Whether it’s a skiing holiday on snow-capped Alpine mountains, a winter sun excursion on white-sand beaches in the Caribbean, or even a whale watching experience off the coast of Iceland, the tourism industry is inextricably linked to climate.
As a concept, it relies heavily on the natural wonders and various ecosystems that exist around the world, but as climate change puts these natural features in the firing line, the tourism industry must also accept that it is very much part of the problem, and find a way to combat climate change.
Tourism’s global carbon footprint accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with almost half of those emissions a result of aviation. And it’s these carbon emissions that are putting glaciers, coastal areas and local communities at risk, the very things that drive tourism in the first place.
However, the answer isn’t to simply ‘put a stop to tourism’ as we essentially saw during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Tourism accounts for around 10.8% of the worlds GDP, and is essential for millions of livelihoods around the world.
If climate change continues at the same pace however, there will likely be no tourism industry in decades to come. So it’s clear that whilst tourism is set to continue, it needs to find a way to combat climate change not only to protect itself as an industry, but also the natural places we value so highly, and the communities who will be hit hardest by an ever-changing world.
In this article, we’ll outline just how tourism is contributing to climate change, before explaining the importance the industry should have in combating it, along with specific examples of where the travel community is already taking action.
Tourism and the Travel Issue
To begin to figuring out how tourism can combat climate change, we first need understand the effect that tourism has on the environment. As we’ve already mentioned, tourism is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s not where the adverse effects end.
Large hotels put enormous strain on local resources such as water and energy, cruise liners cause huge damage to coastal areas due to erosion and the various pollutants they leach into the sea, and often unique natural environments such as coral reefs are damaged due to reckless tourist activity and a change of acidity in the ocean.
How much does aviation contribute to climate change?
Despite all these other factors that tourism contributes, it is aviation that is by far and away the single biggest issue when it comes to travel and climate change.
The IPCC has estimated that aviation is solely responsible for 3.5% of all human-created climate change, which gives you an impression of just how damaging flying can be when it comes to global warming.
And with the number of people flying expected to double every 12.5 years thanks to a huge growth in demand from the growing middle classes of countries like China, Brazil, Russia and India, the problem looks, for now, as if it will get worse before it gets better.
As we’ve already touched on, simply stopping flying is a far too simplistic and potentially hugely damaging solution. Whilst an immediate cessation of commercial flights would undeniably reduce the overall carbon footprint that tourism produces, it would also immediately sever any business and income to economies and communities that rely on tourism.
Of course, the dream is for a form of sustainable aviation, which may sound like science fiction, but steps are at least being taken to try and develop a world where flying can be more environmentally friendly, with less of a reliance on fossil fuels.
How much does accommodation contribute to climate change?
Large, luxury hotels require a huge amount of resources to run. In fact, hotels alone contribute 1% of global emissions.
Many contribute towards putting a strain on local resources, denying local communities adequate water, over facing them with waste, and promoting irresponsible tourism whereby visitors spend virtually all their time and money in their hotel, leaving only to visit overcrowded sites in large groups.
All of this is especially true of large, luxury hotels, particularly those that belong to chains, as by staying in these, very little money spent by travellers actually goes into the pockets of the local community.
At this point it is important to note that climate change is not just an environmental issue, it’s not only the natural world that is at risk. Climate change is also one of the most pressing social issues facing the world today.
As is typical with most global challenges, it’s the worst off who will bear the brunt of climate change. Not only are they the people who will first feel the effects of water shortages, drought and famine that are brought on by environmental changes, but with the loss of tourism some of the least developed countries in the world will experience the loss of a vital source of income.
Indigenous peoples, those who work closely with the land and with nature, will find they lose not only the fertility of the land they work with and the biodiversity that feeds and shelters them, but also the natural world that provides them with a cultural identity.
The cultural issue
Tourism done wrong is incredibly damaging to the very local communities that travel is supposed to benefit.
At its worst, the tourism industry can place a huge strain on local resource (as we have mentioned above), destroy local habitats and important cultural sites as destinations throw up amenities designed specifically for tourists, and dilute a local culture to the point that the population completely loses its identity and is forced to move elsewhere. All whilst putting very little money into the pockets of the people who actually live locally.
A lot of local livelihoods depend on thriving biodiversity, so indigenous communities will often be involved in protecting their environment, not only in the interest of sustaining their way of life, but also in order to preserve what is often the very thing that attracts visitors in the first place.
By travelling irresponsibly and diluting this culture, tourists can put this protection for the environment at risk, so it’s absolutely vital that travellers, tour operators and locals alike share a common goal in protecting authentic, local culture, by ensuring these communities benefit from travel in an economic sense.
How Tourism can reduce its Carbon Footprint
It’s clear then, that the tourism industry needs to make fundamental changes, first in order to reduce the size of its carbon footprint, then to empower and benefit local communities around the world.
In this next section of the article we will outline specifically how the tourism industry can take steps to reduce its carbon footprint.
It is impossible to know how to decarbonise without first knowing how much carbon you are responsible for releasing. Once you understand the emissions your company releases, you can identify places where you can reduce your output of greenhouse gases.
Most travel businesses are already doing this, as there are a number of free tools companies can use to measure their carbon footprint.
Once companies understand their carbon footprint, they can begin to manage and reduce their carbon emissions in a variety of fields. These include but are not limited to:
- Accommodation and food
Obviously, tourism is always going to involve travel. And the fact is, it’s this physical movement of persons around the planet that accounts for around 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions that the tourism industry produces, with aviation being the largest culprit.
Clearly changes need to be made in the ways people travel to holiday destinations, particularly when it comes to flying.
There are already a variety of ways in which the consumer can fly in a slightly more sustainable way. Flying economy, taking one single flight rather than a number of connecting flights and paying to offset the carbon added to your footprint when you fly are all methods that are readily available and encouraged by most airlines.
We can also encourage travellers to take no-fly holidays, to explore their home country or travel to nearby destinations by train.
In reality however, with the almost exponential growth of new consumers looking to explore distant corners of the earth and the pragmatic truth that people are always going to fly, it is going to require fundamental changes to how aeroplanes themselves function that provides a solution for sustainable flying.
After all, airlines don’t want to see the environment in decline. The loss of the very habitats and landscapes that motivate people to travel would be detrimental to the airline industry, so they are compelled to join in the fight against climate change for at least this reason, if not the intrinsic value of protecting the planet.
One potentially promising line of work is the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), which would take the place of the fossil fuels currently used in aeroplanes. Whilst it is a new and expensive technology, airlines like KLM and Delta have already taken steps to adopt the new fuels, which can cut the carbon emissions on a flight by up to 80%.
Accommodation and food:
We’ve touched on how problematic certain types of accommodation can be when it comes to climate change and tourism, and in fact a fifth of the tourism industry’s carbon footprint comes as a result of the accommodation people need when they travel.
To match the targets set by the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance of reducing its carbon emissions by 90% by 2050, the consumer and the hospitality industry need to work in tandem.
Consumers need to be discerning when choosing where to stay, opting for smaller, independently owned accommodations rather than enormous luxury hotel chains.
The consumer has the power to affect industry-wide change. If priorities switch to finding accommodation that is run by locals who avoid putting a strain on local resources, then hotels will adapt to suit this new demand.