World tourism leaders tackle climate change

Earlier this week, some 600 representatives from over 100 countries, representing all sectors of the tourism industry (public and private sector, NGOs and governments) met in the idyllic Swiss resort of Davos to debate the  global challenge of climate change as it affects and is affected by tourism, at the 2nd International Conference on Climate Change and Tourism. This meeting was organised by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in collaboration with UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation, and included many senior tourism figures. As CABI is a leading information provider in both environmental and tourism literature, I was lucky enough to be able to attend, both to learn more about the issues and consider what contribution CABI may be able to make in the area of information dissemination – one of the components of the Davos Declaration which was drafted at the end of the conference.

To give a full picture of the debate at the conference, and the issues involved, would take a book rather than a blog entry. But I’ll try and give a very broad-brush overview of the issues and conclusions, and will be presenting more detail of some of the ideas presented in CABI’s subscription website, Leisuretourism.com, over the next few days for those whose institutions are subscribers. There were some very impressive presentations at Davos from some leading figures in both the public and private sector, and it was heartening to see areas where governments and private companies are starting to take real action. It was clear that the tourism sector recognises the need for action, not least to avoid being used as a scapegoat for climate change and the target for kneejerk response, as is increasingly the case in some European countries (the UK’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ears may have been burning, as speaker after speaker attacked his doubling of Air Passenger Duty, without designating the revenue raised for any positive action on transport, the environment or climate).

Tourism, like all industries, is a contributer to global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) – some 5% of global GHG emissions come from domestic and international tourism according to best estimates, of which about 40% is caused by air transport. But it isn’t a frivolous industry. While at present the lions share of tourism revenue goes to major developed country destinations in Europe and elsewhere, as a component of national GDP it has by far the most importance in poorer countries. UNWTO statistics show that tourism represents over 70% of Least Developed Countries exports of services, and is the main foreign exchange source of 46 of the 49 LDCs. Tourism was referred to by several speakers as the ‘largest voluntary transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries in history’, with a value far outweighing that from government aid. Tourism is a development tool, and demonising it on issues such as air transport hits hardest those poorest countries which make least contribution to climate change, but are likely to be it’s most serious victims.

So what is to be done? We were told by the WMO and others that the evidence for climate change is now ‘unequivocal’ and that there is compelling evidence that it is largely due to human activity. Whatever action is taken now, futher future climate change is inevitable – what we can try and do however, is to slow it, and hope to stabilise GHG levels in the mid 21st century at levels that will reduce the level of global warming to come. This inescapable global change, however, means that tourism destinations will have to adapt to changing conditions, whether by diversifying their product (Davos itself is a good example of a winter sports destination also developing itself as a conference and leisure destination for the summer), or by an altered seasonal pattern of visitation. But tourism must also be involved in mitigation- reducing its’ own emissions and impacts.

Through improving technology and changing behaviour, mitigation is possible. The conference delegates were given an ‘Advanced Summary’ of what looks like a very impressive report on ‘Climate Change and tourism; responding to global challenges’, by a team of authors led by Daniel Scott of the University of Waterloo in Canada. The report states that under a ‘business as usual’ scenario for the tourism industry, projections of annuual 4% growth in international tourist arrivals would lead to carbon dioxide emission growth of 152% by 2035.

However, if maximum assumed technological efficiencies were achieved for all transport modes, accommodation and activities, this could reduce projected emisions by 36%. Behavioural changes such as shifts to shorter haul destinations, and fewer longer stays (probably much more difficult to achieve than the technological gains, as it depends on influencing consumer behaviour) could reduce emissions by 43%, giving a potential 16% reduction of emissions in 2035 compared with 2005, even given overall tourism growth.

Transport and tourism may find it hard to reduce emissions to the same extent as some other economic sectors, but it can do its bit. If it doesn’t, regulation and taxation may take the lead, with potentially devastating results for some of the world’s poorest countries. The lead given by some participants at Davos gives some hope for optimism. The draft Davos Declaration prepared at the end of the conference managed the balancing act of meeting widespread approval from all sectors – an impressive achievement in itself, given that it was welcomed not just by the tourism industry, but by figures such as Jeff Gazzard of the Green Skies Alliance.

While the final wording of the Declaration will reflect debate at the end of the conference and so is not yet available, one statement called for research and communication networks to ‘present information on causes and effects of climate change based on sound science, in a fair, balanced and user-friendly manner’. By making it easy to access the relevant research information on both the environment and tourism, CABI may be able to play a role here. Many speakers at the conference called for sharing of information on ‘best practice’ in the tourism industry with regards to environmental practices, and at Leisuretourism.com we will continue highlighting the relevent research in this area.

The Davos Declaration and results of the Conference will provide the basis for the UNWTO Minister’s Summit on Tourism and Climate Change, scheduled at the World Travel Market, London, UK, 13 November 2007. It will be submitted for adoption at the UNWTO General Assembly in Cartagena de las Indias, Colombia, 23-29 November 2007, and also will be presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007.

One thought on “World tourism leaders tackle climate change

  1. Morgan March 7, 2008 / 4:22 pm

    It makes me happy to see that we are eventually getting the word out about climate change and so forth!

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