to exchange ideas and approaches. Peer examples help them advocate for change within their own institutions. “It gives them permission to go that much faster,” Lamont said.
It also can be helpful when professional organizations put out frameworks for action. The Forum on Education Abroad released a set of guidelines for how study-abroad programs can advance UN Sustainable Development Goals (more below). CANIE has drafted a set of principles for environmentally sustainable international education, and participants felt they could be even stronger and more ambitious.
Lamont said a priority for CANIE will be to put together training sessions for those who want to implement more climate-conscious practices.
International offices often don’t know what their current climate impact is. When CANIE surveyed participants during one of the sessions, 75 percent said they didn’t know the emissions associated with their area of work. In a second session, six in 10 had no idea.
Being able to measure what you do helps international programs make more environmentally sustainable choices, Lamont said. She pointed to an American study-abroad provider that switched its housing in Ireland to an accommodation that used 100-percent renewable energy, saving the equivalent of six trans-Atlantic flights.
The pandemic helped accelerate change… With international travel grounded, colleges turned to online international-student recruitment and virtual exchanges. Such approaches won’t replace travel, but in the future, international offices may be quicker to ask what needs to be face to face and what can be done online. It’s not about stopping mobility but doing it in a smarter, more sustainable way, Lamont said.
…but change still isn’t happening fast enough. The issue of climate change has moved from the periphery to mainstream discussion within international education, but at the same time, the crisis is worsening, Lamont said. “We’re not at the point where the sector realizes it’s an emergency.”
She told the story of an international-education staffer who joined a campuswide sustainability committee without invitation, believing it was important for the her office to be at the table for such work. “We cannot wait to ask for permission,” Lamont said.
The Forum on Education Abroad released its SDG guidelines
a few months ago, and they’ve quickly become one of the group’s most popular resources, said Melissa Torres, the Forum’s executive director.
To have a long-term impact, colleges and providers need to think not just about their environmental footprint but how sustainability can feed into their educational mission — that is, how can sustainability be part of the learning goals of their overseas programs. Torres said it could take the form of connecting students with community groups and sustainability initiatives while abroad as well as part of re-entry programming.