How Excluding International Travel from Scope 3 Emissions Tracking Undermines University Efforts to Become Truly Sustainable
by Karen McBride, Ed.D.
Fourteen years ago, the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment – an official United Nations Partnership for the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) – was announced. Since then, nearly 700 institutions, representing almost 6 million students, have signed this high-profile pledge. This effort was intended to have the higher education community – through Presidential commitments – to, among other things, “promote research, education and community engagement efforts needed to create a sustainable society, and to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions from specified sources in their own campus operations” (United Nations, 2021). Responses from each of these signatories, and others, have varied with occasional consistencies. The former may include things like acquiring renewable energy power purchase agreements (PPAs), divestments from fossil fuel-related industries and construction of solar wind farms while the latter frequently includes campus recycling, carbon offset purchasing for select activities and student engagement programs. However, there is a persistent shortcoming amongst all institutions: Scope 3 emissions tracking.
Per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scope 3 emissions are defined as “the result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly impacts in its value chain” that also include all emissions sources outside of Scope 1 and Scope 2 (2021). Scope 1 and Scope 2 are essentially GHG emissions from sources owned/controlled by the institution (Scope 1) and GHG emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, heating, cooling or steam consumed by the institution (Scope 2). These categories are separated for reporting purposes to avoid double accounting (for those of us that didn’t typically utilize these terms in our daily administration). Universities have been slow to track Scope 3 emissions with the main reason being given as they are too complicated to track. This is certainly true, but Scope 3 emissions categories have also traditionally been limited to employee commuting, purchased goods and services, capital goods, fuel and energy related activities not included in Scope 1 or 2, waste generation in operations, leased assets, franchises and business travel. Of note, while employee commuting (which entails private or public transportation) and business travel (typically by staff or faculty) are listed, any type of student or academically-related travel has not been included and still isn’t, by many. According to the 2021 Survey of Sustainability in Education Abroad Report that we, and our partner Earth Deeds, released in December of 2021, 68% of survey respondents representing 77 study abroad offices and organizations were not tracking flight emissions for either faculty, staff or students (Bound International, 2021). Further, for those that have attempted to include student and academically-related travel within their Scope 3 emissions profile, the data has been shaky, at best.
While working at The University of Dayton as their Director of Education Abroad and Partnerships from 2014-19, when asked to compile all study abroad student and faculty flight information for our annual STARS report (managed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education), the best I could offer was an exported Excel document from our Terra Dotta system that showed how many students traveled to Italy, Zambia, Australia and everywhere else students headed in the past academic year, from Dayton. While we asked students to share or self-upload flight itineraries into their applications online for primarily risk management purposes, a good percentage did not and it was not required. Some might have booked their flights via the travel agency affiliated with UD, but most did not. That meant that much of our flight data was estimated (e.g. Dayton to Rome, round-trip x 50 students = 475,350 miles or CO2-eq of 125 metric tonnes). The calculator used was one found on Google. In my experience, this is not an atypical situation – good intentions, but bad data. Since accurate estimates of CO2 emissions based on flights (in which 25% of flight emissions come from a single take-off and landing) only comes from detailed flight plans including multiple legs and layovers (where take-offs and landings add up) and distance (long-haul flights fly at higher altitudes for longer periods of time and, thus, radiative forcing comes into effect). We knew that many of our students did not take off from Dayton – many took off from where they are from originally and where they were over summer or winter break (e.g. New York, Chicago, San Antonio, etc.). They also do what many study abroad students do – arrive early or stay late to conduct personal travel (and why not?). So, Scope 3 emissions reporting on almost 1,000 students who traveled for short-term study within one year were not the most accurate, despite best intentions. It’s uncertain to me if our Scope 3 reporting at that time also included the 1,700 or so students that traveled to UD in one year from places like China, India and Saudi Arabia for full degree or intensive English programs. Then there are the faculty and staff that travelled abroad for overseas research, contract work at U.S. military bases, conferences or partnership development trips… all likely not calculated accurately, especially since these trips were frequently scheduled through individual departments. Nevertheless, The University of Dayton has always had a strong commitment to environmental sustainability and has achieved a Gold rating with the AASHE STARS program since 2018.
With so many universities pledging to reduce emissions or achieve net-zero emissions within the next 5-20 years, it is my assumption (definitely not a fact) that not including student international travel in Scope 3 reporting (and overall emissions profiles) is due to a) tradition, b) complication and c) that it might blow a sizable hole in carefully constructed profiles and already-ambitious carbon neutrality pledges. For example, institutions sending between 1K-3K students per year would likely add an additional CO2-eq of 5K-10K metric tonnes annually. The overarching response, as I see it, is to ultimately construct a new narrative based on refined actions. Without good data, as we all know, our projections, organization and efforts can never reach full impact. Without courage, we can never reach a full reward. Since colleges and universities in the U.S. seem to generally value a global education by promoting study abroad, recruit and welcome international students, award academic credit for both ventures, include teaching abroad in some Promotion and Tenure calculations and allow for the use of financial aid (state and federal) for an education abroad, they cannot, in turn, neglect the environmental and social impact of these endeavors. If we feel as though a global education – executed via physical mobility – is not only of superior academic value but a means by which we can educate our students and future generations about the impact of as well as strategies for the climate crisis, this needs to be explained, openly and honestly. It may just boil down to study abroad programs… or the Chick-Fil-A in the Dining Hall. International students… or a second recreation center.