Tourism and the climate change challenge

Tourism and the climate change challenge

By Joe Kelly

January 10, 2012

Kitzbuhel is an international ski resort in the Austrian Alps, renowned for hosting the Hahenkamm downhill race, one of the most famous and most treacherous ski races on the world cup circuit. As a major tourism destination, Kitzbuhel draws people from all over the world who want to experience the mountain first-hand. The valuable tourism dollars fuel a vast economic engine for the surrounding region.

Sadly, the resort is dying a slow death. Within two decades, there simply won’t be enough snow to support skiing on the legendary slopes. That’s the finding of a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the first study to assess the economic impact of global warming on European leisure.

Kitzbuhel is by no means alone. The global tourism industry is arguably one of the most vulnerable sectors to the impacts of climate change. In the Alps, for instance, ski resorts below 1,050 metres – such as the famous Kitzbuhel – will no longer be viable within 20 years (OECD). Glaciers will all but disappear within 45 years and all but the highest ski resorts will close. The economic implications alone will be severe. The annual cost to Switzerland’s winter tourism industry, for instance, is projected to be USD $1.4-1.9 billion by the year 2050. Other countries are expected to fare worse. Ironically, tourism is not just a victim of climate change but a sizable culprit of the problem. In terms of CO2 emissions, tourism’s contribution to global climate change is approximately 5% (UNWTO). If tourism were a country, it would be the 5th largest emitter worldwide, ahead of Germany (6th) and Canada (7th).

By far, the biggest portion of tourism’s CO2 emissions is associated with travel. Approximately three-quarters of the industry’s emissions are generated from visitor travel to and from the destination (UNWTO). Air travel in particular accounts for 40% of tourism’s contribution of CO2 and is the dominant source of emissions for medium- and long-haul travel.Here lies the rub. Travel is a fundamental prerequisite of tourism – you can’t bring the beach to you after all. Yet it is this journey that contributes to climate change the most. Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, has gone so far to suggest that “making selfish choices such as flying on holiday… are a symptom of sin.” Ouch! So much for that dream vacation to Thailand…

While some destinations have begun to take ambitious steps to reduce greenhouse gases, the scale of these reductions is often dwarfed by travel-related emissions. In Whistler, where sustainability is practically ingrained in the DNA, visitor travel accounts for roughly 86% of the resort’s carbon footprint (approx. 78% is from aviation). What this means is any local strategy to reduce emissions will only be a drop in the bucket in terms of minimizing the destination’s actual carbon impact.

For the most part, reducing the emissions from travel is beyond the influence of the destination. It is also improbable that destination marketing organizations will shift their marketing focus from “higher spending” distant markets to “lower yielding” regional markets because of potential opportunities to reduce emissions from air travel.

There is hope that the “sin” of air travel could be saved by technology. Looking into the future, a blended wing body aircraft design could be at least 30% more efficient than conventional airplanes. And fuel substitutes, such as blending algae fuels with existing jet fuel, could reduce flight emissions by 60 to 80%. Eventually, liquid hydrogen produced from renewable sources could provide a near zero-emission solution for air travel. However, the technological improvements needed to curb air travel impacts are decades away from happening. Large commercial hydrogen aircraft, for instance, could be built by 2020 but will probably not enter service until closer to 2040.

In the meantime, rapid growth in air travel continues. The number of air travelers is projected to double from 2007 to 2025 to more than 9 billion travellers per year. The industry would need to cut its carbon intensity in half by 2025 just to keep total emissions at 2007 levels. This is an improvement of 4% per year for an industry that historically achieves 2%. Not impossible, but very optimistic. For the foreseeable future, technology won’t likely provide a “silver bullet” – not in aviation anyway.

So what can an environmentally-conscious travel bug do, short of re-routing that dream vacation to Thailand to a local camping trip in the Interior? One option for climate-friendly travel is to offset the greenhouse gases generated from your flight. So-called “carbon offsetting” involves trading off carbon dioxide emissions for financial contributions to environmentally-friendly projects, such as planting trees that take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or investing in the use of alternative energy sources that do not create carbon dioxide emissions in the first place. While carbon offsetting is a useful option for lessening the carbon impacts of tourist travel, it should not be viewed as a permanent solution for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere over a long time period. What is more, the entire concept of carbon offsetting may be sending out the wrong message to tourists. Although these strategies may alleviate some impacts of tourist travel, they fail to tackle emissions at source by reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Ultimately, meeting the climate change challenge will depend on developing new technologies and fuel substitutes that drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes. Responding to this challenge will be one of the major issues facing the tourism and travel industries over the next several decades.

(Icon photo courtesy of Eurotrip)

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