Two things really struck me this week.
The first was a mind-blowing fact which cropped up again and again when I attended the ITB travel trade show, the leading expo of its kind in the world.
2012 was the first year in which more than one billion tourists visited an international destination. Around a seventh of the world’s population travelled overseas. If you think that number is hard to comprehend, then just imagine; this is predicted to reach 1.8 billion by the year 2030.
Speaking at ITB, Costas Christ, editor of National Geographic Travel and chairman of the Nat Geo World Legacy Awards, succinctly defined what this means. This is more than one billion opportunities to use travel as a means for improving this world we live in, or one billion potential disasters if managed unsustainably.
It could happen with responsible tourism operators who work to mitigate their environmental impact, who respect and involve the communities and cultures hosting these travellers, and through this, bring international dollars into local economies.
Or it could be with companies consuming human and natural resources without consideration to the local impacts of this.
The second was a realisation which came while I was writing a travel feature about my recent stopovers in Taiwan, to and from New Zealand.
It goes without saying that long-haul flight is bad for the environment, but I became curious as to how bad. I calculated the total distance covered over the Frankfurt-Auckland return flights.
This came to 39,828km. This converts to a total of 3.48 tonnes of CO2 caused by my first trip back home.
Again, this number is hard to imagine, so let me put it this way:
I weigh a non-too-svelte 85 kilograms, so that equals almost 41 times my weight in Carbon Dioxide. 41 CO2 Joes further clogging up the atmosphere of a planet which has already reached a tipping point for global warming.
While Europe to New Zealand is admittedly the furthest flight anyone could aspire to, just imagine the impact of many of these billion-plus tourists adding to this rapidly exacerbating problem.
You don’t actually have to imagine it; air travel currently accounts for about 2% of global CO2 emissions. This is expected to increase to 15% by 2050.
This is not one of the ‘potential disasters’ Costas was referring to, but instead a pressing challenge we already know we are facing.
But how to address it? There appears to be three overlapping approaches.
1.) Just don’t fly, or cut back as much as humanly possible.
2.) Rely on technological advances such as increasing fuel efficiency and development of alternative fuel sources to solve the problem.
3.) Mitigate the impacts of flights by offsetting the carbon footprint with projects such as tree planting.
Personally, the first option appeals on a number of levels as I love to travel slowly and am sorely tempted to make my next trip back to New Zealand an overland one. Even with all that water in between? Yes, this site gives you a good idea of how. However, I know the appeal is not universal and even if everyone were interested, the time investment required is very often just not possible.
The second point is one loved by the flight industry, as it offers a double-whammy chance to both lower operational costs and to be seen as green in going about it. It’s a step in the right direction but the problem is that even refining aviation technology and fuels will not cut back on overall emissions given the huge projected rate of future fliers. Tomorrow may be the start of the Solar Impulse team’s epic solar-powered attempt to fly around the globe, but we are still a long way off any viable, game-changing solution.
Finally, carbon-offsetting has emerged as a popular option for neutralising the impact of flight by paying for others to undertake carbon mitigating measures, such as planting trees, or more recently, by investing in clean energy technologies in predominantly developing countries. Again, there are doubts here. Do these measures actually fully offset the emissions we cause and are we actually addressing the issue, or just tithing to keep our consciences free without actually addressing harmful behaviour?
A solution may appear to fall into what we Kiwis call ‘the too-hard basket’ – something ignored out of the sheer difficulty of dealing with it. Maybe we should focus instead on helping to foster other socially and environmentally responsible tourism habits in our billion-plus travellers of the future?
However, I’d like to put forward a comment from Aruba’s Minister of Infrastructure, Hon. Oslin Sevinger, who appeared in Friday’s World Legacy awards winners panel. The island nation was the winner in the category “Destination Leadership” for its commitment to switching to 100% renewable energy by 2020.
In response to moderator Costas’ question on how hard it is for tourism to be sustainable, he said this:
“I don’t think it is hard, the change in your mind is the hard thing.”
I am not the first, nor will I be the last person to consider this conundrum, but I would really like to hear the opinion of other travellers on this.
How do you address the issue of the impact of your travels and what can we do in order to ensure we, and upcoming billions of other international travellers, care for the future of the world we set out to see?