Last updated May 7, 2018 at 4:53 pm
Flying away on holiday is far more damaging than we thought.
Tourism is responsible for nearly four times the carbon emissions than previously thought, according to a new analysis by Australian researchers.
Whether it’s jetting off to a beach hideaway, or heading to pound the pavement in Prague, more people are travelling than ever before. And that increase is outpacing efforts to decarbonise the tourism industry.
The carbon footprint of global tourism now accounts for 8% of total human emissions, far above the 2.5% that has been previously calculated. And that spells bad news for some of our favourite holiday spots.
The downside of downtime
Global tourism is now a trillion-dollar industry, and, unsurprisingly, an industry that size has large-scale environmental impacts.
Previous research which has attempted to calculate the carbon footprint of the industry suggested that tourism was responsible for 2.5–3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, those numbers usually didn’t take into account for emissions resulting from transportation choices as well as those from food and beverage, infrastructure, and retail services at destinations.
The new analysis by a group from the University of Sydney, and collaborators including the University of Queensland, used two different accounting procedures which allocate emissions from a tourist’s country of residence to their destination and back again. Taking 18 months to calculate, and involving 189 countries and around one billion supply chains, the analysis is the most comprehensive estimation of the lifecycle of international travel.
They found that tourism accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that the carbon footprint of international tourism increased between 2009 and 2013.
Small islands attract a disproportionate share of carbon emissions due to the numbers of tourists flocking to their shores. In countries such as the Maldives, Mauritius, Cyprus and the Seychelles, international tourism represents between 30 percent and 80 percent of the country’s total emissions.
Overall, the United States is responsible for the majority of tourism-generated emissions, however is increasingly being joined by growing middle-classes in China and India, in addition to a general increase in demand for luxury travel experiences as incomes rise.
“Given that tourism is set to grow faster than many other economic sectors, the international community may consider its inclusion in the future in climate commitments, such as the Paris Accord, by tying international flights to specific nations,” said Ya-Yen Sun, from the University of Queensland’s Business School.
“Carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes – in particular for aviation – may be required to curtail unchecked future growth in tourism-related emissions.”
Minimising our impact won’t come cheap
The results have shown that efforts to encourage less carbon-intensive travel have failed to limit the growing carbon footprint of global tourism.
Already there have been tests of aircraft using biofuel, however there have been no moves to introduce it widely. On the other hand, new generation aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 are increasingly fuel efficient, bringing emissions down.
Those increases in fuel efficiency have the added effect, however, of also reducing travel costs – thereby increasing its accessibility and demand. With the increase in travel outpacing the implementation of cleaner travel options, it is clear that more definitive action is required.
This could include including travel within environmental accords, forcing a global drive for improvement, or carbon trading schemes for aviation. It could also include encouraging tourists to offset the carbon emissions of their travel.
Properly abating the carbon emissions for a flight would make travel significantly more expensive however.
For an average return trip from Sydney to Melbourne, costs would need to rise around $45, based on the average of domestic flights emitting 0.5 kg per passenger kilometre. Given an average offset cost of $50/tonne, the real cost would be 2.5 cents/km flown, or $45 for a 2×900 km return trip.
Internationally, expect a bigger price rise. Long-haul flights emit 0.25 kg/passenger km, translating to a cost of 1.25 cents/km flown, or $425 for a return trip from Australia to Europe.
The scientists themselves already make these payments in order to minimise their impact.
“To make my own travel more sustainable – for future generations – I invest in long-run abatement options at prices that incorporate at least average abatement costs,” said Professor Manfred Lenzen, who led the research at the University of Sydney.
These payments included “…investing in afforestation, rather than assuming only low-hanging fruit, like residential power efficiency.”
Bad news for holiday hotspots
Action may be required sooner rather than later, with some of our favourite holiday spots facing increased threats from climate change.
The wilds of Alaska have seen drastic melting of glaciers, with temperatures increasing around 2 degrees Celsius per century.
One of Australia’s favourite holiday destinations, the Great Barrier Reef, has also been subjected to record bleaching levels.
In order to be able to enjoy our holidays in the future, maybe we need to think about holidaying less.
The research was published in Nature Climate Change