Your Summer Vacation Is a Carbon Emissions Nightmare

A new study of tourism supply chains shows that all those flights, zip-line tours and foie gras produce 8 percent of global carbon emissions

Louvre Tourists
Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to raising awareness of global issues, tourism is great for the environment. Travelers who encounter new ecosystems and animals and engage with indigenous cultures might be more willing to protect and advocate for them. But as a practical matter, travel is terrible for the environment, and a new study quantifies just how bad all those plane rides, hotel stays and bus tours can be, reports Matt McGrath at the BBC. According to the new research, the carbon footprint of tourism is three to four times higher than previous estimates, accounting for about 8 percent of global carbon emissions.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, was led by the University of Sydney's Integrated Sustainability Analysis supply-chain research group. The team quantified every tourism-generated carbon emission they could find in 160 nations between 2009 and 2013, from the footprint of flights to the carbon produced from the manufacture and sale of Eiffel Tower tchotchkes. The analysis took over a year, according to a press release, and combined data from 1 billion supply chains involved in tourism. “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," co-author Arunima Malik from the University of Sydney says.

The study found that the tourism industry emits 4.5 gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide​ each year, and that number is growing. In 2009, the team estimates tourism emissions were 3.9 gigatons. By 2025, if things continue at pace, the industry will produce 6.5 gigtons.

Researchers write in the study that the growth in global tourism emissions is greater than that from global manufacturing, construction or service provision.

The upward tick, McGrath reports, came from people from affluent countries traveling to other affluent countries. That’s because someone traveling from New York to Paris for a holiday is more likely to opt for a spa day and a 10 course meal than someone visiting a rural area. “If you have visitors from high income countries then they typically spend heavily on air travel, on shopping and hospitality where they go to,” Malik tells McGrath. “But if the travellers are from low income countries then they spend more on public transport and unprocessed food, the spending patterns are different for the different economies they come from.”

Increasing global tourism by people from China—the world’s top tourism spender—is also spurring tourism emissions, though the biggest source of emissions comes from people visiting the United States and U.S. citizens jetting off to other parts of the world. Domestic travel in the U.S., Germany and India are all top carbon emitters as well.

Small island nations and destinations also have a disproportionate footprint because of the extra distances needed to get there and their reliance on tourism. Tourism in the Maldives, Cypress and the Seychelles accounts for between 30 and 80 percent of those island’s total emissions.

So what’s the solution? Rochelle Turner of the World Travel and Tourism Council says just knowing the impact of travel can help people make lower-impact decisions. “There is a real need for people to recognize what their impact is in a destination,” she says, “and how much water, waste and energy you should be using compared to the local population. All of this will empower tourists to make better decisions and only through those better decisions that we'll be able to tackle the issue of climate change.”

The authors suggest flying less to reduce the greatest source of emissions. And if that’s not possible, lead author Manfred Lenzen of the University of Sydney suggests buying carbon abatement credits to offset the emissions. The credits fund things like reforestation efforts, wind farms and infrastructure upgrades. Many airlines now offer passengers the ability to buy carbon offsets when booking a flight, though the authors suggest that in the future it may be necessary to mandate such offsets since most passengers are not currently paying for them voluntarily.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.