Tourism responsible for nearly a tenth of greenhouse gas emissions

The carbon footprint of the global tourism industry has been quantified across the supply chain in the first ever study of its kind. It found that the booming tourism industry emits nearly a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions, with flights a major component. Shopping and food are other significant contributors.

Air travel is a major contributor to the carbon footprint of the tourism industry. (Image credit: Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash)

Small islands attract a disproportionate share of carbon emissions, considering their small populations, through international arrivals, while the U.S. is responsible for the majority of tourism-generated emissions overall.

Four times greater than previous estimates

The research – led by world-leading Integrated Sustainability Analysis supply-chain research group at the University of Sydney – found the global comprehensive tourism footprint of tourism-related greenhouse gas emissions is four times greater than previous estimates, is growing faster than international trade and is already responsible for almost a tenth of global GHGs.

The researchers recommend financial and technical assistance could help share burdens such as global warming on winter sports, sea-level rise on low-lying islands and pollution impacts on exotic and vulnerable destinations.

A key recommendation: fly less and pay more, for example for carbon abatement.

Complete life-cycle assessment

A paper about the findings, ‘The carbon footprint of global tourism’, has now been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Co-author Arunima Malik from the University of Sydney said the complex research took a year and a half to complete and incorporated more than an estimated one billion supply chains and their impacts on the atmosphere.

“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,” Malik said.

“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.”

Need to rethink tourism

Co-author 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.”

Air travel is key contributor

Lead researcher from the University of Sydney, Manfred Lenzen, said the study found air travel was the key contributor to tourism’s footprint and that the carbon-intensive industry would comprise an increasingly significant proportion of global emissions as growing affluence and technological developments rendered luxury travel more affordable.

“We found the per-capita carbon footprint increases strongly with increased affluence and does not appear to satiate as incomes grow,” Lenzen said.

For holiday-makers, Professor Lenzen said paying for robust, long-term carbon abatement could increase the price of a trip significantly.


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