Zoom University – Better for the environment?

By Kaspar Ip 22 December, 2020

Ip, CWR's intern & an international student himself, does the math to see which is better - flying vs Zoom uni?

HK has high number of students studying abroad compared to other nations - annual flying from overseas students can power the yearly energy usage of 11,193 homes in the US
The retreat to Zoom University due to COVID has a silver lining - by not travelling 1 student can save 2.728 metric tonnes of CO­­2e/yr while still receiving their education
Although the international education experience is more than a qualification, is the environmental cost too high? Perhaps a hybrid distance & in-person education is the future

Christmas is the time when families come together and have a good time. As a university student studying abroad, it is always an exciting time for me to see my family and friends while enjoying the holiday spirit.

I have been forced to enroll at “Zoom University” since I can’t fly due to COVID-19

This year however, things have been very different for me. Just like many other university students in the world, I have unfortunately been enrolled in “Zoom university” due to the pandemic. Having experienced almost a full year of online education, as like all the other students around the world, it makes me wonder how has our online education changed our world? So, here is my review of the international university education, the 2020 pandemic edition – travel, streaming and emissions.

Studying abroad is a great way to foster cultural exchanges and it opens new pathways for one’s future, yet it also created a whole new generation of students that rely heavily on their binge-flying habits.

Hong Kong has a lot of of us study abroad students…

…curious, I did the math to see what this change meant for emissions

According to the data from UNESCO, Hong Kong has a total number of 36,420 students studying abroad. With the UK being the top destination having more than 16,000 Hong Kong students, Australia is the next highest with 9,600, followed by the US and Canada with 6,900 and 2,100 respectively. That is a very high number when compared to other nations, for example, Australia only has 13,319 tertiary-level students abroad, which is less than 40% of Hong Kong’s amount!

To put this travel into an environmental perspective, we picked some popular destinations and did the emissions math.

… for reference purposes, 1 round-trip flight to London is the equivalent to one third of the energy an average home in the US would consume in a year or is the equivalent of consuming 6.5 barrels of oil.

As if those numbers alone are not shocking enough, they are only the environmental footprint for 1 round-trip flight. Multiplying them by the corresponding number of students to each destination, that would account for a grand total of around 97,000 metric tonnes of CO2e. To put that into perspective, the annual flying from Hong Kong’s oversea students alone can power the yearly energy usage of 11,193 homes in the United States!

That was when we used to travel, so now, what about this “zoom university” year?

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all our lives, putting a stop into majority of the face-to-face interactions. With the closure of schools and universities as well as other learning institutions, educators and students adapted and continued with lessons and lectures through online platforms and resources.

Internet usage & video streaming have skyrocketed globally

With the transition to online education, internet usage and video streaming have skyrocketed globally. To illustrate the environmental impact of online education, I will be using Zoom, one of the most popular video conferencing platforms, as an example for calculation.

An average full-time university student has around 15-20 hours of class time per week. With an additional 5 hours accounting for office-hours or group meetings, the per student screen-time would be 20-25 hours weekly.

Based on the official hardware requirement for operating Zoom as well as an article illustrating the amount of data used by Zoom from Reviews.org – a popular tech-review website, here are the results:

1 academic year on Zoom = 0.092t CO­­2e


Multiplying the above numbers by 8 months, we can then find that the total data usage for one academic year is ~2,160 GB. Using the estimate of 0.06 kWh/ GB from a study on the electricity intensity of internet data transmission, a year of online education per person will require 129.6kWh of electricity which equates to only 0.092 Metric Tonne of CO­­2e!

So, 0.092 metric tonne versus 2.82 metric tonnes, simply by not travelling I have saved 2.728 metric tonnes of CO­­2e this year.

I saved so much by just not making 1 roundtrip flight and received the same education but I did miss the in person opportunities…

…is the environmental cost of an international student too high?

Meanwhile I have received the same quality and qualification of education one might obtain in a year of studying abroad. Of course, this is just a rough estimate and there are still so many aspects of life that they are unaccounted for. Yet this considerable differences in the environmental footprint perhaps can inspire us to reevaluate this concept of “international education”.

While distance-learning and online education have achieved a similar outcome for overseas students without the logistics of physical relocation, the on-paper qualification is just a small part of the international education experience. Overseas education remains popular among Hong Kong students, as these programmes offer unique networking opportunities and employment prospects away from home.

These calculations are not done for finger-pointing purposes, they simply shed light on an issue that we seldom discuss and that COVID-19 has made us think about. However, I must admit that evaluating my environmental footprint as an international student puts myself in quite an uncomfortable position. Despite claiming myself as someone that cares deeply about the environment, numbers don’t lie. They tell the cold, hard truth that the environmental cost of my international student lifestyle simply outweighs the benefit of my constant travelling.

Perhaps a hybrid of distance & face-to-face should be the future of education

As we move forward it is crucial to reflect on our experience throughout the past year. The “new normal” has demonstrated how fast we can adapt to a new situation and maybe those habits that we picked up could be differently integrated back to our “normal” lives. Some parts of the “new normal” will linger even without the imminent risk of a pandemic. And perhaps a hybrid of distanced and face-to-face learning will emerge as the new form of sustainable education.

Further Reading

  • Green Clouds One Day – How does watching online videos exacerbate our climate crisis? Are big tech brands like BAT and FAAG doing enough to source more renewable energy? CWR’s Chan reviews the landscape – it looks like we will see “green clouds” one day
  • YouTube: The Dark Side Of Going Viral – We are already addicted to the internet, YouTube, Netflix, apps and still forecasts show major growth. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan unwraps the darkside of our runaway data use
  • Electronic Brands: Sustainable Or Not? – The new CLSA U® report cautions that current brand strategies only focus on short-term profits despite looming risks. Is this sustainable? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan looks at what leaders like Apple & Samsung are doing across greening supply chains, recycling and more
  • Thirsty Clouds & Smartphones – Thought you were being more environmentally friendly by accessing emails online rather than printing them, think again! Check out how water thirsty & energy hungry our cloud addiction is

More on Christmas

  • Treasure8 – Deploying Nutrition For Humanity – Hear from Treasure8 Co-CEOs Derk Hendrikson & Timothy Childs on how they are taking food waste and upcycling it into nutritious food resources for people
  • Questions for A Bottled Water Tycoon – Nongfu Springs is China’s biggest bottled water comapny but a deep dive on its water strategy leaves CWR’s Yuanchao Xu with questions for its founder & water tycoon
  • The Hidden Cost of Music – Are you endlessly streaming your favourite Christmas songs? Well, that could get you on Santa’s naughty list as CWR’s Dr. CT Low shows the cost of doing so & what you can do better for the climate
  • The Gift Of Physical Climate Risk Assessment – Climate risks are already here. Companies, investors and banks should treat themselves to a climate risk assessment, like 427’s, as their Natalie Preudhomme, Communications Director, shares
  • Climate Change – Never Too Late Too Start – From YOLO to deeply concerned, CWR’s Ronald Leung, the latest CWR team addition, shares how his work at CWR has woken him up to the imminent climate risks & how Hong Kongers must act now
Kaspar Ip
Author: Kaspar Ip
Kaspar is heading into his final year of specializing in sustainability in the urban environment at the University of British Columbia. During his time in CWR, Kaspar is also working on research to lower emissions in ICT sector as well as exploring the topic of urban resilience in Hong Kong where he is applying his knowledge on climate science and GIS analysis to map climate change impacts. This builds on his various spatial analysis projects on sustainability in Vancouver. Such experience has reinforced his aspiration in pursuing a career in urban planning after obtaining his bachelors’ degree in geography.
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