Mission offset: A university-led afforestation programme to offset student travel

Nadia Jogee, Deanna Coleman

Artwork: Dr Cécile Girardin

For many students, travel is unavoidable. It allows for a more diverse education, fosters collaboration and enables capacity building across the globe. Yet, in a world where we have a social responsibility to minimise our carbon footprint, pressure is mounting for a change in how we travel. The St. Andrew’s Forest, a soon to be 50 square mile area of new forest, is allowing students at The University of St. Andrews to take carbon offsetting into their own hands. The Forest is the brainchild of Deanna Coleman, winner of the Enterprising Mind of the Year Award 2020, and has been a truly collaborative project. It wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the support of her team, including Noah Herfort, Lea Weimann and Abi Whitefield.

I know first-hand the guilt that many students feel about their need for travel. I myself carry out research in Honduras and the carbon footprint that comes with this can weigh on my mind. It’s therefore inspiring to see how Deanna has proactively developed a solution for the students at St. Andrews, whose estimated emissions are currently 5,000–15,000 tCO2e. The ultimate goal is to “consistently year-on-year, offset the emissions of our ever-increasing international student body”, says Deanna.

However, not only is the Forest a way to ease the guilt of students, Deanna has recognised that it has huge education potential. She says, “The project hopes to engage all students at the university, first-hand. This will largely be achieved through extra-curricular options and an integrated curriculum. Ideally there would be a module in every discipline, from psychology to geology, which allows students to be engaged with the Forest.”

We all know that we need to reduce our carbon footprint. But without many practical ways to do so many feel isolated from the issue, or simply do not know where to start. The plan to make the Forest a permanent fixture of the education of St. Andrews students will not only inform them about climate change and carbon offsetting, but empower them to feel they are doing their part. Student engagement as one of the key metrics for success, and with the fact that many students are already asking to be a part of the initial development, this project is very much a student focussed, ground-up approach to carbon offsetting.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen academics and students quickly adapt to new ways of working. At first we all wondered how we could continue, but as the pandemic progressed we have witnessed a whole host of new ways to engage. We know we can avoid international travel, but what do we lose in the process? The chance for collaboration, to witness a new environment first hand, to immerse ourselves in a different culture — ultimately to make our experience of the world fuller and richer. These are not things we should give up on, and Deanna agrees. When asked if she thinks travel is still necessary for research she replies, “Yes! While change is being made, it is not happening as quickly and as easily as I would hope. Ideally, research will be in the form of technological innovation to make travel more feasible in the modern world. Personally, I am still hoping that the next 20 years will bring a number of environmentally-friendly travel options, such as planes charged by renewable energy.”

I think we can all agree that this would be a very welcome sigh of relief for all of us who travel for study and work, but in the meantime, initiatives like the St. Andrews Forest are a truly bold way to try and rectify the problem of carbon emissions.

For more information about St. Andrews’ Forest, please see here, or catch up with Deanna’s talk via https://www.climate.exp0.org.

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Climate Exp0 was the first virtual conference from the COP26 Universities Network and the Italian University Network for Sustainable Development (RUS).