Welcome to the blog of the course and textbook Facing up to global warming: What is going on and what you can do about it. This course is run by Professor Nick Gray of the Trinity Centre for the Environment at Trinity College Dublin.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Internationalisation and long-distance relationships : the carbon impact of the ERASMUS generation’s air travels

 Since its creation in 1987, the Erasmus programme has developed into what is now considered a massive success and a considerable achievement in terms of connecting European Universities and people. From a few thousands students in 1987-1988 to about 180 000 in 2007-2009, more than 3 millions students overall benefited from this programme and grants and went abroad to study as Erasmus students. They were thus offered the unique chance to travel, discover new countries, learn about new cultures, mix with new people, in  the hope that, on top of often learning another language, they would create emotional bounds with other places and people which would make them truly internationalised European citizens.

However, as much as internationalising affections and relationships might have the capacity to bring European people closer, it certainly doesn’t shorten the actual distances which separates their countries. By allowing and encouraging young people to go abroad, and to become attached to places and people far from their home, the European Union has participated in creating an even more mobile category of people, whose nomadism is not primarily professional but sentimental. My point here is that such bounds have an ecological cost, particularly in regards to transportation use.

Erasmus students have to deal with two kinds of long-distance ties : those which precede their departure and that they wish to maintain when they’re abroad, and those they create in their host country, which they will attempt to conserve after leaving it. The first category typically includes family and childhood friends, and requires regular visit usually justified by specific circumstances (Christmas, important events, grave issues...). Romantic relationships are even more demanding, since visits are spontaneously expected to be as frequent as possible. They are also likely to receive visits from their friends and family during their time abroad. The second category may involve a girlfriend/boyfriend as well, and more generally friends, from the host country or elsewhere, but most likely not from the exact same place. Some of these people will remain dear enough to be visited later on, and they will perhaps visit too, which means that former Erasmus students will be tempted to travel around to see all their friends, those who stayed, and those who spread out as they went back to their home country.

It is quite clear that such intense travelling would have a massive impact on personal carbon footprint, in which transportation habits play a big part: it is estimated that approximately 56% of CO2 equivalent per year (CO2e yr-1) of the personal footprint derives from travel (1). Let’s take an example to verify and illustrate that. We choose Ireland as host country, which already implies that the vast majority of Erasmus travels (home country/host country) will be airline travels. Now, consider a German student from Koln, coming to Dublin as Erasmus student. If he stays 4 months, doesn’t get any visit and only takes a plane to come and go back at the end of his stay, the carbon cost of his Erasmus experience, in regards to air travels only, is 0.19 tonnes of CO2e (2). Now, assume he stays in Dublin the entire academic year, and goes back for Christmas and in March to see his girlfriend. She visits him once; his parents come as well, and so does his brother, and two of his closest friends. Overall, his Erasmus adventure will have caused 18 air travels, (9 return trips), resulting in the emission of 1.71 tonnes of CO2e (assuming all of his friends and family depart from Koln as well). To that, we should add the travels he does the following year to come back and visit his friends still living in Dublin (0.19 t CO2e), and as he travels to Barcelona to see a friend he met in Dublin (0.22 t). One of his Irish acquaintances also grabs the opportunity to visit Koln during the festival (0.19 t). That will make a total emission of 2.31 tonnes of CO2e caused by the air travels linked to one Erasmus student – and this doesn’t include embedded costs (construction and maintenance of airports and airplanes, extraction of fuels…). Considering that the Irish mean personal emission is 5.70 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, it does represent a considerable amount of greenhouse gases – especially if it can be generalised to all Erasmus students.

Out of 15 Erasmus students studying in Trinity College for the academic year 2012-2013, and randomly picked among personal acquaintances 14 of them had had at least 4 visits from friends and family. They all made the trip home for Christmas, and the majority came back another time during the year. On average, being in a relationship with somebody from home cost 2 extra return trips. They all intended to come back to Dublin for holidays in the future. One of them, from France, had started a relationship with an Erasmus student from Latvia he had met in Ireland. They were looking up the flights and trying to find ways to meet regularly, anticipating for when they would be separated by about 2000 km. When asked what they meant by ‘regularly’, he answered ‘You have to spend some time together at least every two or three months, otherwise there’s no point, it can’t work, you know, you better give it up right away. Three months is already, like, a really long time.’

Of course, the impact on CO2e emissions will vary greatly depending on the duration of the stay, the closeness of the relationships and individual financial resources. But as a whole, it appears to increase considerably the use of aviation, which is a major component of individual footprint. It can be argued that some of these travels would have occurred anyway, as people grow used to going on vacation abroad. Erasmus students would then draw travels to specific destinations, but not actually cause them. On the other hand, international, uprooted students typically don’t have a car, which diminishes their personal footprint. More generally, we can hope that Erasmus students grow more conscious of global stakes, and that their international contacts and knowledge give them tools to deal adequately with collective issues such as climate change. Yet again, only a fringe of the population is allowed to become internationalised – and is therefore responsible for high emissions of CO2e due to air travels. Traditionally, internationalisation was reserved for the elite. Now, and thanks to the Erasmus programme so to say, it includes the educated middle-class. Fortunately, most of these ecologically costly international ties are likely to fade away with time, and the impact will thus reduce as years passes. The worst-case scenario in terms of greenhouse gases emissions is then international relationships resulting in lengthy commitments, as they create couples and families built between two countries and heavily relying on air travel. And we ought to hope that such intercultural successes remain scarce.

Marion Lieutaud 

(1) Kenny, T. and Gray, N.F. (2009), ‘A preliminary survey of household and personal carbon dioxide émissions in Ireland’,  Environment International, 35, 259-272


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