The carbon footprint of global tourism

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Gran Canaria -very popular with Britons, Germans and Scandinavians but is our carbon footprint leaving a unwanted, lasting legacy?

Generally, tourism is held to be useful to the world. It allows countries to quickly grow their economies and bringing employment and revenue to their peoples. Tourism obesity – the overdevelopment of an area such as in Barcelona, Venice and the Macchu Pico area of Peru – can do harm and politicians are recognising that some sort of limits have to be placed on tourism growth.

But in terms of carbon footprints, research has largely been limited to aircraft and cruise ship emissions.

Some destinations – and individual tourists – may rethink their attitude to tourism in the light of an article called “The Carbon Footprint of Global Tourism” in the latest issue of Nature. The six authors contend that tourism’s carbon footprint has been growing four times as much as previously thought and is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. They also say that transport, shopping and food are significant contributors and that the majority of emissions are exerted by, and in, high-income countries. The authors conclude that, “due to its high carbon intensity and continuing growth, tourism will constitute a growing part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

The extreme solution is to end international tourism but that is neither practical or desirable. Without tourism many poorer countries would have substantial economic problems. Not only would revenue decline but unemployment would rise to high rates. In the EU  about 15% of all employment is due to tourism; in Malta it is as high as 18% and in the Bahamas it is over 27%. Elsewhere it is higher.

Tourism is an important employer of younger people  who – on average – are more likely to be hired over older people so a growth in tourism jobs helps to reduce youth unemployment. The one remaining feature of tourism value I would mention is that tourism growth and its economic consequencies come faster to an economy compared to setting up a manufacturing plant which is why so many xountries have expanded their tourism.

Faced with all this, how could or should the carbon footprint be assessed. One report is probably insufficient; others should be commissioned to check the figures and methodology of the six authors. If confirmed, then the tourism industry could come under pressure to reduce its footprint.

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