Taking part in an abroad experience is an opportunity to gain the skills, knowledge, and intercultural understanding necessary to build a more sustainable future, but it can also have significant environmental, economic, and social impacts along the way. In alignment with our Commitment to Sustainability and the UW-Madison’s Resilience Commitment, all students are encouraged to use a sustainability lens to make decisions throughout their study abroad process, and practice sustainable living before, during, and after their time abroad.
The Carbon Footprint of Going Abroad
The carbon footprint, or total greenhouse gas emissions, of an abroad experience is made up of flights to and from the program location; daily activities using electricity for appliances, lighting, and air conditioning; on-site transportation; food consumption; and disposing of waste.
Flying, in particular, emits large amounts of greenhouse gases.
2018-2019 Approximate Carbon Footprint of Flights To and From UW-Madison Study Abroad Programs
- 2,592 Students
- 25,512,114 Passenger Air Miles Traveled
- 11,208.91 Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (MTCDE) Produced
- ~4.3 Metric Tons – Average Student’s Carbon Footprint Due to Air Travel
UW-Madison’s carbon footprint of study abroad in 2018-2019 due to air travel to and from the program location was equivalent to:
- 2,036 homes’ electricity use for one year
- 148 tanker trucks’ worth of gasoline
The average study abroad student’s carbon footprint due to air travel to and from their program location was equivalent to:
- Charging 490,512 smartphones
- Burning 454 gallons of gasoline
- Burning 4,457 pints of coal
- Providing a home’s electricity for 267 days
To sequester, or recapture, the carbon emissions from an average UW-Madison student’s abroad experience, 71.1 tree seedlings would have to be planted and grow for 10 years!
What Can You Do?
Adopt Sustainable Travel Practices
There are many things you can do to study abroad more sustainably.
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When selecting a program
- Consider the distance you will have to travel – is there a program that will allow you to meet your study abroad goals that may have a smaller carbon footprint?
- Study abroad for longer periods of time if possible
- Consider living with a host family, sharing space and resources as well as culture
- Look for opportunities to contribute to community-led initiatives with culturally appropriate, pro-social, or carbon-positive impacts
- Explore programs with a focus on environmental or social sustainability – and remember that you can use a sustainability lens to approach any field of study!
- Investigate what a particular program provider or institution is doing to make their abroad experiences more sustainable
- Consider purchasing carbon offsets
When preparing to go abroad
- Book flights with airlines working to improve their sustainability
- Purchase direct flights if possible; limit the number of connections; research which airlines are working to reduce their carbon footprint
- Practice minimalism by packing light and bringing only the essentials
- Reduce waste by bringing a refillable water bottle and/or travel mug, refillable travel containers for toiletries, reusable silverware, reusable shopping/grocery bag
- Check out resources like the Badger’s Guide to Sustainability, as well as events and initiatives offered by the Office of Sustainability
- Practice ethical community engagement
- Contribute to community-led initiatives that benefit your host community
- Spend weekends exploring your host city/country rather than more distant destinations
- Get tips on Staying Local and Engaging with Your Local Community
- Walk, bike, or take public ground transportation (buses, trains) instead of flying or driving
- Avoid creating plastic waste by carrying a refillable water bottle, travel mug, reusable silverware, and reusable shopping/grocery bag
- Buy second-hand items (e.g. cookware, bedding, clothes) and find a new home for them before you leave
- Eat locally sourced food; shift to a more plant-based diet; purchase food with minimal or no packaging – fruit can be a great replacement for pre-packaged snacks
- Conserve electricity by limiting use of lights/heat/AC, unplugging devices when not in use, and hanging laundry to dry
- Limit water consumption by taking shorter showers and turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth or washing dishes
- Support local businesses rather than large retail chains and purchase locally made goods
- Clean up after yourself, don’t litter, and learn how the local recycling system works
- Do not purchase souvenirs or food products made from exotic or endangered animals (e.g. turtle shells, ivory, animal skins, bones, feathers, or bushmeats)
- Do not feed or bait wild animals
- Do not pay for “experiences” or photos with captive wild animals like elephants, big cats, or dolphins; this encourages people to capture them for money, harming the animals and their species
- Teach others – show your peers how to live and travel more sustainably
After your return
- Reflect on how you lived while abroad and what sustainable practices you can incorporate into your life back home
- Continue learning about sustainability and get involved locally
Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
Visit the Office of Sustainability’s Travel, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Carbon Offsets page to calculate how much carbon you may emit by participating in a particular abroad program. If you have already purchased flights, be sure to submit your results and participate in UW-Madison’s Greenhouse Gas accounting.
Consider Purchasing Carbon Offsets
In addition to flying less and adopting sustainable living practices, you can reduce the carbon impact of your abroad experience by purchasing carbon offsets. Visit the Office of Sustainability’s Travel, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Carbon Offsets page to find a list of vetted carbon offset providers.
To learn more, explore the articles linked below.
- What are Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? (Sustainable Travel)
- How Carbon Offsets Work (Native)
- Carbon Offsets Explained (TerraPass)
- Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train? (BBC)
- Can you really negate your carbon emissions? Carbon offsets, explained. (Vox)
- How to Buy Carbon Offsets (NYTimes)
Learn about Past Student Experiences
Check out past study abroad students’ blog posts on sustainability topics!