Tourism might be an enriching experience for the individual, but it's a dirty business for the planet. Our holidaying accounts for more carbon emissions every year than the output of most countries on Earth, and makes up almost 5 percent of human-based CO2 emissions every year.
But our vacations could be effectively decarbonised and rendered environmentally harmless – from an emissions perspective, at least – if the tourism sector makes substantial investments in carbon offsetting and emissions abatement initiatives from now until 2050, according to a new study.
"The tourism sector has pledged to reduce its CO2 emissions [by] 50 percent by 2035," said Daniel Scott, an environmental management researcher from the University of Waterloo in Canada. "Our study demonstrates this is achievable, but will require determined action and significant investment – starting at just under US$1 billion annually [in the] 2020s."
That might sound like a lot, but the relative cost at the outset of the scheme would be less than 0.1 percent of the estimated global tourism economy in 2020, which could be easily shouldered by travellers if the burden was added like a surcharge to individual journeys.
"Divided equally among all domestic and international trips that's about a US$11 cost per trip," said Scott, "basically the same price as many modest travel fees and taxes."
This surcharge would need to increase significantly as time went on, however, as by 2050 the annual investment needed to decarbonise tourism would have ramped up to 3.6 percent of the global tourism economy – a considerable hike on the 0.1 percent at the beginning of the payments.
While nobody wants to pay extra for their holidays – with tourist spending already the largest voluntary transfer of wealth in the world – the initial US$11 add-on would scarcely be noticed by many travellers, amounting to the cost of a croissant and coffee in France, or a photo on a camel in Egypt. All up, a very small price to pay to negate the carbon emissions generated across tourists' transport, accommodation, and leisure activities.
"Tourism can be a force for immense good, but it needs to be done within the carbon limits being negotiated by world leaders at the UN climate summit in Paris or else it will be regulated to do so," said Scott.
The findings, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, suggest tourism will ultimately have no alternative to implementing this kind of scheme, as the industry's very reason for being – supplying exotic places to get away to – is fundamentally threatened, and in no small part due to the emissions stemming from its holiday-making customers.
"Many of peoples' favorite tourism destinations and activities are at risk [from] climate change, from the ski industry to tropical beaches, from iconic species to cultural heritage," said Scott. "We have to ask ourselves, are we willing to pay less than the price of an extra checked bag to ensure future generations can marvel at the sights that inspire us today?"
Check out this infographic based on the research: