This article is part of the IP 2020 series, in which we publish abridged, general-public versions of the academic papers presented in the Euroculture Intensive Programme. This year’s topic was Sustainability.

Lea Marie Quilitz graduated from Euroculture in 2021 after spending semesters in Strasbourg, Uppsala and Göttingen. Since the IP 2020 sparked her interest in the topic of sustainability, she not only wrote her master’s thesis in this area, but also intends to dedicate her professional life to sustainable development.

By Lea Marie Quilitz

Between changing Europe and collecting miles: Students’ CO2 emissions resulting from air travel as an indicator for the environmental sustainability of the Euroculture program

Climate change is one of the world’s major concerns in the twenty-first century. Sustainability, or more precisely, environmental sustainability (ES), as a concept is widely considered as the solution to fight the dramatic effects of global warming that result from emission of greenhouse gases (GHG). The most prominent of these gases is probably carbon dioxide (CO2) which results inter alia from the use of internal combustion engines. Consequently, large amounts of CO2 can be associated with air travel which represents one of the means of transport most frequently used by students who participate in international mobility. The Master’s degree Euroculture is a program that offers an international study experience by allowing students to be enrolled in at least two European universities and to get into contact with students and staff from all over the world. However, the grand mobility of the program results in frequent relocation of students who often travel by plane to reach their next destination. As aviation is mostly considered an unsustainable way of traveling, the present study evaluates the ES of the Euroculture program measured by the calculated CO2 emissions caused by students’ study related air travel. Having said this, this study and its findings do not claim to be representative but present a case study to provide impulses for further examination on the subject. To give further insights on students’ travel habits and their opinions on the climate change debate, a survey additionally asked about the level of awareness and self-reflection regarding their mobile lifestyle.

International student mobility and Euroculture

The number of students who seek higher education abroad has greatly increased over the last decade and is now an integral component of the global tertiary education landscape. In 2017, the number of internationally mobile students exceeded 5.3 million compared to 4.2 million in 2013. In Europe, numerous student exchange and higher education abroad stays are organized under the umbrella of the European Commission’s program Erasmus +. In 2018, the EU gave out around 424 thousand grants for students participating in the higher education mobility track.  To contextualize, Europe welcomed 2.1 million students in 2017, while accounting for 975 thousand outgoing students in the same year. 

The Euroculture program is one of currently 128 Master’s programs offered within the framework of EMJMD that is driving academic cooperation within Europe and globally. Not only are students from all over the world encouraged to apply, the awarding of full scholarships and integration of non-European universities are also part of the programs’ structure.  

Aviation and its meaning for climate change

In 1998, the Paris Agreement was signed by parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Invoking sustainable development, the document stipulated that global GHG emissions must be reduced to such an extent that global warming does not exceed 2 degrees by the end of the century. Consequently, technological innovations to develop energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly alternatives to existing structures on the one hand and coordinated strategies for worldwide reduction of GHG emissions on the other hand are needed. 

Regarding the subject of this paper, scientists reckon that CO2 emissions caused by aviation accounted for around 2.5% of total global emissions in 2018. Thus, in relation to other means of transport, air traffic currently accounts only for a small share of worldwide emitted GHG. However, apart from carbon dioxide, which is produced by the combustion of kerosene, there are other greenhouse gases that play a role in aviation, e.g. nitrogen oxides. This circumstance makes it hard to evaluate the actual impact of air travel on radiative forcing. 

Having said this, GHG emissions caused by aviation are not expected to rise proportionally to the increase in passenger air traffic because engineering and science are constantly working on ways to enhance planes’ energy efficiency. For instance, currently, every new generation of planes consumes about 25% less fuel compared to the previous one. That means that kerosene demand, and hence emission development, was decoupled from air traffic growing and reached a 3.5% difference in the respective growth rates in 2018. Nevertheless, synchronized policies on mitigation of air travel emissions are necessary to reach more energy efficiency worldwide in this sector, e.g. to achieve marketability of alternative fuels. 

To conclude, numerous studies have been conducted to evaluate the overall climate impact of aviation but hitherto, future developments still remain rather unpredictable. On the contrary, it is undisputed that the ever-growing air travel demands awareness on the subject not only in science but also in policy-making and civil society to initiate change and improvement toward green aviation.

Results — Euroculture’s air travel carbon footprint 

In the following, the results of the calculation of CO2 emissions resulting from air travel by Euroculture students and contextualizing questions are presented. We conducted a survey with currently enrolled students and alumni. Of N=58, 32 (55.17%) respondents indicated they were currently studying in their second or fourth semester while 26 (44.83%) were alumni. The respondents came from 21 different countries, nine of them non-European. In total, the participants lived in 29 countries during their studies, including the location of their last permanent residency before starting the first semester. When asked about their travel habits while being enrolled in the Master’s program compared to the time of their undergraduate studies, most participants (43.1%) indicated that they traveled “definitely more”, 27.59% stated they traveled more but with not too much of a difference to previous years, and 14 respondents (24.14%) declared the amount of travel was “around the same”. On the other hand, only 3.45% of the students declared they traveled “definitely less”.

Study-related CO2 emissions resulting from air travel of Euroculture students

For 55 (94.828%) of the survey’s respondents, CO2 calculations were executed. The calculated emissions in kg/CO2 thus ranged from 0 (minimum) to 20,427 (maximum). The total amount of CO2 calculated for all 58 participants is 263,311 kg CO2. This results in an average value of 4,539.85 kg CO2 per student for the duration of the program and 2269.93 kg per study year. The calculated average value for Euroculture students most closely corresponds to the annual per head CO2 emissions of France (4,560 kg). For a better idea of the distribution of loads, the responses were assigned to five categories of collected kilometer range:

Added CO2 load in kgNumber of respondents per categorypercentage share of respondentsTotal amount per category in CO2/kgpercentage share of total emissions
CAT 1: 0-2,500 2746.55230,81311.702
CAT 2: 2,501-5,000915.51732,74612.436
CAT 3: 5,001-10,0001627.586111,00242.156
CAT 4: 10,001-15,00046.89751,14219.423
CAT 5: 15,001-21,00023.44837,60814.283

Table 1: Added CO2 loads of students in kg

As the table above shows, the emission loads are very unequally distributed. Category 1 (CAT 1), which accounts for nearly half of the respondents, has the smallest share of total emissions at just under 12% while the only two students building CAT 5 account for around 14%. Furthermore, almost half of the total emissions are also attributable to the 16 participants in CAT 3. In summary, it can be said that approximately 38% of all participants produced around 75% of the calculated CO2 emissions. When looking at the routes, we can see that all students in CAT 1 already lived in Europe before starting the program and remained there for the whole duration of the program. CAT 2 participants either absolved at least one long-distance flight or traveled larger distances within Europe. To go on, all respondents assigned to CAT 3 and 4 spent their third semester overseas or lived outside Europe before starting the program and returned home once during their studies. Lastly, the high emissions of the two students in CAT 2 are attributable to the fact that the hometown was located at a great distance from Europe, and two to three home visits took place in the course of the program. 

Students’ environmental awareness and general reflection on climate change

Considering the participants are pursuing postgraduate education, it was to be expected that previous knowledge on environmental issues was present, as well as a relatively high level of awareness on GHG emissions and related issues. Accordingly, 32.76% of the respondents stated they were reflecting on their travel-related GHG emissions (Yes), 37.93 % said they rather did so (Rather yes). In contrast, in total 29.31% do not or rather do not reflect on that. Moreover, the respondents were asked about their feelings related to GHG emissions, different emotions were presented to choose from. Nearly two-thirds of the participants (62.07%) stated they were ‘concerned’ about their emissions. Around one-quarter of the responses each (25.86%) account for ‘guilty’ and ‘uncomfortable’, whereas ‘indifferent’ and ‘without concern’ were chosen only eight times in total (8.62% and 5.17%). The next two items asked about how serious a problem climate change currently is and how important are actions to fight it. For the first question, a 10-point scale was used. 41 participants (70.69%) rated climate change as very serious and can therefore be identified as promoters (9 and 10), while another 16 passive answers (7 and 8 on the scale) were counted. To go on, only one reply (1.72%) accounted for the group of detractors, while the lower half of the scale was not used at all. This correspondents to ± = 1.02 and ⌀ = 9.09. Accordingly, over half of the responses (55.17%) indicated actions against climate change were ‘extremely important’, and another 25 participants (43.1%) rated the same as ‘important’. Correspondingly, only one respondent answered ‘not really important’.

Furthermore, the vast majority of participants (45 = 76.78%) stated that they felt individual responsibility was ‘extremely important’ or ‘important’ to combat climate change. This was also partly reflected in the responses to the item “Would you say you take actions to fight climate change?”, although only four participants (6.9%) stated that they did enough. 41 respondents (70.69%) chose “Rather yes, I try to do something”, whereas 20.69% were more critical of their actions stating they were not “really doing enough”. At the same time, all students and alumni indicated they took some actions to reduce their personal GHG emissions. Over 90% each claimed that they went by foot or by bike whenever the distance allows, and that they separated most of their waste for recycling purposes. Furthermore, over 70% of the respondents reported they generally used public transport rather than a car, reduced their energy consumption (electricity, water) at home, and aimed at avoiding unnecessary plastic packaging. More unpopular were taking the plane only when it is not avoidable (55.17%), avoiding long-distance travel (17.24%), and reducing travel for leisure only (6.9%). Finally, participants were asked to create a ranking of things they consider important at this stage. Consequential, “Enjoying good education” was considered most important, closely followed by “Gaining international experience” which is very much in line with the Erasmus Mundus Master programs’ core values. The very opposite choices “Living a climate/environmentally friendly life” and “Traveling for leisure only” were ranked last. 

In order to evaluate the students’ and alumni’s perception if and of how well sustainability is implemented in the program itself, further questions were asked. Firstly, the responses to the question “Do you feel the subject of environmental sustainability is addressed sufficiently in the framework of the Euroculture program?” paint a rather mixed picture as the chart below shows:

Chart, line chart

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Nevertheless, the respondents rather expressed their wish for more consideration of the topic within the program. This also reflects in the responses to the next question asking if the consortium should actively act to enhance the ES of the program. With 43.1%, the answer “Yes, there are things that could be improved” was chosen most often, followed by “Definitely yes” and “Rather yes, but I would not know what they could do” with each 20.69%. 

Discussion — Mobility Comes at a Price

The results of students’ CO2 emissions underline the fact that the great mobility of the program comes at a high price. While the calculated emissions are neither representative for all cohorts of Euroculture, nor have the ambition to be more than estimations, the outcomes of the survey still make it clear that the frequent traveling for many students results in a significant rise in CO2 emissions. Calculated for one year, the average emissions resulting only from air travel amount to around 2.270 kg CO2 per student, which is more than the annual per capita emissions of a country like Brazil. Furthermore, as mentioned above, GHG emissions related to the IP, which for instance in the case of the cohort 2019-2021 would have added between 618 kg and 1.253 kg CO2 per student, were not even considered. Bearing in mind that students are often not able to make environmentally sustainable choices during their stays abroad (for instance, living in well-isolated houses, choosing ‘green’ energy suppliers, or using energy-saving appliances), it must be expected that the overall emissions of Euroculture students are relatively high in these regards, too. It should also be recalled that according to the survey, traveling to see family and friends is considered very important by the students so that is rather likely that they fly even more frequently to meet this need.  

On the other hand, a few relevant factors need to be considered as well. From students’ perspective, the participation in the program only accounts for two years of their lives after which the frequent relocation for many graduates stops. Moreover, it is conceivable that the student status also has positive impacts. For instance, as presented earlier, Euroculture students go by foot, cycle, or use public transportation for daily travels. Furthermore, the high awareness and sensibility toward climate change thematic seem to result in largely resource-oriented behavior in general. This mindset makes it likely for current and future graduates to contribute to approaches to enhance sustainability in the future. 

As presented earlier, it is commonly agreed on the fact that global GHG emissions need to be massively reduced to avoid dramatic changes in the world climate. It is not in the scope of this paper to evaluate which role individual responsibility plays in combating climate change. However, it can be said that the mobility of the program results in high GHG emissions related to the enrollment itself and the accompanying circumstances which contradicts the claim of ES since internationality is clearly prioritized here so that it is difficult to speak of a balance of interests. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the mobility as well as the international character are not only core values of the program but are also of high importance to the students. Hence, enhancing the sustainability aspect of Euroculture could be a question of compensation rather than of renunciation. Since Euroculture is part of the European Commission’s EMJMD framework, debating ways of improving the sustainable character of the program would very much be a collective task with different stakeholders involved. The European Commission declared its ambition to enable Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent by putting the so-called “Green Deal” on top of their agenda 2019-2024, it would, therefore, be in the Commission’s interest to initiate discussion on ways to enhance the sustainability of flagship programs like Erasmus +.

Still, the compatibility of ES and a globally connected academic world remains an issue that is not easy to resolve and will need active and consequent initiative from all stakeholders. A good example for such a campaign is the Utrecht University’s (UU) Travel Green Grant. UU’s Green Office acknowledges the fact that a large share of the university’s GHG emissions result from study-related travels and therefore offers grants to students who use bus or train to reach their European exchange destinations. Furthermore, efforts were made to collect helpful information on how to find suitable transportation, sustainable travel destinations or how to offset CO2 emissions.

Incentives like this can stimulate awareness and foster commitment and involvement of students and staff. When looking at the Euroculture program, it can be noted that the willingness to engage in approaches toward more sustainability seems to be quite present which could constitute a valuable resource for future projects. When asked about ideas on how to implement ES within the program, 22 of 58 respondents gave their suggestions. Among the offered ideas were the gathering and presenting of bundled information on alternatives to air travel for the routes between Euroculture universities, subsidizing green travel, the implementation of study contents on EU sustainable policies, and the selection of locations for the IP that are easy to reach for the majority of students and staff. All in all, the comments and responses to the survey show that many students reflect and care a lot about sustainability within the program and make efforts to reconcile their own needs and wishes, the demands of their studies, and environmental approaches. However, many students expressed that more support and consideration of the associated issues by other parties like the administration, staff, and politics is crucial to improve the green status of Euroculture. For example, a carbon offset system for students’ travels could be a feasible solution to improve participants’ carbon footprints. 

Unfortunately, hitherto, almost no systematic approaches to enhance the sustainability within the program are made visible which makes it hard to evaluate the measures already taken. Regardless of any efforts made, it would be desirable for the parties responsible to make the discourse more public. This would not only enable potentially fruitful exchange between stakeholders but would also represent an important expression of commitment to the values of the European Union. 


This paper shows, based on the calculation of the CO2 emissions of students participating in the Master’s program Euroculture, that more attention should be paid to the various effects of international student mobility in regard to ES. Although this case study is not intended to be representative and is subject to limitations, the hypothesis was confirmed that Euroculture students generate relatively high levels of CO2 through their frequent relocation and associated air travel. Nevertheless, while students’ emitted CO2 resulting from reaching their study destinations by plane ranged between 0 and 20,4 tons of CO2 for two years, the largest proportion of students (47%) accounted for only 12% of total calculated CO2 emissions which shows that Euroculture students are not per se responsible for very high CO2 outputs.

However, it is clear that study programs that promote distinct mobility and internationality give these attributes priority over more environmental approaches since their structure is not compatible with low GHG emissions at this stage. This circumstance reflects the fundamental paradox the academic world is confronted with: While serving as agents and drivers for sustainable development through, inter alia scientific examination and technological innovation on the one hand, higher education at the same time contributes to unsustainable social and economic systems. Academic travel is one of the issues that represent this fundamental problem which will not be solved with satisfaction in a timely manner. Consequently, it is all the more crucial to initiate the open and critical debate on this difficult compatibility, to make necessary resources available and to use assets that are already existing. For instance, the results of the survey indicated that students of the program are very concerned about climate change and their GHG emissions. Hence, students’ awareness, interest, and willingness to contribute to greener solutions can be identified as valuable resources on the path toward bringing together Euroculture’s core values with more environmental sustainability. 

To conclude, exchange of knowledge and experiences, as well as best practices, could serve as effective catalysts to enhance environmental sustainability not only within the framework of the Euroculture program but in the whole academic world. Finally, a readiness for critical self-reflection as well as an honest assessment of the efforts made so far is necessary to start a constructive debate on future approaches. 

Image credits: Bartlomiej Mostek and Lea Quilitz.

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