How can I reduce my environmental impact when working in TEFL?

We are all aware that the climate on earth is changing, and there seems little doubt that the actions of humans have caused and are exacerbating this.

If you are conscious of your own personal carbon footprint, how can you balance that with a career that often involves flying around the world? 

How polluting is flying?

Flying is the most polluting activity you can do at a personal level. No ifs, no buts, minute by minute flying on a plane is that quickest way for a human to pollute and drive the breakdown of our climate, pumping out 0.3kg CO2 per mile per passenger. The impact on the climate is then made up to three times worse by other associated pollutants that are emitted. A return flight from London to Madrid will release 0.4 tonnes of CO2, Tokyo a whopping 3.0 tonnes of CO2. Now 3 tonnes is a lot of carbon dioxide. The global average emissions per person per year for everything from transport to food to electricity is 5 tonnes of CO2e and if we want to keep warming to a safe level of 1.5-2C we all need to reduce that to 2.5 tonnes, less than that return flight to Tokyo! 

So, what can we do about flying?

For the foreseeable future there is no real way to reduce the impact of flying, electric planes are still a long way off and the next decade is so crucial to climate change mitigation we shouldn’t be increasing emissions.

There are different arguments made about that impact of personal choices on flying. Inspired by Greta Thunberg the flygskam no flying or “flight-shaming” movement has taken off as more people opt for train and likewise Is a growing group of climate scientists who have given up. There is a lively economic, moral and philosophical debate around giving up flying, so the best way to reduce your impact is not to fly and here’s some ideas how.

Take the train

Taking the train produces lower emissions, trains carry more people, travel more slowly, and across Europe they are electrified and therefore can be powered by clean renewable electricity. If you book early, they are also affordable, booking two months in advance a train from London to Barcelona costs £75 and take about 19 hours. Great time to read a book or look out the window and see the Pyrenees go past.

Even cheaper is the bus where tickets start at about £45. It’s slower and not as comfortable as the train, but the prices won’t go up as quickly if you haven’t planned your trip in advance. As a rule of thumb public transport typically emits 1/10th the emissions of flying.

So, if you are really serious about having low emission why not choose to work in countries that are closer to home. Europe has the best public transport connections anywhere in the world. 

Fly less often

What about those teachers further abroad in say S.E. Asia, they aren’t realistically going to get the train. Here you could start by reducing how often you fly. Maybe don’t fly back for Christmas and take local holidays. Try to return just once in the year, or stay out for a couple of years without returning. Live life fully where you are, rather than trying to keep one toe based in the UK. The great travel writers like Laurie Lee or Hemingway didn’t pop back for Christmas. 

Offsetting… is it just buying indulgences?

Offsetting is often seen as controversial, people claim it doesn’t work or is like buying indulgences from the church. Perhaps it is a bit like buying indulgences. But when we look at the forest fires in Brazil and the loss of wild habitats globally, without us paying to keep these forests standing, people are going to cut them down for fuelwood, timber, beef and palm oil. The world needs to keep forests standing and even expand them, trees store carbon, and we can’t tackle climate change without protecting forests. Evidence shows paying people to keep forests standing works, and it follow a clear logic that those of us who choose to fly and pollute can be asked to cough up a bit more to offset the flights pollution. 

Some carbon offsetting projects definitely do work. But choose a decent project and pay a fair amount. The offsets can be certified by organisations such as Plan Vivo, who verify that the offsets are supporting local communities and wildlife. The cost of an offset ranges from under $5 to over $25 per tonne of CO2. Cheap offsets of $5 are available because poor people in developing countries will accept a low amount of money to plant and care for trees. But this just keeps people on poverty, so pay a fair rate. Pay more, at least $25 per tonne of CO2 and make it worthwhile. Use organisations like Cool Earth who help indigenous communities protect rainforests, Profs Who Fly, a group of professors who help farmers plant macadamia trees or Climate Care with their award-winning cookstove projects. There are countless projects, so choose the one that appeals to your passions.

Eat less meat and dairy

Cows and sheep burp and fart producing methane which rapidly warms the planet and in addition the livestock require land for feeding, which globally comes at the expense of places like the Amazon forest. Pork and chicken production have a lower environmental impact as they grow more quickly but the lowest emissions option is going vegetarian and vegan. That has the added benefit that eating more vegetables is good for your health. However, you don’t have to be 100% vegan to make a difference. Simply reducing your meat consumptions can make a big difference too; one idea could be to just eat meat when you are out at restaurants and go veggie at home, or have some nominated meat free days.

Fast fashion, fast destruction

Buy less stuff, especially clothes. Producing stuff requires energy to produce it and then ship it around the world. The fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world after oil. To make matters worse most clothes aren’t even warn after a couple of months. As a general rule, the cheaper it is, most worse it is. Cheap production generally means lower standards in factories, poor working conditions and clothes that will wear out and need replacing sooner. So, buy less, buy better and maybe try buying second-hand. 

Talk about climate change

Greta Thunberg started taking action in 2018, striking every Friday to demand action on climate change, her actions led to protests in September 2019 involving over 4 million people in 170 countries, perhaps the largest civil demonstrations in history. So if you’re serious why not engage locally. Look online or through a portal such as Patagonia Action Works which provides a map of organisations local to you. This type of networking could also help you practise your language skills.

As teachers we should educate ourselves on the topic of climate change and talk about it, use related materials and undertake discussions in the classrooms. If you’re eating less meat or avoiding flying for the summer vacation to reduce your impact, explain why, you don’t need to be sanctimonious or judgemental of others; but be aware you are more likely to influence the decisions of those around you than things we read or see elsewhere. Just because TEFL teachers are language specialists who fly doesn’t mean they can’t engage on climate change. 

*All numbers and carbon calculations for this piece were taken from Being the Change – How to Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. Written by Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at the Nasa jet Propulsion Lab, California.