Goal 13: Climate Action | The Agenda 2030 and Tourism
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    || The 2030 Agenda and Tourism > Goal 13: Climate Action


    By Ben Lynam (head of communications at the Travel Foundation) & Paul Peeters (professor at BUas)

    Travel and tourism’s carbon footprint

    If we were to provide a scorecard for the travel and tourism industry on progress made towards SDG 13 “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” – and corresponding international climate targets - it would be a low score for the most part.

    Current estimates on tourism’s carbon footprint vary, usually depending on which emissions are included within scope, but tourism accounts for at least 5-8% of global greenhouse (GHG) emissions and up to 10-11% of total climate change. Transport represents some three-quarters of these emissions, with direct energy use associated with accommodation (cooking, heating, cooling) the next biggest source.

    Though the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) claims that tourism growth has decoupled from emissions growth (WTTC, 2023), this is extremely premature. Aside from the temporary blip caused by COVID-19, emissions have been increasing at a steady rate for decades and are expected to continue to rise on a similar trajectory for most of this century. In fact, if things continue as they are, by 2050 tourism related emissions will be up by 73% on 2019 levels. If this “business as usual” scenario is allowed, tourism would use a staggering 66% of the world’s carbon budget remaining, based on keeping the temperature from rising above 1.5°C between 2023 and 2100.

    Of course, this is completely at odds with internationally agreed targets based on the Paris Agreement and reflected in the UNWTO’s Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism (One Planet Network, 2021), requiring us to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 at the latest, to keep global warming below 1.5C. The challenges ahead are enormous.


    What needs to happen?

    Because the travel and tourism industry has been so slow to respond to the climate emergency, and tourism itself (number of trips taken globally) will continue to grow in line with global demographics, we found very few scenarios which will take us to zero emissions by 2050. In fact, we found only one. Decades of inaction means our options have narrowed and we must now do “everything, everywhere all at once” as UN secretary general António Guterres put it. Even in our single “tourism decarbonisation scenario” (TDS) we miss the 2030 target to halve emissions, not reaching that milestone until Spring 2036.

    If we are to have any chance of achieving a sharp fall in emissions as soon as possible, reaching net zero by 2050, we must only grow the areas of tourism that are low emissions or most ready to decarbonise. Electrification of the tourism industry, powered by 100% renewable energy, will be the route to net zero for most accommodation and both surface and water transportation modalities over the coming decades. That will be a huge undertaking, but at least road and rail transport providers, ferry and hotel companies can introduce solutions that are readily available. The difficulty comes with aviation. There are two big issues here:

    1. Aviation is particularly polluting: flying was responsible for 55% of ALL tourism’s emissions in 2019 - but was only 23% of all trips taken. Longest distance trips (over 16,000kms return trip, equivalent to flying from Shanghai to Sydney - or further - and back), were responsible for 19% of all tourism’s global carbon emission, yet accounted for just 1.9% of all trips. And emissions from these longest haul trips are set to quadruple by 2050. So clearly, any plan for decarbonising travel and tourism needs to tackle aviation’s impact.

    2. Aviation is also a “hard to abate” activity: Unfortunately we are many decades off from having global fleets of hydrogen-electric planes, especially for long haul trips (Eurocontrol, 2023). Significant emission reductions will only emerge after 2050, though regional aircraft may start to become zero-emissions in the 2030s (Norris, 2023). A more ready alternative to zero-emission technology is to use so-called sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) which can “drop in” to existing jet planes. But in 2019 the amount of SAF produced globally was only 0.1% of the 300 million tons of jet fuel used in commercial aviation. Increasing biofuels and waste-based fuels are problematic, as there are serious limitations around land use and availability of organic waste. So in our scenario we ultimately use synthetic SAF, also known as e-fuels produced through the “power to liquid” process (Schäppi et al., 2022). The main planetary limitation here is the availability of the renewable energy required to sustainably produce synthetic fuel, particularly in a decarbonising world where demand for renewable energy will increase across all industries. Also, the cost of e-fuel, 4-6 times current fossil fuel, hampers free market introduction.

    The only way to give SAF production the chance to catch up was by assuming a global mandate on SAF blending, starting at 1% in 2025, 4% in 2030 rising quickly to reach 100% by 2050 plus restricting growth on the total number of flights globally so that jet fuel demand remains close to 2019 levels.

    The one measure we didn’t use in our scenario was offsetting. As we discuss in more depth in our report, simply relying on offsets as a substitute for real reductions in carbon emissions and fossil fuel use is hugely problematic and at worst (and increasingly more likely) a diversion of investment from longer term emission reduction strategies that keep the fossil fuels in the ground.

    In summary, for the Tourism Decarbonisation Scenario, we used the following levers:

    • Mandated use of e-fuels for aviation up to 100% in 2050.
    • Investment in electrification of transport and accommodation, alongside massively acquiring/developing renewable energy.
    • Investment in technology and infrastructure (e.g. hydrogen and fuel cell aircraft, high speed rail).
    • Subsidies on ticket prices for sustainable travel modes.
    • A global limit of the number of flights to keep jet fuel demand close to 2019 levels until zero-emissions aircraft take over the skies and renewed growth becomes possible within planetary boundaries.


    How does this change the shape of travel and tourism?

    In our decarbonisation scenario, total revenue, number of trips and guest nights increase roughly in line with business as usual estimates. We can continue to travel – and even fly - to see the world without heavily damaging it. However, future growth comes from the areas of tourism most ready to decarbonise – with a move away from rapid growth in long distance travel and aviation, with the biggest growth areas coming instead from medium and short-haul trips by rail, road, coach and ferry. Those who travel long-haul will take fewer long-distance trips but are more likely to stay longer, in energy efficient accommodation. Flying will also be much more expensive, reflecting the higher costs of SAF, but alternatives will be available and cheaper (e.g. high-speed trains). And travelling shorter distances provides a huge saving.

    There will be huge opportunities for travel and tourism entrepreneurs who “lean in” to the decarbonisation scenario. New destinations will be created and discovered. Through new partnerships and digital technologies it will become easy to book end-to-end travel with multiple stops and modes of transport. While it requires trillions of dollars of investment, this represents no more than 2-3% of overall travel and tourism revenue across the same period - and of course that investment is likely to yield good returns for investors.

    (view this infographic at https://www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Envision-2030-Infographic-2.png)



    Action required today

    Although travel and tourism has been slow to act, there are increasing signs that real change is finally coming, through a hardening of policies and public attitudes. For example, the French government recently banned short-haul flights on routes where other, less polluting alternatives are available. Germany has doubled taxes on tickets for short-haul flights, and in 2021 a government-industry agreement was made to ramp-up Power-to-Liquid e-fuel production, to power the equivalent of 1/3 of domestic flights by 2030. In June 2023, the Dutch government became the first in the world to apply for a reduced cap on airport capacity for environmental reasons, and by 2026, western Norway’s fjords will only allow zero-emission electric ferries, cruise ships, and tourist boats. And there has been a crackdown on “greenwashing” claims being made by travel and tourism businesses, for instance with the lawsuit being brought against KLM and their “Fly Responsibly” campaign.

    However, this is all rather slow and piecemeal. For real change to occur, greenhouse gases from travel to and from destinations must be fully accounted for at a global level. Currently, international emissions from aviation and shipping fall outside of the Paris Agreement. There are now two possible solutions: a global cap on airport slots or bringing international aviation emissions back into national carbon budgets (via “Nationally Determined Contributions” – NDCs, which form part of target 13.2 of SDG 13, which aims to “integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning”). The first option is an opportunity for a fair distribution of air transport among developing and developed countries. Currently, tourism’s benefits are very unequally distributed over destinations in developing and developed countries. Therefore, less-developed economies could still be allowed some growth of slots, delivered by affluent countries. The NDC-solution would allow countries to weigh air travel emissions against emissions from other industries and households. Without these changes, national aviation policies, responsible for airport capacity and bunker fuels, will only record the benefits of growing aviation, without being held to account for the emissions caused.

    As such, many of the recommendations in our report are aimed at high-level governments and policymakers – because we need the investments, incentives and rules of the game to be reset at a global scale. But here are five practical things that all of us working in travel and tourism can do now:

    • Support the call for global coordination of policies, innovation, investment and data whenever you get the chance – at conferences, in articles, in discussions with suppliers, when speaking to ministers. Be a leader – and collaborate with other leaders. Make it clear you want a level playing field when reducing your emissions, and you don’t want to increase your dependency on hard to abate aviation at a time of global decarbonisation. Demand from national governments they support the idea of either bringing international aviation into the NDCs or let ICAO develop a global slot distribution system with limited growth.
    • Evaluate your long-term planning against the decarbonisation scenario. Question any plans that rely on growth from long haul markets, and have greater confidence in plans that tap into the growth areas we identify in the report.
    • Ensure emissions from travel to and from the destination are fully accounted for in tourism plans, and recognise carbon as a “cost” when developing new products and growing markets. For instance, one study of US visitors to Barcelona found US visitors spend 70% more than Europeans, but they have a 100-300% bigger carbon footprint. They would need to spend 3x as much to match the average "income-to-carbon" ratio, or stay an extra 3 weeks to have the same daily footprint as Europeans.
    • Start identifying and providing low and net-zero emissions tourism options. We should be seeing more and more of these coming to market within this decade.
    • Sign and implement the Glasgow Declaration. This is the UN’s global initiative where you can align with others and find support to take action.

    No scenario ever is ‘likely’ because out of hundreds of possible futures, only one will materialise. But the Tourism Decarbonisation Scenario is achievable. We simply have to make it work, starting now, through the decisions we make every day.



    Earlier this year, the Travel Foundation published a report “Envisioning Tourism in 2030 & Beyond” (Peeters & Papp, 2023), in collaboration with the Centre of Expertise in Leisure, Tourism and Hospitality, (CELTH) Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUas), the European Tourism Futures Institute (ETFI), and the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions (NBTC). Paul Peeters and Bernadett Papp were the principal authors. In this article, Paul Peeters (professor at BUas) and Ben Lynam (head of communications at the Travel Foundation) draw on the findings of the research to consider the current situation for tourism and climate action.