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6th Jul 2020

Investigation

'Green' Erasmus+ project sending students by plane

  • Some have suggested that either the first 1,000km - or 18 hours - of a journey should be made by train (Photo: William Hook)

Students from six schools across Europe are learning about the environment by visiting each other, while inadvertently damaging the environment by the plane flights they take to get there.

EUobserver recently learned of the two-year international project, which is part of the EU-funded Erasmus+ programme, and is called C.L.E.A.N. or Community League for Environmental Action Network.

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  • A Youtube video summarising the first year of the environmental C.L.E.A.N. project shows students were flying across Europe in planes. Yet the first lyric of its 'theme song' is: 'If you want to see a clear blue sky / leave your car behind and ride a bike (Photo: Screenshot Youtube)

It involves teenagers from schools from EU members Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK, as well as non-member Turkey.

Although there is no political will to allow Turkey into the EU anytime soon, it participates in certain EU programmes as a candidate country.

According to a description of the project, it aims to make students and teachers "aware of the fact that whilst sustainable living is a global effort, efforts must also be made locally".

"Environmental education, concrete sustainable action, and environmental awareness are therefore the primary concerns of the project," the project description said.

C.L.E.A.N. even has its own theme song, the first verse of which goes: "If you want to see a clear blue sky / leave your car behind and ride a bike / If you want to breathe the fresh cool air / all you need is trees growing everywhere."

However, no mention is made anywhere of the fact that by travelling by planes instead of trains, the students and their teachers are contributing to the problem of excess greenhouse gas emissions.

The project is implicitly also teaching youngsters that intra-EU flights are normal and environmental concerns can be dismissed.

Social media posts and videos about the project show photos of students smiling at airports and the wings of airplanes photographed from inside the plane.

The project appears not to offset its CO2 emissions by, for example, planting trees.

An April 2019 newsletter for a participating school from West Yorkshire described how "seven students and two members of staff spent a week being hosted by their Spanish counterparts in Valencia, Spain".

"[The project] aims at preserving and restoring the environment by encouraging students in finding lasting and substantial solutions," the newsletter said.

It did not refer to the carbon footprint caused by the UK-Spain flights, which amounts to around 2.4 tonnes of CO2 for nine people taking a return flight, according to the carbon emissions calculator on the website of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

The average EU citizen emitted 7.2 tonnes of CO2 in 2017.

In other words, the British students and teachers travelling to Valencia together emitted in one week a third of what the average EU citizen emits in an entire year.

Some students recognised the irony.

"I mentioned it in my application letter: flying is not very environmentally conscious," said Gerdien Kroes, a 15-year old Dutch student participating in the programme, who went to Sicily.

She knew of at least one student who refused to fly for the project, and was hoping to go to England by train.

The transport choices also received criticism from Coline Malot, climate campaigner for the Young Friends of the Earth Europe group.

"Plane travel damages the climate, and it's vital young people are encouraged to take the train and avoid flights as much as possible," said Malot.

"Flying for an Erasmus project should be an exception not the norm - you can get almost everywhere in Europe by train and bus, though the EU should help make it cheaper and easier," she added.

Malot noted that her organisation bans flying "unless your land journey would last longer than 18 hours, for geographical balance".

'It's a struggle'

The irony has also hit home with the national agencies implementing the Erasmus+ projects.

"You are absolutely right to raise this point. We also struggle with it. We have a responsibility," Annemarie de Ruiter admitted to EUobserver.

De Ruiter is team leader for programme and policy at the Dutch national agency for Erasmus+.

She stressed that as a programme promoting mobility across Europe, Erasmus+ will always have an impact.

"You cannot have an experience abroad without travelling," she said.

But she said the national agencies shared the concerns, and have recently started thinking about addressing them.

"The national Erasmus+ agencies are coming with concrete proposals to change the rules and the European Commission is open to hearing them," she also said.

"We are currently debating the new Erasmus+ programme for the 2021-2027 period, and this issue is on the agenda in our working groups," De Ruiter added.

"You could compensate by planting trees, or require that travel until 1,000 kilometres is done by train," she said.

That would however also require close cooperation with the schools and more flexibility regarding school hour requirements, as the Dutch student who went to southern Italy for a week explained.

Train vs. plane

"I would have liked to go to Sicily by train, but I don't think school would have liked it," said Kroes.

"One week away from school was already a lot. By train I would have been gone for two weeks," she noted.

The issue highlights how the impact of EU activities on climate change are still often not considered.

A recent position paper by eight EU members stressed that the EU budget for 2021-2027, currently under negotiation, will be "an important tool" in fighting against climate change.

"As a general principle, the EU budget should not finance any policy detrimental to this objective," said the document, supported by Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.

But it also shows how the EU has so far been unable to make high-speed railway travel a competitive alternative to city flights, despite spending billions of euros.

EU commission: not responsible

Following publication of this article, a spokesperson for the European Commission gave a comment by e-mail.

"To promote exchanges between pupils from different countries and strengthen intercultural dialogue, the 'CLEAN' Erasmus+ project allows young people to meet across borders," the commission said.

"The commission is not involved in choosing the means of transport. This is the responsibility of the individual participants, and for good reason: centrally managing travel arrangements for millions of Erasmus+ participants would be cumbersome and not cost-effective," the spokesperson added.

This article was updated on Thursday 13 June 2019, 16:30, to include a comment by the European Commission

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