Can we keep flying while developing more sustainable tourism?

Article aerien version anglaise

During my trip in Malaysia last month, I had the chance to visit a great organization in the Perenthian Island called Ecoteer. They are working on different projects to protect the biodiversity of this amazing island; I wrote about it here and there. However, after posting this article on Facebook, I received many negatives comments about the absurdity of taking a plane, and thus polluting the planet, in order to practice sustainable tourism in another country.

In the sustainable tourism debate, plane-travel has frequently been the subject of intense criticism: the carbon impact of the plane is higher than the ecological impact on the local destination. Of course, my position in this debate is far from neutral. First, travelling is essential to my career — how could we imagine the sustainability of the consultant activity if we had to stop travelling by plane or even by car? Secondly discovering new cultures, mountain climbing and learning from others is a passion and has brought me a lot.

In this debate, I have to consider my own position, the coherence and honesty of my actions, and my efforts, in both my private and professional life working towards a sustainable development.

In answering this question fully, it is important to separate two elements that have similar consequences:

  • Climate change, that should incite us to lower our personal carbon footprint;
  • The limited resources of our planet, a constraint that will have a direct impact on the fuel supply of planes

I will focus on the first element because the second will have an undeniable impact: make an aircraft fly without petrol is difficult today and will be so for the next 10 years..

solar impulse

Yet, the Solar Impulse, is finishing its world tour, without the use of a single drop of fuel. Elon Musk strives to find innovative electro-solar solutions, and wacky transportation projects such as the Hyperloop, a transportation system that could send people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour, using pressurized tubes.

The future will maybe be filled with initiatives of this kind to improve on tomorrow’s mobility.

The impact on climate change

The COP 21 has passed and the Paris Agreement was adopted by consensus. Surprisingly, the air transport and tourism industry had not stepped up, yet tourist travel account for about 5% of the greenhouse gases, which are partly responsible for climate change.

If all sectors worked to cut down their carbon footprint, the tourism industry would also largely lower its emissions, which mainly means decreasing air traffic. However, that is not the case. In the last years, plane-travel has gone up by 3 to 5% whereas technological improvements to reduce planes’ consumption represent only a 1% reduction in fuel use. The gap is significant. The World Tourism Organization has admitted that the tourism sector’s growth could lead greenhouse gases to increase by 150% in the next 30 years.

Considering a return ticket from Europe to Asia can cost less than 500 €, we might as well say that we are not heading in the right direction.

Nor can we expect to reduce this carbon footprint by hoping that people will suddenly show ecological common sense and cease travelling.

Let’s be serious; in order to reduce greenhouse gas, we have to find leverage actions — and these have to be financial. We have to raise tax prices and therefore plane ticket prices, or again impose carbon credit cards with a maximum annual threshold amount. Citizens would have to save carbon to afford going on holiday. People could also buy credits off each other.

But the danger is that these two suggestions might make air travel elitist and discriminatory.

On the other hand, travelling has benefits that go beyond the carbon impact because it brings together cultures and civilizations, fosters multiculturalism and openness towards others, both on behalf of tourists and local people (when tourism is well managed), and creates wealth at a local level (is supports job creation).

When this type of travel is done with openness and responsibility, the quality of the exchanges between tourists and locals enables people to go out of their comfort zone, to acquire a better understanding of the world, to gain in responsibility and maturity. Back home, they can communicate these values and mind-set to their children, families and friends.

For these reasons, I believe sustainable tourism in particular is necessary and cannot be sacrificed on the altar of carbon and greenhouse gases only. At the end of the day, can we really measure the positive indirect impact on the local environment that travelling has on the tourist and his or her immediate surrounding?

It is about having a more global vision — seeing the bigger picture — and including other parameters in the question: should we keep travelling in this climate change context?

Certainly, this carbon element should be taken into account in the planning of our holidays and be reflected in our choices of destination, length of stay etc. And weekend trips by plane to New York, Shanghai and even within Europe remain irresponsible.

But if 5% of the greenhouse gas is due to the tourist travels, 95% is not. Should we not consider other priorities in other industries such as agriculture, livestock (what about eating less meat?), buildings, etc.?

I believe that transport and tourism are important and necessary, and that their carbon footprint will have to be compensated by taking action in other industries and improving the energy-efficiency of existing buildings.

Of course this is the opinion of a passionate traveler and consultant. However I am convinced that a reduction of tourist movement (doubtless in favor of the richest) is not the right solution. Travelling, from an early age, enables people from very different backgrounds to discover other cultures, countries and religions, and this curiosity is one of the most important things in this world. The solidarity it leads to is the one value that will enable us to meet the great challenges that lie ahead.

So yes, let’s keep travelling the world,with  an open mind and the willingness to meet other cultures without imposing our vision and prejudices. Let’s keep the curiosity of children for our entire life, and let’s also not abuse of weekends trips to the other side of the planet, be responsible in our choices and plan the length of our stay wisely.

What do other people think?

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