Climate Change

The tourism industry is closely linked to climate change as it involves the movement of people from their homes to other destinations and the accommodation and servicing of these people in host locations prior to their returning home. Many aspects of this business cycle are accompanied with a heavy carbon footprint and as more time and money is being dedicated to leisure, the tourism industry is playing a larger role in global greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 emissions generated directly from the tourism sector account today for 5% of global CO2 emissions but may be higher (up to 14%) if measured as radiative forcing, i.e. the warming caused by CO2 as well as other greenhouse gases. To understand the magnitude of these numbers it should be noted that if we compare tourism with the emissions of countries then tourism would be the 5th bigger polluter worldwide. In fact the amount of emissions produced by tourism, an activity that each person is not engaged more than 4-5 weeks each year, is bigger than the emissions produced by billions of people leaving and working for one year in big industrialized countries or new emerging economies.

There is tremendous variation in emissions across tourism segments and within individual trips. Trips by coach and rail account for 34% of all trips, but for only 13% of all CO2 emissions (excluding emissions from accommodation/activities). Conversely, long haul travel accounts for only 2.7% of all tourist trips, but contributes 17% to global tourist emissions. As for other trips, emissions can be close to zero (for instance a holiday by bicycle and tent) or amount to more than 10 t of CO2 (South Pole crossing).

By 2035, tourism's contribution to climate change may have grown considerably. A recent scenario developed by Scott et al. (2008) considers different emission pathways, including a 'business as usual' projection based on anticipated growth rates in tourist arrivals, as well as distances travelled by various means of transport. These projections indicate that in terms of the number of trips made, global tourism will grow by 179%, while guest nights will grow by 156%. Passenger kilometers travelled will rise by 222%, while CO2 emissions will increase at by about 152%! In less than thirty years and if no action will be take today the CO2 emission generated by tourism will be more than three times higher than today.

Mitigation in the tourism sector can be achieved by reducing energy use, for instance through changing travel behaviour, by improving energy efficiency, increasing the use of renewable energy, carbon offsetting strategies, as well as changes in business practices. In addition market mechanisms, incentives, taxes and voluntary initiatives are needed for an integrated approach.

While technological innovation has considerable potential to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, this will, given the high growth rates in global tourism, not be sufficient to achieve absolute reductions in energy use and emissions. Behavioral changes (tourists) as well as structural change (tourism industry) is therefore of great importance in reversing the trend of growing greenhouse gas emissions in tourism.

However, it seems clear that for those actors embracing mitigation and being pro-active in addressing climate change, there will be new business opportunities. Current societal trends have already created new markets for low-carbon tourism products, and these markets can be expected to grow in the future.

Doing sustainable tourism business in the era of climate change is not just political correct; it is a competitive advantage.

UNEP is implementing a set of activities under the area of climate change and tourism aiming at enhancing the capacity of public and private stakeholder to design and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies and practices in the tourism sector. Click here for an overview of these activities.

UNEP's climate change programme