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Friday, January 28, 2022

Let’s get students off the plane and on to the train

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Over the past two weeks, Heads of Government from around the world have gathered in Glasgow to change the course of climate change. The urgency is real – especially among the younger generations – climate change is a major concern.

Notwithstanding this, university students do not travel around Europe in an environmentally friendly way when using the EU student exchange programme, Erasmus+. Taking the plane is the standard procedure when students go to study abroad. To reduce the carbon footprint of international exchange, we have to give students a better chance of getting off the plane and train.

Before I continue down this path, let me make one thing clear. International student exchange and study abroad is great. The Erasmus programme, which enables students all over Europe to study in another European country, is perhaps the best known and most popular of all EU initiatives. Since 1987, 4.4 million students have crossed European borders and enhanced their understanding of themselves and other cultures with the help of an Erasmus scholarship.

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This contributed to European cohesion as students from all over Europe gained new insights, not only academically but also culturally and linguistically. These new ideas benefit students in their future career as well as in their personal growth and development.

So this is not a proposal to limit international student exchange. exactly the contrary. But there is another side of the coin. The 300,000 Erasmus students who cross Europe each year leave a heavy carbon footprint.

But while the environmental state of replacing the plate by train is indisputable, we all know that planning a train trip across the continent is by no means easy. In many cases, new tickets are required each time you cross the border. Add to this the much higher average price of train travel, and it is not at all surprising that the majority of students, who live on tight budgets, travel by plane, even if they prefer a more climate-friendly alternative.

We need to address this. We need to empower European youth to make the right decisions for the future. Currently, each Erasmus participant receives a grant intended to cover travel and accommodation expenses. But the scholarship is the same amount regardless of whether you are traveling by train or by plane. This needs to change.

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We suggest awarding a larger scholarship to Erasmus students who agree to travel by train or other means of transportation with lower emissions than aircraft. Perhaps we can also address the problem of having to purchase multiple train tickets by creating a single ticket system, not unlike the Interrail Pass, which allows Europeans to travel unlimited between participating countries for a specified period of time. Why not offer the Erasmus Rail Card, making it easier for students to travel to and from their study destination?

Stopping climate change requires immediate, realistic action. Enabling students to make low-emissions transportation choices despite having limited budgets is exactly that. All universities in Denmark are united in pursuing political support for this idea. We urge those in other countries to add their voice to the call.

We also call on politicians to listen and help students combat climate change through their personal choices while continuing to participate in international student exchanges. With yet another conference on climate change coming to an end, we must spare no effort in pushing for a more climate-friendly future.

Connie Hedegaard is the president of the Universities of Denmark. She was previously the European Commissioner for Climate Action.

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