A new report released during COP27 reveals that only one scenario could possibly reduce emissions in time.
If you’re concerned about climate change and wondering whether you should travel to far-flung places as often as you used to before the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s a valid question. You’re not going to like the answer.
An estimated 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to tourism, and that’s predicted to double by 2050, the year scientists have forecast as the tipping point for all sorts of ecological disasters. By then, our planet will have warmed 1.5C (2.7F) above preindustrial times. By the end of the century, the figure looks to be 2C (3.6F), with that half-degree making a huge difference. If emissions are left unchecked, this warming will accelerate, bringing forth a distinctly heightened level of cataclysmic weather patterns.
So how can tourism fix its emissions problem? It just needs 100% sustainable aviation fuels by 2050 to power air travel. It can grow, mostly by increasing the share of short-haul trips over time—from 69% in 2019 to 81% by 2050—while global travelers (that’s you) rein in the number of long-distance flights you take every year … until at least 2050.
Once everybody sticks to this impossible-to-imagine scenario, you can return to jetting back and forth across the globe with impunity. You could do it even more if you like.
Those are the unsurprising, yet troubling, findings of a report from the Travel Foundation released in alignment with COP27 in collaboration with the Centre of Expertise Leisure Tourism and Hospitality, Breda University of Applied Sciences, European Tourism Futures Institute, and Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions. It was shared exclusively with Bloomberg ahead of its release on Monday.
The longest-distance flights are defined as round trips of more than 9,941 miles—e.g., New York to Cairo, or London to Bangkok. They are the hardest to decarbonize, the report explains, which is why they must remain static at 2019 levels for the next 27 years in order for tourism to reach net zero. (Net zero means to curb emissions as close to zero as possible.) This is despite simultaneously increasing other modes of low-emission transport, such as electric cars, high-speed trains and hydrogen buses.
“Our hope is to spark further dialogue and to help destinations and businesses recognize that the business-as-usual scenario is not all that likely in the future,” says Jeremy Sampson, chief executive officer of the Travel Foundation. He notes that the report’s scenario comes with its own pain points and is not all that realistic.
How It Was Calculated
Paul Peeters, professor of sustainable tourism transport at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, performed simulations for the report using the “Global Tourism and Transport Dynamic Model” tech platform he developed in 2017, plugging in data he’s been gathering since 2005.
Peeters’s model considers the overall tourism industry, including all overnight trips—defined as at least one night away from home (international or domestic) for the purpose of vacation, business or visiting friends and relatives. It addresses up to 20 distances traveled, accommodation providers and major transport modes, minus cruise ships, through 2100. Seven optional factors are thrown into the simulation: sustainable aviation fuel, electrification and energy efficiency, infrastructure improvements, taxes, offsetting, travel behavior, and travel speed.
The first three (fuel, energy efficiency, infrastructure) reduced emissions the most, but even maximizing them was not sufficient to reach net zero by 2050 when accounting for the certainty that tourism will grow. Even maximizing all seven factors proved insufficient, Peeters says; hence the need to cap the growth of long-haul aviation at 2019 levels.
“Technically, it can be done,” says Peeters. “The economy is growing. Your freedom to travel is basically the same, but the distances change. You should not fly six times per year from the US to Europe.”
Left unchecked, long-haul aviation is expected to quadruple its emissions by 2050 to reach 41% of total tourism emissions, the report shows. As it stands, long-haul flights are not yet back at 2019 levels, Peeters said in a statement.
This is an excerpt from an article by Lebawit Lily Girma published earlier by Bloomberg.