Is being international problematic for sustainability?

by team INSUS – Internationalising Sustainability


This blog entry primarily touches upon the following Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs;

Sustainablity goals

Joint master programmes and international projects as a source of emissions

Apart from being a massive industry, business travel and tourism – also in the form of e.g. conferences and symposia globally – form a vivid part of researcher and student academic life and professional development. Face to face is the most engaging way for collaboration and meaningful discussions, but travel, in particular air travel, creates emissions. Often, due to lack of time or lack of funds, the choice of transport are still airplanes. However, the overall impact on e.g. biodiversity of different modes of travel is not completely straightforward, and for instance train travel (high-speed rails in particular) should be considered also in terms of the whole infrastructure needed for its construction and maintenance (Cornet, Dudley & Banister, 2018).

Recently, joint masters programmes have become increasingly common. For example, the Erasmus Mundus programmes have funded and continue funding prestigious double degrees, where students spend a part of their studies at different universities. These programmes aim to further the integration of European higher education (Papatsiba, 2014), but also necessitate travel between sites involved. As joined programs have been created for the goals of integration and cooperation, the sustainability of the modes of work have rarely been addressed.

Certain kinds of technological, digital solutions are needed to make joint programmes and inter-university learning modules communicatively meaningful and authentic. For instance, one member of our team has an EU-funded, EIT project where learning modules in circular economy are created and shared between technical universities in 5 European countries. Already at the planning phases of the project in 2018, the intent was to find new ways that enable student interaction without the (obviously hard-to-fulfill) need to fly between the participating countries, north and south. As part of the solution, Virtual and Mixed Realities (VR, MR) were considered (Sandström et al., 2020). However, even in a situation where multi-player VR is nowadays possible as such, the resources required for setting it up for the course purposes are often lacking or scarce.

Recently, some foundations have started to give grants to support the extra costs of sustainable modes of travel, but is travel always necessary? It is not simple deciding what the solution in terms of travel during a course should be.

Being international locally

The University of Helsinki includes over twenty foreign languages in the BA degree programs. In this regard, the Department of Languages could be viewed as a small whole world within a university in Helsinki, as teaching a variety of languages used by both large and tiny populations in all the continents. Learning a foreign language brings its culture and society to the learner’s mind, so that the education may yield a global citizen who is capable to handle sustainability issues in a multicultural context, being active online at home, with more communicative attitude. Lack of communication, especially on global level, could cause prejudice which might be developed to form a nationalism. Cliffon & Haigh (2018) states that “education helps learners recognize that humans are stronger and happier when they work together.” Foreign language education at a local institute may enhance international cooperation and collaboration, interdependence, diversity, cultural tolerance, etc. by equipping the learners with linguistic and socio-cultural capacity.

The value of local knowledge and traditions

As such, sustainability is often perceived as being universal for any country setting. In practice, the definition is sufficiently open to be flexibly adopted to the local needs and contexts.  The challenge is to integrate and translate this flexibility into education, especially in the joint master’s programmes, where students are exposed to the teaching from multiple country settings. Often, the dominant view of sustainability is the vision inspired by Western standards of living, corresponding challenges of wealthier lifestyles and solutions via more sustainable production of more sustainable goods. But in many locations around the world aside technology and product innovations, there exist many everyday practices inspired by the local environment, traditional knowledge and frugal thinking. For example, Vergara et al. (2016) measure the informal traditional reuse of textiles in Bogota, Colombia and estimate it to be much more efficient in terms of reduced GHG emissions as compared to formal recycling or landfilling. Learning about such local practices is equally valuable for advancing sustainability, and learning about them is of great importance not only for promoting environmental sustainability, but also supporting the cultural dimension of sustainability, and contributing to social equity by considering how these traditional practices could be integrated to national economies.

Consider the international programme as a change maker?

One way of approaching the teaching and learning modules is to use three perspectives: systemic, socio-cultural, and longevity. The module could be seen a process and an outcome – a product. Transforming the modules and, eventually, the programme so that it is based on not only user-centric but planet-centric principles, can be achieved through certain steps. The content of the steps can be negotiated locally and glocally, and used as learning tasks in the programme.

Some guidelines towards planet-centric outcomes and processes might be the following (see

  • Align the programme goals, where possible, with the SDGs
  • Design the goals with the institutions involved, in a planet-centric way
  • Test and iterate the approaches to improve the programme over time
  • Evaluate and create a road map for the micro goals, making progress visible and understandable

Setting actionable, accessible and understandable micro goals whose fulfillment can be measured and evaluated makes the task more feasible. The action points should also be geared toward building and communicating a vision for sustainability, the core elements of which are embedded in the participating organisations’ strategies and missions. Internationalising sustainability starts with the participants, the owners of the intellectual property of the learning modules.


Cliffon & Haigh 2018: Internationalisation of the curriculum comes of age –

Cornet, Y., Dudley, G., Banister, D., 2018. High speed rail: Implications for carbon emissions and biodiversity. Case Stud. Transp. Policy 6 (3), 376–390.

Papatsiba, V. Policy Goals of European Integration and Competitiveness in Academic Collaborations: An Examination of Joint Master’s and Erasmus Mundus Programmes. High Educ Policy 27, 43–64 (2014).

Sandström, N., Nevgi, A., Betten, T., Balkenende, A.R., Danese, P., Danese, Graf, R., Grönman, K., Holopainen, J. & Olsen, S.I. (2020). Excellence in education requires excellence in collaboration: learning modules in circular economy as platforms for transdisciplinary learning. A paper accepted to be presented at the 10th Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD2020), University of Cork, Ireland.

Vergara, S.E., Damgaard, A., Gomez, D., 2016. The Efficiency of Informality: Quantifying GHG Reductions from Informal Recycling in Colombia. Journal of Industrial Ecology 20 (1), 107-119.


Online sources

Planet-Centric design:

United Nations Sustainable Development:


5 Replies to “Is being international problematic for sustainability?”

  1. You very adeptly name the international conferences as part of the international business travel and tourism industry, which is something that is often overlooked when we travel for academic purposes. While I wholeheartedly second your perspective on the perks of face-to-face communication and in-person networking that takes place at international symposia, the lack of sustainability on academic travel for speaker engagements and conference participation is seldom discussed. The points raised here are very valuable to this end. One of the ways to perhaps increase the sustainability would be to allow more flexibility to accommodate environmentally conscious travel options in the travel plans as well as guiding researchers to choose carefully the events they participate in person. This fall I attended a fully virtual conference on my field and was delighted to see that the technological solutions the organizers opted to use allowed for in-depth networking as well as enriched Q&A sessions. The on-demand viewing of recorded talks as well as e-posters allowed for deeper familiarization of the presentations than what would have been possible at a live event, at your own pace in your time zone. I foresee virtual or hybrid meetings to be a part of the future as they greatly improve the attendance rates and make attendance feasible also to those who wouldn’t be able to travel due to health, family or financial reasons for example.

    1. I agree on the hybrid modalities as part of the future. They will allow more participation from underpriviliged conditions, for instance. And as you mention, the e-posters and the like allow for more time spent on the actual artefacts. Yet, at the same time I must underline the fact that at least for the time being, there is no better way of engaging with colleagues – especially new people – than F2F meetings and time spent together.

  2. I, too, have participated virtual conferences and found them to work very well. The only thing that is lacking is personal contact, a possibility for mingling with new people. However, I am also taking part in an European project, where we have had to change from meeting in person to online meetings. But those online meetings have worked very nicely, even though we have not necessarily met in person before. Interaction is a little different in online co-operation, but having a video connection does help. I think this ongoing pandemic is helping us to change from meeting in person to virtual meetings.

    However, I sometimes wonder, how much working online actually consumes energy and what is its effect on sustainability (see. eg. and In addition, manufacturing e.g. computers and mobile phones use minerals that are increasingly scarce (,

    1. This is a very valid question. In fact, the figures from what I hear regarding electricity and resource usage, show that digital solutions are far from straightforwardly ecological or otherwise sustainable.

  3. I must say the pandemic has made me notice how easy it is to collaborate with partners abroad without traveling. But – these are contacts that I had before the pandemic, and many of them began in face-to-face conferences. Anyway, I am sure both the global warming and the pandemic force us to re-think our traveling for academic purposes.

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