Not on Track

Lack of Climate Action in Tourism as a Justice Concern

Whilst much of the world is celebrating an upswing in tourism activity after the Covid-19 pandemic, the extreme weather record-breaking year of 2023 has demonstrated that climate action by the tourism industry is needed more urgently than ever.

As the world reflected on its progress toward the Paris Climate Agreement goals at COP-28, it was important to also examine attempts to reshape current tourism practice (e.g. through commitments such as the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism). There was a need to take stock of where the sector is in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate change, and redirecting finance towards climate resilient development.

On 11 December 2023, a group of over 60 experts released the first ever “Global Stocktake on Tourism and Climate Action”. The stocktake presents 24 key findings and introduces 40 metrics that allow tracking of progress to the next United Nations stocktake in 2028.

Lack of carbon reporting in tourism

Tourism is contributing between eight and eleven percent of global human-caused emissions. Unfortunately, only a very small number of destinations measure the carbon footprint of their tourism sector, which means that monitoring global progress is challenging. However, historic data provides sufficient evidence that ongoing growth of tourism, longer travel distances and an increase in the share of international air travel are leading to increased emissions – despite sector pledges to reduce emissions by half by 2030.

It is often argued that tourism is an important development tool in less developed countries and that policies to constrain tourism growth would undermine the ability of these countries to deliver on their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the stocktake shows that the vast majority of tourism's global carbon footprint is produced by wealthy nations. When looking at total transport emissions, which are the largest contributor to tourism emissions, emissions of travel to and within developing countries made up only 5.4 percent of all emissions in 2019. Clearly it is possible to address tourism emissions effectively without constraining tourism that supports developing economies.

A question of climate justice

Global mitigation policies for tourism need to address questions of climate justice. This is particularly important in the context of air travel. Connectivity questions must be resolved for those countries genuinely depending on air travel. Other countries that can also be reached by land must systematically change their mobility concepts and reduce air travel, as alternative aviation fuels are not available in sufficient quantities. The use of scarce resources to produce alternative aviation fuels raises questions of land use, sustainability, and food security.

The growth of the tourism sector may come to an end as the available global carbon budget decreases and pressure increases to rely on renewable energy sources only. Long haul aviation is an extremely energy intensive activity and may struggle to maintain its position in society in the future as climate change accelerates and countries need to allocate limited low carbon energy to meet basic development needs first.

The stocktake highlights the important synergies that could be harnessed between tourism climate action and biodiversity conservation. However, future conservation through nature-based tourism needs to carefully examine the negative climate impact caused by travel to these destinations.

Climate justice requires a holistic understanding of differential vulnerabilities (both human and other species) and the role tourism can play in a just transition. The stocktake shows that integrated assessments of multiple and interacting climate hazards remain very limited. No destination fully understands its vulnerability to unfolding climate change. To design more effective adaptation measures, it is crucial to also understand destination contexts, including levels of poverty and existing unsustainable tourism development. In some destinations current forms of tourism may not be viable under future climate scenarios.

Sustainable changes are necessary

To improve the sustainability of tourism and reduce its contribution to climate change, several changes will be necessary. First, measurement of tourism greenhouse gas emissions at all levels is essential. Second, policymakers need to integrate tourism policy with their countries’ climate policy frameworks. They need to ensure that tourism is included in Nationally Determined Contributions. It is also necessary to devise tourism specific policies that enable a rapid sector transition. Understanding climate hazards and developing adaptation plans will be particularly important for city destinations that suffer from heat exposure, for snow destinations that will face reduced season length, and for coastal tourism. Dedicated climate finance to support tourism climate action and co-benefits to destination communities will become more and more important.

Climate finance must consider climate vulnerabilities of tourism and assess whether tourism will be an appropriate development mechanism in the future. Existing tourism projects need to shift towards climate resilient development and away from large infrastructure that exacerbates tourism's vulnerability and locks in growing greenhouse gas emissions. The stocktake found that only eight percent of financed projects funded by development banks, UN agencies, national development cooperation and NGOs between 2000 and 2022 were likely to advance climate resilient tourism.

Need for capacity building

Unless operators, staff, visitors, and all those working in the wider tourism sector better understand the risks of climate change and the options for tourism decarbonization and adaptation, progress will remain limited. Thus, awareness raising and skill development are core tasks.

Overall, the stocktake revealed insufficient commitment and climate action. For tourism to secure its place in a low carbon and climate resilient world, the sector’s climate response must move further and faster.

Dr. Susanne Becken is a Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University, Australia, where she researches the links between tourism and the environment, with a focus on climate change. Dr. Daniel Scott is a University Research Chair and Professor in Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo, Canada, where his research focuses on the transition to a low carbon economy and adaptation to the complex impacts of a changing climate.