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The alarming intersection between tourism and climate change

With travel having now become a commodity, tourism-related transportation, accommodation, and other activities, have exacerbated the global carbon footprint. Sustainable tourism practices and adaptation strategies are crucial in mitigating the negative effects of climate change; however, are we ready to embrace them?

By Celia Tsigka

We live in a time where travel is more accessible than ever. Particularly after the Covid-19 era of confinement and isolation, it feels like we have almost been consumed by wanderlust. The allure of exploring distant places, meeting diverse communities, and immersing oneself in breathtaking views and natural wonders has transformed tourism into a thriving global industry.

Figure 1: The tourism industry as a fraction of the global economy and the global labor market (Transport-related CO2 emissions of the Tourism Sector - World Tourism Organization, 2019)

However, beneath the surface lies a cruel reality: the complex intersection between tourism and climate change. In 2016, transport-related greenhouse gas emissions accounted for 5% of the total global emissions[1] from tourism alone.

Figure 2: Total transport-related CO2 emission in 2016, in million metric tons, by plane, bus, car and train (Climate Action in the Tourism Sector - World Tourism Organization, 2023)

Although tourism-related transport is one of the main contributors to climate change degradation, it is not the only cause. One must also consider food waste, energy usage in pre-travel logistics, direct and indirect emissions from tourism-related construction, recreational activities that threaten local ecosystems, and so much more.

Therefore, the importance of recognizing and raising awareness on the relationship between tourism and climate change cannot be overstated. But it’s time we moved beyond mere recognition and took decisive action to address this relationship. If we do not, the tourism industry will crumble under the weight of an escalating environmental crisis, and by then the consequences will be irreversible. Tourists worldwide have already started to realize this. More and more, travelers have expressed the need for more sustainable travel options. As a result, numerous sustainable practices are currently being promoted, including staying in eco-friendly lodges, using public transportation, reducing waste, using renewable energy sources, and supporting local businesses and communities[2].

Figure 3: The relevance of sustainability among global travelers in percentages (Driving Climate Action: A Net Zero Roadmap for Travel & Tourism – World Travel and Tourism Council, 2021)

Nevertheless, unless individual sustainable practices translate into policy, we will not be able to achieve long-term structural change. International institutions such as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the WTTC (World Travel & Tourism Council) and UNEP (UN Environment Programme), have declared that for us to meet the Paris Agreement target of increasing global temperatures by only 1.5 °C, we need to rapidly decrease tourism-related emissions immediately. However, the WTTC has come up with a more realistic scenario, aiming for a more gradual reduction while maintaining the same end-goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. In any case, what we know for certain is that we cannot afford to maintain our “business-as-usual” practices.

Figure 4: Tourism carbon emission reduction scenarios in absolute emissions (A review of tourism and climate change mitigation: The scales, scopes, stakeholders and strategies of carbon management - Gössling, S. et al, 2023)

The intersection between tourism and climate change is a delicate balancing act that requires both attention and immediate action. As travellers, citizens of the world, and shapers of the industry, alongside the institutions that govern us, we are the primary stakeholders of preserving the beauty that we so wish to explore, both for ourselves and for generations to come.  

[1] Climate Action in the Tourism Sector (World Tourism Organization, 2023)

[2] Top 10 Tips for Sustainable Travel (Sustainable Travel International, 2021)