It should come as no surprise that with more than 100,000 commercial flights a day, the airline industry creates a lot of carbon emissions. Those emissions are potentially more damaging than those from ground-based transportation because most of them are inserted directly into the upper atmosphere where they cannot be absorbed by the normal carbon sinks — trees, oceans, and the earth itself.
But there’s more to the emissions picture than the exhaust from all those jet engines. Researchers at the University of Sydney have spent the last 18 months looking at emissions from the entire tourism value chain, not only those from airplanes but also the hotel and food preparations that cater to tourists. They even included souvenirs in their analysis. In total, more than one billion inputs were considered.
The total amounts to 4.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. Previous estimates varied from 1 to 2 gigatons a year, according to New Scientist. The new figure is equal to about 8% of all global emissions.
Their research has just been published by the journal Nature Climate Change. “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 co-author Arunima Malik. “This research fills a crucial gap identified by the World Tourism Organization and World Meteorological Organization to quantify, in a comprehensive manner, the world’s tourism footprint.”
Co-author Ya-Yen Sun says the research suggests a total re-think about tourism and its emissions impact. “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 study shows the US is the country with the largest carbon footprint from tourism, followed closely by China, Germany, and India. The majority of these carbon footprints are caused by domestic travel. Business travel could not be distinguished from tourism, reports Science Daily. Island nations tend to be impacted more than other places, as wealthy travelers go in search of beaches and warm breezes. In the Maldives, Mauritius, Cyprus, and the Seychelles, international tourism represents between 30 and 80% of national emissions.
The study notes international arrivals and tourism receipts have been growing at an annual rate of 3 to 5% — outpacing the growth of international trade in general. “[The] strongest growth was seen in emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil, as wealthy citizens seek to travel to exotic destinations,” says Malik. The UN World Tourism Organization reported recently that Chinese people were the top tourism spenders in 2017. They spent almost $258 billion — nearly double the $135 billion spent by Americans.
Is there any way to reduce the amount of carbon emissions from tourism? “Flying less is one recommendation,” says Malik. But that is more a hope than a plan. “Growth in tourism-related expenditure is a stronger accelerator of emissions than growth in manufacturing, construction or service provision,” she says.
The real answer lies in what economists call “untaxed externalities.” In essence, the current economic model excuses fossil fuels from paying anything to offset the costs associated with carbon emissions. If there is no economic penalty for bad behavior, it is likely to continue unabated or increase. Only when fossil fuels are required to account for the damage they do will the world get a handle on its emissions problem.