Can you be a sustainable tourist without giving up flying?

It should be possible to enjoy your holiday and give the planet a break. lazyllama/Shutterstock

Australians love to travel. About 9 million Australians travelled overseas last year, 60% of them on holiday. For most tourists, sustainable development and climate change were probably not high on their list of concerns. But increasing numbers of travellers are concerned about these issues.

Is sustainable tourism possible when tourism accounts for about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions? If the tourism sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse emitter in the world.

By far the largest source of these emissions is transport, particularly air travel. If the current growth trend continues, these emissions could triple within 30 years.

On the other hand, tourism is incredibly important for local development. Indeed, it offers the only sustainable means of economic development for many developing countries. The UN World Tourism Organization says that tourism will be important in reaching the Millennium Development Goals, which include ensuring environmental sustainability and eliminating extreme poverty.

Exactly how the tourism industry can best help to meet these goals is a matter of debate. However, it seems clear that tourism can make a positive contribution to conservation efforts around the world as well as boosting local economies, although you do have to pump out greenhouse gases to get there.

To travel or not to travel, that is the question

What options does the environmentally concerned tourist have? Is the only responsible action to restrict holidays to places that can be reached by foot, bike, or train? This is certainly not impossible, but it seems unlikely that enough people would be willing to do it to deliver much of an impact. And even if they did, they would deprive many developing countries of the economic and environmental benefits of tourism.

As the UN Environment Programme points out, tourism is one of the main ways to pay for nature conservation and protection. For example, the Orangutan Foundation project in Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park receives US$45,000 (A$51,000) every year from wildlife travel agency Steppes Discovery, a member of the Tour Operators Initiative for Sustainable Tourism Development. This money pays for rangers, the care of orphaned orangutans, and helps fund the park.

So is it possible to enjoy an overseas holiday without contributing to catastrophic climate change? Will our enjoyment of a remote tropical beach literally submerge it under rising sea levels? Is there a balance between the environmental costs of tourism and its benefits? Sustainable tourism arguably means working out what this balance is, and then ensuring we stay on the right side of it.

Carbon offsets: atoning for sins of emission?

Reducing emissions growth projected in a “business as usual” scenario requires changes both in consumer behaviour and in the way the tourism industry is structured.

Carbon-offset schemes are not universally supported, and can be confusingly complex. It is important to understand that there are uncertainties involved in such offset schemes. Because they aim merely to offset emissions rather than reduce them, some people reject these schemes altogether as an option. Some even portray the notion of offsetting as a modern-day indulgence for climate sins.

Some of the criticisms are valid. But purists miss an important point: many activities that are vital to global development goals are unlikely ever to be emissions-free. Tourism is one such activity.

Carbon-offset schemes and the standards by which they are accredited certainly need monitoring and regulation. Ultimately this will need to be done within the framework of a global climate treaty. They are, however, a positive example of business opportunities generated by the demand for low-carbon tourism options.

For the individual tourist, offsetting is increasingly easy and cheap. According to the Qantas calculator, offsetting a round-trip from Melbourne to Los Angeles only costs about A$25 at present. Flights within Australia can be offset for as little as the price of a cup of coffee.

Other tourism activities can be offset too – rental car firm Europcar, for instance, offers offsets purchased though carbon forestry company Greenfleet.

Other companies offering offsets in Australia include Climate Friendly, Carbon Planet, and Carbon Neutral. These firms engage in many types of offset projects including forestry, wind power, and others. Our Planet Travel recommends that consumers look into the types of projects an offset scheme uses, to ensure it is one they support.

Forestry projects, in particular have attracted a lot of attention. It is generally accepted that forest growth can store carbon dioxide, and an analysis of forest carbon sink projects found that this approach can be useful in meeting emissions-reduction targets. However, these projects come with inherent uncertainties: if a forest burns, for example, the stored carbon is re-emitted.

Of course, climate change itself may exacerbate the risk of such fires. On the other hand, timber harvested from forestry projects is safe from bushfires and could still be counted towards the offset total, because it still contains much of the carbon from the tree. All of these different factors will need to be studied carefully, preferably at an international level as part of an agreed climate treaty.

A guilt-free pleasure?

Given that offsets seem to be a way of having one’s cake and eating it too, these schemes should appeal to tourists. By offsetting, they can enjoy their holiday and contribute to global development while at the same time atoning for their sins of emission. Unfortunately, according to Qantas, only 5% of air travellers currently choose to offset.

Sadly, this is an area where consumer choice may not be best and responsible governments as well as corporations need to take the lead. Ecotours, for example, often bundle carbon offsets into their price. It can only be hoped that airlines will follow suit.

Ultimately, however, what’s required is a clear global framework for reducing emissions, in which offsets can play a part. We need, in other words, an international climate agreement. The devil, as always, will be in the details.