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Long-haul aviation needs to be capped at 2019 levels for the tourism industry to even stand a chance of reaching net zero by 2050, according to a report released during COP27. Photo: Reuters

Why net-zero sustainable tourism by 2050 starts with you taking fewer long-haul flights

  • Long-distance flights are the hardest to decarbonise, says a new report that provides a road map for net-zero sustainable tourism by 2050
  • The larger takeaway: the near-impossible extremes required by every sector of travel simply confirm that the tourism industry faces crisis

If you’re concerned about climate change and wondering whether you should travel to far-flung places as often as you did before the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s a valid question. You’re not going to like the answer.

An estimated 11 per cent 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 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial times. By the end of the century, the figure looks to be 2 degrees Celsius, with that half degree making a huge difference.

If emissions are left unchecked, this warming will accelerate, bringing forth a heightened level of cataclysmic weather patterns.

Steam rises from a coal-fired power plant in Niederaussem, Germany. By 2050, the planet is forecast to have warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times. Photo: AP

So how can tourism fix its emissions problem?

It just needs 100 per cent 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 per cent in 2019 to 81 per cent by 2050 – while global travellers (that’s you) rein in the number of long-distance flights they 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.

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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, the European Tourism Futures Institute, and the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions.

The longest-distance flights are defined as round trips of more than 9,941 miles (16,000km), such as New York to Cairo, or London to Bangkok.

They are the hardest to decarbonise, 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.

People attend the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on November 7, 2022. Photo: Reuters

“Our hope is to spark further dialogue and to help destinations and businesses recognise that the business-as-usual scenario is not all that likely in the future,” says Jeremy Sampson, chief executive of the Travel Foundation.

He notes that the report’s scenario comes with its own pain points and is not all that realistic.

The report focuses on movement from Point A to Point B and doesn’t take into account other huge sources of emissions in the travel industry, such as cruises or embodied carbon in hotel construction.

Paul Peeters, professor of sustainable transport and tourism 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.

You should not fly six times per year from the US to Europe
Paul Peeters, professor of sustainable transport and tourism, Breda University of Applied Sciences

Peeters’ 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 travelled, accommodation providers and major transport modes, minus cruise ships, through to 2100. Seven optional factors are thrown into the simulation: sustainable aviation fuel, electrification and energy efficiency, infrastructure improvements, taxes, offsetting, travel behaviour, and travel speed.

The first three (fuel, energy efficiency, infrastructure) reduced emissions the most, but even maximising them was not sufficient to reach net zero by 2050 when accounting for the certainty that tourism will grow. Even maximising all seven factors proved insufficient, Peeters says, hence the need to cap the growth of long-haul aviation at 2019 levels.

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“Technically, it can be done,” Peeters says. “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 per cent 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.

The larger takeaway of the report: it may be possible to act now, but the near-impossible extremes required to reach net zero by 2050 simply confirm that the tourism industry faces crisis.

Every sector of travel would have to throw all it has behind climate action without delay to make a dent in emissions. Travellers will need to think harder and care more about how and where they travel.

Travellers need to learn about their carbon footprints. Photo: Getty Images

Like most industries, tourism remains in slow motion as it begins to tackle its negative impact on a planet whose health is vital to it.

After 18 years of relative inertia since the tourism industry made its first climate promises, 300 initial signatories, including the United Nations World Tourism Organisation and the World Travel and Tourism Council, committed to the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism in 2021 to halve tourism’s emissions by 2030 and eliminate them to near zero by 2050.

This is in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement among 196 countries to reduce global warming, and to which the United States just recommitted.

As this push accelerates, travel businesses and destinations are beginning to change how they operate. They intend to lead travellers to experience places and activities differently.

Major holiday and tour operator TUI, for instance, began offering new sleeper train trips as a substitute for six short-haul routes in Europe. Tour operator Sunweb, in the Netherlands, is also focused on offering overnight train trips, to Belgium and the French Alps this winter and to the south of France in summer 2023.

Replacing some short-haul flights with train journeys is being considered by a number of travel operators. Photo: Reuters

On a far more micro level, Ziptrek Ecotours is the first adventure outfitter in Queenstown, New Zealand, to offer consumer-facing labelling to show customers what their emissions would be when selecting among competing zip line tours.

“It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the trajectory of tourism,” says Trent Yeo, executive director at Ziptrek.

When it comes to climate change, we’re all in this together. But it’s minuscule in the face of the systemic changes governments and tourism boards need to enact. (Remember, nobody gets to New Zealand without taking a long-haul flight.)

The trick for the traveller will be to learn about your carbon footprint, if you don’t already understand it, and be able to sort among companies that are making a real effort versus those that are greenwashing their way into your travel decisions.

If we realise that we might be less dependent on long-haul source markets, maybe we can identify those markets that might be most valuable to us
Ewout Versloot, sustainability strategist, Netherlands tourist board, powered by climate-tech platform Chooose, will soon show carbon emission listings on flight and hotel results, allowing travellers to filter lower carbon emission results from a range, for instance.

“It is to take it one step further and include individual travellers, who are the bookers, to understand their carbon footprints early on in the decision process,” says Andreas Slettvoll, CEO of Chooose.

The Iberostar Group released its own ambitious decarbonisation road map on November 8, at COP27, which is partly marketing (it wants 60 per cent of guests to choose the brand for its sustainability actions by 2025) and partly action (a 2030 net zero goal and nature-based carbon compensation projects at its 97 resorts across four continents).

Because consumers alone will not solve anything, governments, hotels, tour operators, cruise operators and the aviation industry need to lead with policies to encourage better decision-making.

Tourism makes up an estimated 11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a figure predicted to double by 2050. Photo: Reuters

To that end, the Netherlands is considering an eco-efficiency index of its visitors, says Ewout Versloot, a sustainability strategist working with the tourism board. This means dividing the amount of revenue a tourist brings in by the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the tourist triggered travelling to the country.

That index would indicate which long-haul market the government should direct marketing dollars toward to help reduce emission impacts.

“If we realise that we might be less dependent on long-haul source markets, maybe we can identify those markets that might be most valuable to us,” Versloot adds, noting this approach is part of the Netherlands’ road map to climate-neutral tourism that was released in September.

Peeters agrees. Finding markets that are a little shorter haul is desirable; even a 10 per cent reduction in emissions is a welcome achievement for destinations, he says.

People attend the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on November 6, 2022. Photo: DPA

Tour operators might also change the destinations they offer, particularly to travellers generally focused on booking any “sun and sea” experience rather than a specific place.

This sort of destination picking required by the Travel Foundation’s report brings up the inevitable inequities that tourism-dependent destinations and regions in the Global South would face – for instance, Barbados, Indonesia and Thailand, as well as all of Africa and South America.

When richer countries are the main culprits in emitting carbon dioxide, who should bear the economic loss of diverting tourist dollars to destinations closer to them?

“Do we need to cap the Global South or do we need to cap some of the highest-volume airports in that long-haul aviation? This is exactly the discussion we need to be having in this unprecedented, collaborative way,” says Megan Morikawa, global director of sustainability at Iberostar Group.

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“If we’re making assumptions on who the winners and losers should be, we’re going to end up making decisions that might make equity issues even worse.”

As it stands, destinations in the Global South are already feeling outsize human impacts from climate change and vainly awaiting compensation from richer nations. Exacerbating the problems is a lack of access to greener technologies that Europe can access and to funding for tourism businesses to adapt and decarbonise rapidly.

What’s clear from this report is that drastic changes are needed from the tourism industry: individual travellers should question their choices, such as long-haul trips, but it’s the travel industry that needs to let go of the status quo.

For now, even in the face of a climate crisis that’s increasingly affecting destinations, the sector is making big promises while changing little under the hood.

Without meaningful progress, your trips of a lifetime may become exactly that – viable only as you live and not for the generations to come – and your bucket lists a pipe dream.