Tourism creates 8% of global carbon emissions – can they be curbed?

The global carbon footprint of the travel and tourism industry has long been a concern, with aviation in particular being a major source of greenhouse gases, and the major component of the estimated carbon cost of tourism. But a new analysis published in Nature Climate Change says that the carbon footprint of the industry is much higher than previously estimated. Gossling and Peeters (2015) estimated that in 2010, the global tourism system caused about 1.12 Gt CO2, or about 2.5–3% of global CO2-equivalent (CO2e) emissions. But the latest analysis by Lenzen et al. (2018) claims that in 2013 tourism’s global carbon footprint was 4.5 GtCO2e, four times more than previously estimated, accounting for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The new assessment is bigger because it includes emissions not only from travel, but also the full life-cycle of carbon in tourists' food, hotels and shopping. 

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In what is claimed to be the most comprehensive assessment to date, this new study examines the global carbon flows between 160 countries between 2009 and 2013. Tourism was also quantified using Tourism Satellite Accounts and UNWTO data for the countries, and life-cycle assessment and input-output analysis were used to quantify the carbon footprint of specific aspects of tourism operations such as hotel, events and transportation infrastructure.

"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," says corresponding author Arunima Malik from the University of Sydney.

As well as the carbon footprint of tourism being higher than previously estimated, the study shows that due to the rapid growth in tourism over the 2009-2013 study period, any increases in carbon efficiency have been more than cancelled out, causing the carbon footprint of global tourism to increase by 3.3% annually or 14% over the period. Half of the 540 MtCO2e carbon footprint growth occurred in high-income countries and due to high-income visitors. Growth in tourism-related expenditure is therefore a stronger accelerator of emissions than growth in manufacturing, construction or services provision.

The USA tops the carbon footprint ranking, followed by China, Germany and India. The majority of these carbon footprints are caused by domestic travel. Travellers from Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark exert a much higher carbon footprint elsewhere than in their own countries. Residents of popular tourist destinations such as Croatia, Greece and Thailand shoulder much higher footprints from their visitors than they exert elsewhere.

In per capita terms, small-island destinations feature some of the highest destination-based footprints, due mostly to international arrivals from affluent countries. In destinations such as the Maldives, Mauritius, Cyprus and the Seychelles, international tourism represents between 30 and 80% of national emissions.

"The small island states are in a difficult position because we like travelling to these locations and those small island states very much rely on tourist income but they are also at the same time vulnerable to the effects of rising seas and climate change," said Dr. Malik.

The map of global carbon movements shows that travelling is largely a high-income affair, and as a result carbon embodied in tourism flows mainly between high-income countries acting both as traveller residence and destinations. The report also highlights that as many countries become more affluent, then the carbon impact of travel by nationals of these emerging countries such as China, Brazil, India and Mexico rises rapidly. According to the research, when people earn more than $40,000 per annum, their carbon footprint from tourism increase 13% for every 10% rise in income.

The study authors warn that mitigation strategies such as encouraging travellers to choose more short-haul destinations, and providing incentives for tourism operators to improve their energy and carbon efficiency, have had limited success. Despite the push for responsible travel behaviour, and improvements in technology, it is suggested that carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes may be required to curtail unchecked future growth in tourism-related emissions.

Co-author Dr 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.

"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.

"Carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes — in particular for aviation — may be required to curtail unchecked future growth in tourism-related emissions."

The global research on tourism and climate change, plus many relevant open-access news articles, can be found at CABI's Leisure Tourism internet resource. A selection of papers found on the database is listed below.

Journal Reference:

Manfred Lenzen, Ya-Yen Sun, Futu Faturay, Yuan-Peng Ting, Arne Geschke, Arunima Malik. The carbon footprint of global tourism. Nature Climate Change, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41558-018-0141-x

Further Reading

Gössling, S., Peeters, P., 2015, Assessing tourism's global environmental impact 1900-2050., Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 639-659 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2015.1008500

Sun YaYen, 2016, Decomposition of tourism greenhouse gas emissions: revealing the dynamics between tourism economic growth, technological efficiency, and carbon emissions., Tourism Management, Vol. 55, pp. 326-336 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2016.02.014

Luo Fen, Becken Susanne, Zhong YongDe, 2018, Changing travel patterns in China and 'carbon footprint' implications for a domestic tourist destination., Tourism Management, Vol. 65, pp. 1-13 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2017.09.012

Meng WeiQing, Xu LingYing, Hu BeiBei, Zhou Jun, Wang ZhongLiang, 2016, Quantifying direct and indirect carbon dioxide emissions of the Chinese tourism industry., Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 126, pp. 586-594 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.03.067

Sharp, H., Grundius, J., Heinonen, J., 2016, Carbon footprint of inbound tourism to Iceland: a consumption-based life-cycle assessment including direct and indirect emissions., Sustainability, Vol. 8, No. 11, pp. 1147 http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/su8111147

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