Strategies to mitigate climate change often center on clean technologies, such as electric vehicles and solar panels, while the mitigation potential of a quality educational experience is rarely discussed. In this paper, we investigate the long-term impact that an intensive one-year university course had on individual carbon emissions by surveying students at least five years after having taken the course. A majority of course graduates reported pro-environmental decisions (i.e., type of car to buy, food choices) that they attributed at least in part to experiences gained in the course. Furthermore, our carbon footprint analysis suggests that for the average course graduate, these decisions reduced their individual carbon emissions by 2.86 tons of CO2 per year. Surveys and focus group interviews identify that course graduates have developed a strong personal connection to climate change solutions, and this is realized in their daily behaviors and through their professional careers. The paper discusses in more detail the specific components of the course that are believed to be most impactful, and the uncertainties associated with this type of research design. Our analysis also demonstrates that if similar education programs were applied at scale, the potential reductions in carbon emissions would be of similar magnitude to other large-scale mitigation strategies, such as rooftop solar or electric vehicles.
Originally published February 4, 2020 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0206266