27th Sep 2023


'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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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

EU's €23bn for high-speed rail had 'low added value'

Court of Auditors says in critical report that Europe does not have a high-speed rail 'network', "only a patchwork of national high-speed lines, planned and built by the member states in isolation".


MEPs have one last chance to save Erasmus from Brexit

The UK may be leaving the EU, but it is not leaving Europe. British students have a moral right to connect with their home continent and European students should continue to feel welcomed in the UK.


A bigger Erasmus budget to favour inclusion

One of the top priorities of the European parliament's committee on culture and education (CULT), chaired by centre-right German MEP Sabine Verheyen, is to triple the Erasmus+ budget to make it more inclusive and accessible.


How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?

The EU Commission's new magic formula for avoiding scrutiny is simple. You declare the documents in question to be "short-lived correspondence for a preliminary exchange of views" and thus exempt them from being logged in the official inventory.

Latest News

  1. EU Ombudsman warns of 'new normal' of crisis decision-making
  2. How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?
  3. Resurgent Fico hopes for Slovak comeback at Saturday's election
  4. EU and US urge Azerbijan to allow aid access to Armenians
  5. EU warns of Russian 'mass manipulation' as elections loom
  6. Blocking minority of EU states risks derailing asylum overhaul
  7. Will Poles vote for the end of democracy?
  8. IEA says: Go green now, save €11 trillion later

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  2. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  3. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  4. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch
  6. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  2. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  3. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics
  6. EFBWWEFBWW calls for the EC to stop exploitation in subcontracting chains

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us