The road more traveled: tourism's alarming — and growing — carbon footprint

World with traveling icons around it
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Tourist travel has become a way of life for millions of people — a way to rediscover ourselves, learn about new cultures, rejuvenate our minds and souls and much more. The statistics are staggering: There were 1.3 billion international travelers (PDF) in 2017, a number that’s been growing ever since.

A smoke-free industry?

For many places, tourism is a lifeline. The tourism industry contributes more global GDP than that of banking, mining, agriculture and automotive manufacturing. But while the economic contribution of tourism is well-recognized, the impact on the environment and the climate is often overlooked. A popular mindset exists that tourism is a "smoke-free industry."

But tourism is, in fact, very carbon-intensive. Tourism contributes about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) as a result of providing accommodation, dining, transportation, recreational activities and souvenirs to tourists.

Shipping bottled water

Tourism consumption leads to direct emissions produced by tourism firms, such as hotels, airplanes or theme parks, while indirect emissions are the result of upstream suppliers that provide inputs to tourism industries.

An example of indirect emissions is the GHG produced as a result of the international transportation for shipping bottled water from France to the U.S. for the enjoyment of U.S. tourists.

From an economic-environmental perspective, tourism bears a very high environmental cost to destinations. A dollar of tourism earnings produces a carbon footprint that is 25 percent higher than emissions produced through $1 of earnings across all other sectors.

Among all components of our travel consumption, the distance traveled to destinations, modes of transportation (especially the use of aviation), and the level of luxury services are the key variables that govern the overall carbon performance of a journey.

The 'smokestack' of long-haul flights

Based on U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates (PDF), long-haul travel by air between the five world tourism regions represents only 2.2 percent of all tourist trips, but contributes 16 percent to global tourism-related CO2 emissions. In contrast, international journeys by coach and rail account for 6 percent of global tourism volume, but stand only for 1 percent of CO2 emissions generated by all international tourist trips.

Emissions by long-haul aviation outweigh the pollution produced by other components of the journey.

A U.K. backpacker flying all the way to India to stay at budgetary accommodation and participating in non-motorized recreational activities, while enjoying vegetarian meals and using local public transportation, still amounts to a larger carbon footprint to the planet compared to a five-day luxury domestic trip by residents in India.  

The carbon footprint of tourists is expanding

Tourism will constitute a growing part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, expected to increase at 3 percent annually. This worrisome result is due to a combination of factors. From the consumer perspective, people choose to travel more and further, demand more luxury amenities and increasingly rely on aviation.

Combined with a projection of 4 percent annual growth in global visits, tourism emissions are exacerbated by visits (a volume problem) and average emissions per journey (an intensity problem).

How can travelers help?

Mitigating tourism-related emissions requires a hand-in-hand collaboration between travelers and producers. How can travelers help?

Behavior change is key. Sustainable travel involves traveling less, but with an extended length of stay per journey, choosing destinations close to home and using less aviation.

This concept is echoed by the emerging "slow travel" concept — an environmentally friendly way of experiencing journeys. The key ingredients of slow travel include the importance of experiences en route to and at the destination, the enjoyment of local culture, and the use of low-carbon transportation modes based on a strong environmental consciousness.

The essential spirit of slow travel is the pursuit of quality over quantity.

Removing carbon from tourist transportation

The next approach to curb tourism emissions is to actively push for the most effective and the cleanest energy use for tourism business. Tax-incentive or market-based control schemes, such as the EU Emissions Trading System and the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, are being implemented or are about to launch to promote technological improvements in energy use among tourism firms. UNWTO especially emphasizes strategies for the aviation and hotel sectors.

Recommendations included the development and deployment of low-carbon sustainable energy, fleet renewal, removal of infrastructure inefficiencies and refurbishments. These strategies, however, only push tourism energy use to improve at an average rate of 1.5 percent annually — insufficient to offset the emissions from tourism expansion.

Consumer pressure matters

One additional path to accelerate the adoption of clean technology is to take the demand factor into the mechanism, allowing environmentally conscious consumers to drive the growth of green firms.

A successful consumer-driven greening process requires two facilitators: credible and transparent information on how firms decarbonize to increase the consumer’s confidence and an effective information distribution strategy to raise awareness and facilitate green-product purchasing.

For example, in the aviation sector, a third-party accredited system could be leveraged to establish a clear disclosure of carbon intensity indicator per passenger mile among airlines. This indicator is then crafted into easy-to-understand information and subsequently advertised on tourism product purchasing channels.

Transparency

We recommend that a clear disclosure of a carbon intensity indicator be placed along with other key information, such as the departure/arrival time, airfare and seat class in major booking platforms, such as Orbitz or Skyscanner, to facilitate consumers’ willingness to purchase green products.

Considering that the least-efficient airlines use up to 50 percent more fuel (PDF) than best performers in transatlantic flights, choosing an energy-efficient airline could substantially cut a journey’s emissions.   

We are all travelers. It is our responsibility to choose the right companies and to encourage their ecological initiatives to ensure sustainable tourism development.

This is the first of two articles to mark the World Symposium on Climate Change and Tourism (PDF), which convenes this week in Argentina.

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