Take Only Photos, Leave Carbon Footprints: The environmental impact of tourism

Bilal EL-Daou

Take Only Photos, Leave Carbon Footprints: The environmental impact of tourism

Luggage? Check. Passports? Check. Memorable vacations require a lot of preparation. Amidst all this planning, few people consider the environmental impact of their travel. A new study breaks down the carbon footprint of global tourism.

Lenzen, Manfred et al. “The carbon footprint of global tourism.” Nature Climate Change. 8 (2018) 522-528. DOI: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0141-x

Shrewd travelers have more resources than ever to plan every detail of their vacations. With everything that goes into planning a vacation, many do not consider the environmental impact of their travel.

Whether it’s a weekend getaway or a month-long expedition, travel creates a carbon footprint. Transportation, food, and other tourism commodities generate greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. As global GDP increases and world travel becomes more accessible, tourism has grown into a $4.7 trillion industry that accounts for eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

As this industry grows, it’s important to understand how our travel habits impact the planet. A new study published in Nature Climate Change by researchers from the University of Sydney attempts to quantifying this impact. Their research takes a comprehensive approach by accounting for all tourism-related emissions sources, including transportation, food production, and shopping. Using these methods to examine travel habits from 160 countries, the researchers estimated that tourism generated 4.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2013. That figure is four times higher than estimates in previous studies.

The study measures tourism impacts in two ways: residence-based accounting (RBA) and destination-based accounting (DBA). RBA calculates emissions by travelers’ country of origin while DBA quantifies emissions at their destination country. The U.S., China, India, and Germany topped the list as the countries with the largest carbon footprint from tourism, though most of their travel is domestic. Meanwhile, travelers from Canada, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Denmark create more carbon emissions from international tourism.

The researchers also recognized that the environmental impact of global tourism is not distributed equally. Ironically, many of the world’s most popular tourist destinations will be the most impacted by climate change. Beach communities will battle rising sea levels. Ski resorts will see less and less snow. We’re drawn to these places for their natural beauty, but climate change could change these destinations forever.

As a country’s overall wealth increases, so too does its citizens’ ability to travel. As a result, wealthier nations exert larger carbon footprints from tourism, often on smaller, less wealthy countries. Small island nations specifically, like the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius, bear a huge percentage of emissions from international tourism. In fact, tourism-related activities in these countries can account for as much as 80 percent of national emissions. These are the very places that will be the most impacted by climate change and associated sea level rise. Although residents of these countries are infrequent tourists, they stand to lose the most if tourism-related carbon emissions continue to increase.

The researchers did not overlook the fact that many of these small nations receive substantial economic benefits from tourism. Rather than abandon the industry entirely, the study recommends switching from high-volume to high-revenue marketing strategies, which would provide the same level of income from smaller numbers of tourists. They also suggested that wealthier countries with high levels of tourism could provide financial and technical assistance to help reduce carbon emissions from tourism-related activities in these countries.

As global GDP continues to grow, so too will tourism rates. During the 2009-2013 study period, annual global tourism expenditures grew from $2.5 trillion to $4.7 trillion, a figure that dwarfs the GDPs of many countries. At the same time, tourism’s carbon footprint grew by 14 percent and now accounts for more carbon emissions than the global energy used by buildings.

Fortunately, being conscious of your carbon footprint does not limit your travel options to staycations. The United Nations World Tourism Organization provides some practical tips for decreasing travel-related carbon emissions such as visiting nearby destinations and taking public transportation.

For those fortunate enough to experience it, travelling is an opportunity to learn, relax, and explore. It allows us to connect with other cultures and become better global citizens. By reigning in carbon emissions from tourism, we will preserve beautiful and diverse vacation destinations for generations to come. More importantly, we will preserve the health, safety, and livelihoods of the people who call these extraordinary places home.

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