How tourism must shift to actually address climate change?

Do you know?
Tourism is responsible for an estimated 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is expected to double by 2050

It’s understandable to be concerned about climate change and wonder whether you should travel to far-flung places as frequently as you did before the Covid-19 pandemic. The answer will not please you.
Tourism is responsible for an estimated 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is expected to double by 2050, the year scientists predict will be the tipping point for all kinds of ecological disasters. Our planet will have warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by then. By the end of the century, the figure appears to be 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), with that half-degree making a significant difference. If emissions continue unabated, warming will accelerate, resulting in a marked increase in cataclysmic weather patterns.

So, how can tourism address its carbon footprint? To power air travel by 2050, all sustainable aviation fuels must be used. It can grow, primarily by increasing the share of short-haul trips over time – from 69% in 2019 to 81% by 2050 – while global travelers limit the number of long-distance flights they take each year…at least until 2050.

Once everyone agrees on this impossible-to-imagine scenario, you can resume flying around the world with impunity. You could go even further if you wanted.

That is the unsurprising, yet the troubling, conclusion of a report released in conjunction with COP27 by the Travel Foundation in collaboration with the Centre of Expertise Leisure Tourism and Hospitality, Breda University of Applied Sciences, European Tourism Futures Institute, and the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions.
The longest-distance flights are those that cover more than 9,941 miles round trip, such as New York to Cairo or London to Bangkok. They are the most difficult to decarbonize, according to the report, which is why they must remain constant at 2019 levels for the next 27 years in order for tourism to reach net zero. This is despite an increase in other low-emission modes of transportation, such as electric cars, high-speed trains, and hydrogen buses.

“Our hope is to spark further dialogue and to assist destinations and businesses in recognising that the business-as-usual scenario is not all that likely in the future,” says Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation. He observes that the report’s scenario has its own set of problems and is not entirely realistic.

The report focuses on travel from point A to point B and ignores other significant sources of emissions in the travel industry, such as cruises and embodied carbon in hotel construction.

How it was calculated
Paul Peeters, professor of sustainable tourism transport at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, performed simulations for the report using the “Global Tourism and Transport Dynamic Model” tech platform he developed in 2017, plugging in data he’s been gathering since 2005.

Peeters’ model takes into account the entire tourism industry, including all overnight trips – defined as spending at least one night away from home for vacation, business, or visiting friends and relatives. Through 2100, it addresses up to 20 distances traveled, lodging providers, and major modes of transportation, excluding cruise ships. The simulation includes seven optional factors: sustainable aviation fuel, electrification and energy efficiency, infrastructure improvements, taxes, offsetting, travel behavior, and travel speed.

The first three (fuel, energy efficiency, and infrastructure) reduced emissions the most, but even maximizing them was insufficient to achieve net zero by 2050 when tourism is expected to grow. Even maximizing all seven factors proved insufficient, according to Peeters, resulting in the need to cap long-haul aviation growth at 2019 levels.

“Technically, it is possible,” Peeters says. “The economy is expanding. Your freedom to travel remains essentially unchanged, but the distances vary. You should not fly from the United States to Europe six times a year.”

Long-haul aviation emissions are expected to quadruple by 2050, accounting for 41% of total tourism emissions, according to the report. Long-haul flights have yet to return to levels seen in 2019, according to Peeters.

The report’s main takeaway: It may be possible to act now, but the near-impossible extremes required to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 simply confirm that the tourism industry is in crisis.

To make a dent in emissions, every sector of travel would have to throw everything they had at climate action right away. Travelers will have to think more carefully about how and where they travel. Tourism, like most industries, is moving slowly as it begins to address its negative impact on a planet whose health is critical to its survival.

How this affects you now
After 18 years of relative inertia since the tourism industry’s first climate promises, 300 initial signatories, including the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the World Travel & Tourism Council, committed to the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism in 2021, with the goal of halving tourism emissions by 2030 and eliminating them completely by 2050. This is consistent with the 2015 Paris Agreement among 196 countries to reduce global warming, to which the United States recently recommitted.

As this push intensifies, travel companies and destinations are beginning to change their business models. They intend to introduce travelers to new places and activities.

TUI, a major holiday and tour operator, has begun offering new sleeper train trips as a replacement for six short-haul routes in Europe. Sunweb, a Dutch tour operator, is also planning overnight train trips to Belgium and the French Alps this winter, as well as to the south of France in summer 2023.

On a much smaller scale, Ziptrek is the first adventure outfitter in Queenstown, New Zealand, to provide consumer-facing labeling to show customers what their emissions would be when choosing between competing zipline tours. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the tourism trajectory,” Trent Yeo, executive director of Ziptrek Ecotours, says.

This is commendable. We’re all in this together when it comes to climate change. However, it pales in comparison to the systemic changes that governments and tourism boards must implement.

The trick for the traveller will be to understand your carbon footprint, if you don’t already, and to be able to distinguish between companies that are making a genuine effort and those that are greenwashing their way into your travel decisions., which is powered by the climate-tech platform Choose, will soon display carbon emission listings on flight and hotel results, allowing travelers to filter lower carbon emission results from a range, for example. “It is to go one step further and include individual travelers, who are the bookers, to understand their carbon footprints early on in the decision process,” says Choose CEO Andreas Slettvoll.

Iberostar Group released its own ambitious decarbonisation roadmap on November 8 at COP27, which is partly marketing and partly action.

Eco-efficient marketing
Because consumers alone will not solve anything, governments, hotels, tour operators, cruise operators and the aviation industry need to lead with additional policies to encourage better decision-making.

To that end, the Netherlands is considering an eco-efficiency index for its visitors, says Ewout Versloot, a sustainability strategist working with the tourism board. This means dividing the number of revenues a tourist brings in by the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the tourist triggered traveling there. That index would indicate which long-haul market the government should direct marketing dollars toward to help reduce emission impacts.

“If we realize that we might be less dependent on long-haul source markets, maybe we can identify those markets that might be most valuable to us,” Versloot adds, noting this approach is part of the Netherlands’ road map to climate-neutral tourism that was released in September.

Peeters agrees. Finding markets that are a little shorter haul is desirable; even a 10 percent reduction in emissions is a welcome achievement for destinations, he says. Tour operators might also change the destinations they offer, particularly to travelers generally focused on booking any “sun and sea” experience rather than a specific place.

Winners and losers
This type of destination selection necessitated by the Travel Foundation’s report highlights the inequities that tourism-dependent destinations and regions in the Global South, such as Barbados, Indonesia, and Thailand, as well as all of Africa and South America, would face. When richer countries are the primary source of CO2 emissions, who should bear the economic cost of diverting tourist dollars to destinations closer to them?

“Do we need to cap the Global South, or do we need to cap some of the busiest airports in long-distance aviation?” “This is exactly the conversation we need to have in this unprecedented, collaborative setting,” says Megan Morikawa, global director of sustainability at Iberostar Group. “If we make assumptions about who the winners and losers should be, we may end up making decisions that exacerbate equity issues.”

As things stand, destinations in the Global South are already experiencing outsized human impacts from climate change and are waiting in vain for compensation from wealthier nations. A lack of access to greener technologies that Europe can access, as well as funding for tourism businesses to adapt and decarbonize quickly, exacerbates the problems.

According to Kyle Mais, chairman of the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism, this applies to destinations that are further away from the United States – the region’s primary visitor – than, say, Jamaica. “There will be difficult discussions coming out of COP27, but we are prepared to play our part.”

“Tourism ‘as a force for good’ should be removing carbon,” says Sampson of the Travel Foundation. “A reduction in flying over a period of time has the potential to make tourism genuinely more local and provide a better experience for visitors.” This type of tourism can also provide greater community benefits while reducing some of the unintended burdens imposed by tourists.”

This report makes it clear that the tourism industry must make drastic changes: Individual travelers should question their choices, such as long-distance travel, but it is the travel industry that must change. For the time being, even in the face of a climate crisis that is increasingly affecting destinations, the industry is making big promises while changing little behind the scenes. Without meaningful progress, your once-in-a-lifetime trips may become just that—viable only for you and not for future generations—and your bucket lists a pipe dream.


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