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Flights are just one of the ways tourism contributes to climate change. Contrail image from

Guilt-free tourism: would you pay $11 for a carbon-neutral holiday?

Travelling carbon free for about the cost of a salad in New York? Yes, please.

This is the good news that’s emerged from a study that found the damaging effects of tourism emissions could eventually be eliminated if travellers paid an average of just US$11 per trip.

Our research, published recently in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, was a collaboration between researchers from the universities of Waterloo (Canada), Lund (Sweden), Canterbury (New Zealand), and NHTV Breda (Netherlands).

Michael Hall, Author provided

Tourism: a carbon-intensive industry

Tourism is highly dependent on fossil fuels, and is a significant contributor to climate change. Recent conservative estimates conclude tourism, including transport, accommodation, and activities, contributes approximately 5% of total anthropogenic emissions worldwide. That’s more than all but five countries of the world.

Despite improved energy efficiency, though, absolute emissions from tourism continue to expand. This is because of strong growth in international tourism and increasing numbers of people travelling, as well as travel frequency and distance.

Our study projected that if tourism continues on its current business-as-usual pathway then CO₂ emissions would reach three billion tonnes by 2050, an increase of 135% on present emissions.

If the tourism industry is to achieve even the high end of targets to limit warming to below 2℃, it needs to cut present emissions by up to 70% by 2050. Using scenario modelling, we looked at what kinds of offsetting and abatement measures could achieve such a reduction.

Strategies for decarbonisation

We argue in our paper that the most effective strategy for tourism to meet emissions reduction targets involves not just targeted carbon offsets but also strategic energy saving and renewable energy initiatives within the industry.

Abatement of emissions from tourism can be achieved through investments in energy efficiency and the introduction and expansion of renewable power and biofuels. Yet the cost of emissions abatement varies by sub-sector.

Accommodation, which is responsible for about 27% of emissions, can actually save money by reducing emissions. The aviation sector (52% of emissions), on the other hand, has the highest abatement cost because of limited options for low-carbon fuel substitution.

Two key findings emerged from the analysis. First, investing in abatement (primarily energy efficiency and renewable energy) and using offsets to strategically target the challenges of fuel switching in aviation was the most cost-effective strategy.

Second, the cost of a 70% emissions reduction target is manageable given the total size of the tourism economy.

Cheaper than existing tourism taxes

The decarbonisation of global tourism requires significant investments in absolute terms – starting at just under US$1 billion annually, beginning in the 2020s. But the relative cost of this investment is actually less than 0.1% of the estimated global tourism economy in 2020, increasing to 3.6% in 2050.

If the cost was divided equally among all domestic and international trips it works out at about US$11 per trip.

Even if the costs were divided only among the 1.8 billion international arrivals expected in 2030 the cost per arrival would still be only approximately US$38. In other words, on a user-pays basis, the cost to have a tourism industry compatible with global climate policy is still less than many already existing tourism taxes and fees.

Decarbonising tourism could be within our reach. tomypelluz/flickr, CC BY-NC

Importantly, these existing charges have had little, if any, impact on the overall rate of growth of the sector.

What if the tourism industry doesn’t take action?

Spending by tourists is vital to the economies of many countries and creates up to one in 11 jobs worldwide. Tourism is how billions of people experience places and cultures as well as visit family and friends.

It can clearly be a force for economic and social good, but the industry must also consider its contribution to climate change. In fact, there are substantial risks for the tourism industry if it does not take action on climate change.

Many tourism destinations, events and activities are at risk from climate change, ranging from the ski industry to beaches and coral reefs, and from charismatic species to iconic cultural heritage. In Australia, the greatest immediate concern for the impacts of climate change on tourism perhaps lies with the future of the Great Barrier Reef. In Finnish Lapland, which promotes itself as the home of Santa Claus, the concern is a lack of snow for the all important Christmas market. Imagine Father Christmas without snow?

There are increased public and political pressures to keep global warming to no more than 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. Industries that do not reduce their emissions and contribute to decarbonising the global economy face substantial reputational risks.

The study suggests that it’s not peak oil that’s a risk to future tourism development, but peak carbon. Importantly, the tourism sector can be compatible with a decarbonised global economy.

Investing in low-carbon tourism is really in the interests of both the providers and the users of tourism services. So travellers and the industry need to ask: are we willing to pay less than the price of an extra checked bag to ensure future generations can enjoy many of the sights that give us so much inspiration today?

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