Global tourism’s carbon footprint much bigger than thought

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Tourism has been revealed to be responsible for almost a tenth of greenhouse gas emissions, with flights a major component, according to a world-first study that quantifies tourism’s footprint across the supply chain, from flights to souvenirs.

According to the research – led by the Integrated Sustainability Analysis supply-chain research group at the University of Sydney – the global footprint of tourism-related greenhouse gas emissions is four times greater than previous estimates.

Co-author Ya-Yen Sun, from the University of Queensland’s Business School and the National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan, said a re-think about tourism as ‘low-impact’ was crucial.

Aviation is main contributor to tourism’s carbon footprint

The report further highlights a gap in the Paris climate agreement, which leaves out tourism, a trillion-dollar industry growing faster than international trade.

“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,” she said.

Small islands attract a disproportionate share of carbon emissions, considering their small populations, through international arrivals, while the US is responsible for the majority of tourism-generated emissions overall.

In recent years, key emitters like the US has been joined by countries like China and India, where the middle class is growing.

Lead researcher from the University of Sydney, professor Manfred Lenzen, said the study found air travel was the key contributor to tourism’s footprint and that the carbon-intensive industry would comprise an increasingly significant proportion of global emissions as growing affluence and technological developments rendered luxury travel more affordable.

“We found the per-capita carbon footprint increases strongly with increased affluence and does not appear to satiate as incomes grow,” Lenzen said.

For holidaymakers, Lenzen said paying for robust, long-term carbon abatement could increase the price of a trip significantly.

A key recommendation by the researchers, hence, is to fly less and pay more, as an example for carbon abatement.

“Carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes – in particular for aviation – may be required to curtail unchecked future growth in tourism-related emissions,” Sun added.

The researchers also recommend financial and technical assistance to help share burdens such as global warming on winter sports, sea-level rise on low-lying islands, and pollution impacts on exotic and vulnerable destinations.

Corresponding author Arunima Malik, from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, said the research took year and a half to complete and incorporated more than an estimated one billion supply chains and their impacts on the atmosphere.

“Our analysis is a world-first look at the true cost of tourism – including consumables such as food from eating out and souvenirs – it’s a complete life-cycle assessment of global tourism, ensuring we don’t miss any impacts.”

Malik added that the research fills a crucial gap identified by the UNWTO and World Meteorological Organization to quantify the world’s tourism footprint.

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