Commentary: Tourism's impact on the environment is larger than we think

Commentary: Tourism's impact on the environment is larger than we think

It may be getting cheaper to travel but tourism's carbon footprint is also getting higher, says one observer from the University of Queensland.

Japanese tourists pose in front of The Statue of Liberty on the 130th anniversary of the dedication
Japanese tourists pose in front of the Statue of Liberty on the 130th anniversary of the dedication in New York City, US on Oct 28, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

SYDNEY: The carbon footprint of tourism is about four times larger than previously thought, according to a world-first study published on Monday (May 7) in scientific journal Nature Climate Change.

Researchers from the University of Sydney, University of Queensland and National Cheng Kung University – including ourselves – worked together to assess the entire supply chain of tourism. This includes transportation, accommodation, food and beverages, souvenirs, clothing, cosmetics and other goods.

Put together, global tourism produces about 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, much more than previous estimates.


Tourism is a trillion-dollar industry, and is growing faster than international trade.

We scanned over a billion supply chains of a range of commodities consumed by tourists to determine the true levels of emissions produced by tourism. By combining a detailed international trade database with accounts tracking what goods and services tourists bought, we identified carbon flows between 160 countries from 2009 to 2013.

Our results show that tourism-related emissions increased by around 15 per cent over that period, from 3.9 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon-dioxide equivalent to 4.5Gt. 

This rise primarily came from tourist spending on transport, shopping and food.

We estimate that our growing appetite for travel and a business-as-usual scenario would increase carbon emissions from global tourism to about 6.5Gt by 2025. This increase is largely driven by rising incomes, making tourism highly income-elastic and carbon-intensive.

FILE PHOTO: Chinese tourists wait for their bus on a street in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district
Chinese tourists wait for their bus on a street in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district, Japan, October 4, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo)


In the study, we compared two perspectives for allocating responsibility for these emissions: Residence-based accounting and destination-based accounting. 

The former perspective allocates emissions to the country of residence of tourists, the latter to the country of destination. Put simply, are tourism-related carbon emissions the responsibility of travellers or tourist destinations?

If responsibility lies with the travellers, then we should identify countries that send the most tourists out into the world, and find ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their travel.

On the other hand, destination-based accounting can offer insights into tourism spots (like popular islands) that would benefit most from technology improvements and regulations for reducing the carbon footprint of tourism.

Tracking emissions under destination-based accounting over a specific period could help researchers and policymakers to answer questions about the success of incentive schemes and regulations, and to assess the speed of decarbonisation of tourism-related sectors.

Tourists enjoy sun in a terrace at Palma de Mallorca's port
Tourists enjoy sun in a terrace at Palma de Mallorca's port, in the Spanish island of Mallorca, May 23, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Enrique Calvo)

So how do countries rank under the two accounting perspectives? 

The United States is responsible for the majority of tourism-related emissions under both perspectives – many people travel both from and to the US – followed by China, Germany and India.

But on a per-capita basis, the situation looks rather different. Small island destinations have the highest per-capita destination-based footprints. Maldives tops the list – 95 per cent of the island’s tourism-related emissions come from international visitors.

Tourists are responsible for 30 to 80 per cent of the national emissions of island economies. These findings bring up the question of the impact of tourism on small island states.

Boracay environ 1
Development has come hard and fast to Boracay and the environment is suffering. (Photo: Jack Board)


Small islands depend on income from tourists. At the same time, these very tourists threaten the native biodiversity of the islands.

Small island states typically do not have the capacity to embrace technology improvements due to their small economies of scale and isolated locations.

Can we lend a helping hand? Directing financial and technical support to these islands could potentially help with efforts to decarbonise their infrastructure. This support would be a reflection of the share of consumer responsibility, especially from developed nations that are “net travellers”.

Maldives, Mauritius and other small islands are actively exploring ways of building their renewable energy capacity to reduce the carbon intensity of local hotels, transport and recreational spots.

The Philippine government says the unchecked growth of tourism to Boracay is ruining the environment
The Philippine government says the unchecked growth of tourism to Boracay had ruined the environment. (Photo: AFP/Noel Celis)


We hope that our study provides a starting point for conversations between the public, companies and policymakers about sustainable tourism.

Ultimately real change will come from implementing regulations and incentives together to encourage low-carbon operations. 

At a personal level, though, it’s worth looking at the carbon-cost of your flights, choosing to offset your emissions where possible and supporting tourism companies that aim to operate sustainably.

Arunima Malik is a lecturer at ISA, School of Physics and the Sydney Business School at The University of Sydney. Dr Ya-Yen Sun is a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/nr