Sustainability in travel and tourism is huge topic of concern for conscientious consumers and businesses. To make a dent in reducing humanity’s carbon footprint, we need the support of the members of the corporate and political world. So why are some dragging their heels?

Environmental mitigation is a hot topic in todays travel industry. Despite the individual and collective efforts of some travellers and businesses to lessen negative impacts of global tourism, we can’t do it alone. The political and corporate worlds too, play a significant role in the overall success of any efforts to create sustainability in travel and tourism. Without their support to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint, our endeavours won’t make a big enough dent to reduce the grim consequences that face our world.

Though corporations are gradually beginning to take on new levels of responsibility for their environmental impact, and politicians are starting to try to push through legislation to support sustainability and climate regeneration; it’s still not good enough. There are a number of reasons as to why many local, national and worldwide leaders, as well as corporate executives, are only casually looking over their shoulders at the problem rather than giving it their full attention. A lack of infrastructure, alongside policies and philosophies that value profit above all else, effects on local economies and conflicts of interest all act as key barriers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the globe.

This resistance ranges from politicians blocking key bills, drafts and changes to legislation that would force corporations and businesses to comply and commit to positive environmental changes, to interference from lobby groups and trade bodies that represent the interests of corporations – such as the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM). There are also concerns that such changes may prove too financially challenging to some developing nations or too harmful to areas that rely on travel and tourism for economic and local stability. The de-stabilising nature of environmental governance and political adjustment to regulations may cause repercussions for those employed within the tourism sector.

Despite these legitimate difficulties, we have to look beyond the ‘black and white’ of why climate change problems cannot be approached equally by all governments; many countries – the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and New Zealand – and large businesses, for example, do not have justifiable excuses for their continued indifference to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Something has to change – and it shouldn’t be the climate.

A call to action

Over the years, many have tried to generate interest in environmental impact – often with limited success. Their goodwill and poignant messaging was often suppressed by a cacophony of derision and scepticism from high profile politicians, popular public figures and influential journalists, who not only wanted to downplay climate change, but also to downright deny it (something seen to this day).

Such prominent figures have included the now US President Donald J. Trump, his Vice President Mike Pence, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser Viscount Christopher Monckton, ex-Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, former Fox News columnist Steve Milloy, UK journalists Christopher Booker and James Delingpole, and many more.

The need for journalists and newsrooms to ‘objectively’ report the arguments on climate change gave a platform to such scepticism, allowing it to flourish and maintain relevance amongst the wider public. But, in recent years, as ‘citizen journalism’ grew and social media took flight, the ability for climate change activists to create open dialogue and communicate with people all around the world, on their own terms, has been a game changer. Climate conversation has progressively become a media mainstay, with a variety of actors campaigning for climate justice.

The changing face of climate activism

Fast forward to today and climate change activism is being driven by a global gathering of young people, whose passion and determination has been shaped by environmental education offered by schools, social media and the wider internet in their formative years.

However, these new climate change activists aren’t just interested in the environmental impact, nor do they adopt the historical, and somewhat stereotypical, middle-class, predominantly white ‘tree-hugging’ image – they are also interested in the social justice aspects of tackling climate change and sustainability. While older movements succeeded in preventing single-issue, individual projects from going through, these newer movements are focused less on incremental changes, and more on dramatic, immediate changes. These range from creating a citizen’s climate assembly to drastically cutting back meat and dairy consumption.

Climate activism has seen a whole new wave of movements and figures appear throughout the world – and it cuts across gender, race, class, disability, ethnicity and every other identity or label. The Extinction Rebellion movement in the UK launched with an open letter from 100 academics asking for support to tackle the climate breakdown. These academics are supported by a massive amount of young people (known within the movement as ‘XR Youth’). In fact, it has been estimated that nearly 1.4 million school children have taken part in climate change strikes at schools across the globe.

Perhaps the most prominent of these school children has been Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish activist who started skipping school every Friday to protest the climate crisis. Her efforts rubbed off on her fellow pupils and, soon after, she and her fellow young people staged the ‘School Strike for Climate’ outside of the Swedish Parliament in August 2018. Thunberg has become, quite literally, the ‘poster child’ for young protestors.

However, there are many more environmental groups, movements and individuals – experienced and new – that continue to bolster the ranks. The likes of the Sunrise Movement and Isha Clarke in America represent the new, while the likes of Greenpeace, The Guardian’s George Monbiot and filmmaker David Attenborough have many years of experience in trying to highlight the global climate plight.

A change of tactics

While they are pushing for more immediate action, it could be argued that their messages are less divisive too. Many of us grew up with images of protestors shackling themselves to trees in rainforests, activists climbing the fences of nuclear facilities or standing outside shops shaming people for their purchases. While this radical action has, at times, proven effective (but not as justifiable in court rooms), it has also caused ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentalities to, rightly or wrongly, arise. In contrast, the Extinction Rebellion movement has built itself on core principles such as ‘we avoid blaming and shaming’ in an attempt to highlight that while we can blame and shame the individuals who contribute to climate change and who deny its effect, including the aforementioned sceptics, we are all contributors and no one person is to blame. The problem of climate change is systematic.

It’s these wider systems that have been called into question and targeted – including the systems relating to how we travel. The question of airline flights, particularly transatlantic and long haul flights have been high on the agenda of many concerned activists for a number of years, but only now has the wider public started to fully appreciate the environmental impact of travelling. In 2013, the average ‘carbon footprint’ in Britain, for example, was thought to be about 7.1t of CO2 per person. Yet a return flight from New York to London emits approximately 1.2t of CO2 per passenger. No matter how we mitigate our carbon footprints, daily and annually, regular transatlantic and long haul fliers are likely to make up for our lack of emissions.

The rise of ‘flight shaming’

Thunberg has been one of the recent figures that have drawn attention to this problem. Instead of taking a flight to New York for the recent UN Climate Summit, she travelled there via a low-carbon sailing yacht. Many scientists and academics have also written on such matters, including research highlighting how one single long haul flight can be the carbon footprint equivalent of driving a car for a year.

The flights of celebrities – particularly of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – have also attracted widespread attention and universal condemnation. This was evident recently with Google’s climate change retreat at a luxury resort in Sicily. Exclusively attended by VIPs such as the aforementioned royals, former US President Barack Obama, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and singer Katy Perry, the island welcomed over 100 private jets and numerous super-yachts as part of the event. The hypocrisy was not lost on the public, nor apparently on Harry and Meghan. The two seem to be switching to commercial flying as a less impactful alternative after the backlash.

This increasing discourse around flights has led to a spree of what has been labelled as ‘flight shaming’. It defines the feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment that environmental impact can cause in those who are considering taking a flight. For many travellers, particularly those who believe in ethical travel and sustainability, it has played a key role in their decisions to choose how and where they travel.

Environmental regulations and the travel industry

While there are a number of areas where the wider travel and tourism industries can increase the effects of climate change, none are more impactful than the aviation industry. By 2020, the greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are projected to be about 70% higher than they were 15 years prior to this point. If allowed to continue unabated, it’s thought that this could be 300% to 700% higher than the 2005 figure by 2050. The problem for the travel industry, however, is that any regulations relating to aviation can have a knock-on effect on the national and local economies in many countries and regions.

Within the EU, aviation emissions from all airlines operating in Europe (including non-European airlines) are included in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). This requires airlines to monitor and report their emissions that are then surrendered or traded with allowances. First introduced in 2008, these allowances are distributed to each airline and cover a certain amount of allowable flight emissions per year.

However, this legislation was altered to fit in with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) 2016 market-based resolution to deal with CO2 emissions from aviation in 2021 onwards. This implementation is in the form of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to stabilise C02 emissions. From 2020, airlines will be required to offset any increased emissions from after 2020 levels – hopefully stopping the march towards the aforementioned projections of a 700% increase by 2050. However, it should be noted that participation in this scheme is voluntary and some states, where there is little aviation infrastructure or activity, will be exempt from the scheme. EU countries, though, will be a part of the scheme from its start. Despite this, EU governments and the ICAO (a UN agency) have been criticised for the secrecy surrounding how exactly they intend to tackle aviation emissions.

Offsetting refers to the process of ‘carbon offsetting’. This is when individuals, businesses or governments invest in schemes that will negate the effects of harmful carbon emissions as a result of an individual, business or country’s emission releasing activities (e.g. such as flying or driving a car). Despite its benefits, it is not viewed by experts as a proper solution to the aviation problem, but rather as an ‘intermediate solution’. In essence, it’s a bandage over a wound that prevents further infection, but which lacks the medical potency to remove the infection from the system. The tendency to rely on carbon offsetting as a cure (rather than a preventative) to the aviation and travel industry’s climate change problem has been, in part, blamed on a treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol.

Adopted in 1997 and effective as of 2005, this international treaty generated a lot of goodwill and interest at the time. However, intervening years have exposed its shortcomings – with arguments between the various parties and their targets – the United States failure to ratify the treaty and Canada’s withdrawal from the Protocol being major blows in its legitimacy. The key failure, however, has been the ’emission trading’ aspect of the Protocol which saw countries be able to gain ‘carbon credits’ by investing in projects to reduce emissions within developing nations. Essentially, it was projected as a form of carbon offsetting for wealthier countries. However, this mechanism has become voluntary and, since the Kyoto Protocol was introduced, the use of fossil fuels has actually increased. This is set to change when the countries which signed the Paris Agreement in 2005 are expected to revisit their pledges in 2020. The United States will not be involved – however, nearly half of all US states (contributing to roughly 25% of all US emissions) have banded together to form a coalition that aims to uphold the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

It’s important to remember that aviation is only one part of tourism’s problem. According to the United Nations, tourism is thought to contribute about 8% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions. About 75% of these emissions can be traced to air, car and rail travel. A further 20% occurs as a result of accommodation – heating and air conditioning, swimming pools and the maintenance of bars and restaurants. Smaller activities, such as the manufacture of plastic souvenirs and eating out, will account for the rest of the emissions. It’s thought that about 15% of these emissions are not bound to any emission elimination or reduction targets.

The resistance to action

According to one survey, 68% of people across 26 major countries believe climate change to be a major threat, with a further 20% believing it to be a minor threat. Despite this clear majority – a majority that would be enough to win a democratic election or referendum with ease – many countries and businesses have failed to halt the trend of increasing emissions. While it is easy to view the resistance as purely relating to an unwillingness for people in power to part with profit or economic stability, there are also an array of other reasons that affect how easy it is to enact the necessary changes all across the globe. This is particularly true of travel and tourism.

The disparate experiences of developed and developing nations

Historically, climate change activism has been somewhat of a middle-class issue, often untaken within industrialised and developed countries that have contributed the most to greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the current language however, is centred on how we all contribute and how everyone in the world has to fix this problem together. This black and white thinking is ultimately unhelpful, as it fails to negotiate the years and years of unabated emissions, produced by developed countries. It also fails to negotiate the relative economic instabilities that many developing countries face when adapting to these often expensive projects. In fact, emissions in today’s developed nations have been described as ‘lifestyle’ orientated; in developing countries, these emissions have been described as ‘survival’.

For many developing countries, survival is also dependent on robust travel and tourism industries. Every year, millions of people flock to developing countries to holiday. This tourism injects the economies of these nations – many of which are agrarian-based in nature and, thus, exposed to the effects of climate change – with a much-needed boost of foreign money. This money can then fund improvements that benefit its local residents; better transportation links for example and increased access to modern appliances and products.

With that said, tourism isn’t a one-stop solution to the development of fragile nations, nor does it help solve the emissions problem. Often a chain of dependency can arise that can be both beneficial and a burden. Natives to the island of Bali in Indonesia, a major tourism hotspot, absolutely rely on its tourism industry to provide education and economic stability; yet it has also caused problems (such as a reduced supply of quality waters for locals versus tourists). It can also cause many local people to gravitate towards jobs that do not require as much education – such as waiters, bar/restaurant staff and taxi drivers – to cater to the foreign influx. This can, therefore, stymie the development and popularity of further education opportunities. We also see exploitation of local people from foreign travellers too. The infamous cases of ‘poverty tourism’ can involve people travelling from developed nations to observe or document residents in underdeveloped areas of developing nations – often in an exploitative manner.

Nevertheless, travel and tourism remains a major contributor to the economies of many developing nations. As such, tour operators across the African continent are already starting to feel the impact of recent trends of flight avoidance and flight shaming. There are concerns that this won’t just jeopardise local economies and potentially increase poverty but will also affect local conservation efforts too. Even in developed nations, the tourism industry is of great importance too. For example, it’s thought that approximately 10% of Americans are employed within the travel and tourism industry and over $32 billion of the annual national economy is raised in revenues from beach tourists. With coastlines threatened as a result of rising sea levels brought about by climate change, even a developed nation like the United States will feel the effect of a hampered tourism industry, not just by the effects of climate change, but by the eventual need to start taking the issue seriously beyond state level. The cost of lost tourism could range from severely damaging to catastrophic across all nations and, for this reason, the discussion surrounding climate change and tourism has proved to be a more divisive issue than it would first appear.

Conflicts of interest

Another huge barrier to tackling climate change – both in and out of the tourism industry – is conflict of interest. As capitalism (or deviations thereof) is the world’s primary economic and political system, profit is often the primary ambition of businesses across trade and industry. With many politicians funded in their political campaigns by lobby groups that represent the interests of big businesses and corporations, conflicts of interest can often arise when profit clashes with progress.

Fossil fuels continue to play a huge role in not only powering the world, but in producing massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that go back as far as 250 years. While developing nations across Asia have increased their fossil fuel usage – such as China and India – other more developed nations have seen their energy-related emissions decline. One major exception across developed nations, however, is the United States. Burning of fossil fuels for energy in the US accounts for approximately 76% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and a staggering 93% of the country’s CO2 emissions. It is the nation that contributes the most CO2 emissions in the world today, accounting for approximately 26%. Despite falling from a historic high of 40% in 1950, the levels increased in 2018. By comparison, China and India – two countries where over a billion people live – accounted for 12% and 3% of CO2 emissions respectively during the same period.

The United States is also home to many powerful lobbies that represent fossil fuel interests. From 2000 to 2016, the fossil fuel, utilities and transportation industries (including airlines) spent over $2 billion lobbying against climate change legislation. By comparison, environmental organisations and renewable energy groups spent $48 million and $79 million respectively. In reality, the distance between these figures may even be higher due to the nature of disclosure surrounding lobbying activities in the US. Despite the serious need to address climate change immediately rather than later, many fossil fuel companies still hold a seat at climate negotiations across the world. However, this historic abuse of power is starting to be unfurled. In 2017, the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) heard criticisms from developing countries and enacted changes to stop fossil fuel lobbyists – with clear conflicts of interest – from partaking in any climate talks.

The UN’s agency for dealing with aviation safety and environmental standards, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), is based in Montreal, Canada. However, there is currently no way for the public to observe any delegations and talks are held behind closed doors with just one environmental group allowed to observe – having signed a non-disclosure agreement that stops them from revealing talks between representatives of countries and the aviation industry. The agency has been criticised for its secrecy and, recently, non-governmental organisations have criticised UK and EU governments for failing to de-cloak the unprecedented secrecy surrounding emission regulation, leading to further concerns of conflicting interests at play.

Yet conflict of interest within the travel industry can also happen on a more everyday, individualised basis too. Frequent flyer miles can be earned from making unnecessary business trips or even by using a credit card sponsored by an airline. In fact, most frequent flyer miles are earned on the ground – not in the air. This has led to many simply making trips they wouldn’t otherwise have done so for the sake of ‘free travel’. While it may seem easy to ‘blame and shame’ individuals for taking these unnecessary trips, criticism should instead be aimed at the airlines for encouraging these flights.

The way forward

For travellers, there’s a lot to digest here. Despite the clear impact that travel and tourism has on the world’s greenhouse gas emission levels, it still pales in comparison to the effects of fossil fuel production, livestock rearing and usage of road vehicles. In fact, 72% of the EU’s transport emissions result from road transportation. While public transport, such as trains and buses, can severely offset more individualised trips, the costs associated with travelling via such means – both domestically and, if possible, internationally – are far higher to everyday people. So, is there a way to travel more responsibly?

The short answer is yes. As aforementioned, travel is not necessarily a bad thing on its own. While we should continue to reduce our own carbon footprints – while also lobbying governments, big businesses and airlines to do the same – we have to recognise how a lot of nations and people rely on tourism to survive on a day-to-day basis. Withdrawing from travel plans doesn’t just hurt the airlines and big businesses, it also has the potential to affect the ability for many people to make a living and even survive.

While many climate activists are aware of the differences between the historic and continuing contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from developed regions and countries, as opposed to that of developing nations, airlines pose an interesting quandary.

While they rely on fossil fuels to operate their planes, they also allow tourists and foreign money into some of the world’s most financially deprived regions. There’s no easy answer if our current way of life is to continue. One solution is to encourage investment in ways that make air travel more sustainable and cleaner. Despite the secrecy, there are signs that the aviation industry hears these calls. Boeing, the plane designer and manufacturer, is not only investing heavily in creating technologies that are fuel efficient, but technologies that may even be able to run on biofuels. Airbnb accommodation may negate the need for massive hotel resorts, also reducing the environmental impact of holiday accommodation.

While Greta Thunberg’s goals, and the goals of the millions around the world who feel the same way as her, are admirable and just, the sustainability of spending time to travel is also incompatible under a capitalist system. The vast majority of us don’t have the privilege, nor the money, to spend two weeks sailing across the ocean to attend a meeting – thanks to a crew who will, very fairly, expect remuneration for our safe passage. Our bosses simply won’t accept the excuse that we’re three days late back to work because a delay on the Trans-Mongolian Railway caused us to miss all of our connecting trains as we returned from a two-day trip to Beijing. So how do we practically align our designs on travel with our more idealistic environmental concerns?

The future of tourism is regenerative

By now, many conscious travellers will have switched, or want to switch, over to a sustainable mindset when planning their trips. Avoiding corporate hospitality and globalised chain restaurants, travellers tend to veer off-the-beaten path to discover and support local cultures and cuisines. This more responsible approach to tourism has been labelled ‘sustainable tourism’. Sustainability means to, essentially, sustain the lands and communities that we visit in order to minimise our impact on their resources and preserve these resources for the future. It keeps these communities afloat. Regeneration, however, is a far more progressive approach to tourism.

As the word suggests, ‘regeneration’ is not just about sustaining the status quo, it’s showing a long-term commitment towards the development of the places you visit; such as working with or contributing to local non-profits and NGOs who are investing in the area. It’s potentially stepping outside your comfort zone to support the local economy by shopping for locally-made, environmentally-friendly crafts as souvenirs or eating at local restaurants. It can involve ditching plastics and using eco-friendly products, such as favouring re-useable steel water bottles over single-use plastic water bottles. Minimise activities that cause pollution and focus on the ones that don’t, such as hiking or biking. Investigative opportunities to help with local efforts like ocean clean-ups and tree planting. And, lastly, choose tour operators and providers who are responsible and who employ local people to act as guides.

For those who are travelling by flight, consider covering your emissions by investing in carbon offsetting. Your airline may offer this as a choice when booking, but you can also pay companies online instead. This money will then be invested in clean energy or low-carbon energy initiatives, like solar panel installation or planting of trees. Again, this isn’t the solution, but it’s important to do what you can to reduce the effects of taking a flight. By continuing to monitor the actions of the aviation and travel industry, taking part in protests, spreading awareness of responsible tourism and ensuring that you are minimising or even nullifying your own carbon footprint, you can travel safe in the knowledge that you are making a difference.