You can’t fit 1.5 billion tourists in eco-lodges.
That was my first thought as I stepped on the burning sand of Alicante beach in Spain about three weeks ago. Stretching to the horizon, north and south, was the wall of tall concrete buildings that’s the backbone of Spain’s tourism industry.
It’s a model built by and for the masses, one that thrives on low-cost flights, all-inclusive hotel resorts, giant buffets and endless sangria. Spain, the world’s No. 2 destination with 83.7 million visitors in 2019, is a magnet for mass tourism (it’s no coincidence that package tours were invented not far from where I was standing). In total, the industry flew, accommodated, fed and entertained a good chunk of the world’s 1.5 billion tourists last year.
Globally, it was a booming sector before the pandemic, growing at about 4% every year, employing 10% of the world’s workers and representing 10% of global gross domestic product. The enormous cruise ships, fossil fuel-powered planes and the hotels in remote, water-scarce locations make it incredibly carbon intensive too. Total footprint is estimated at around 8% of overall human emissions.
The sector’s climate record before the pandemic was already discouraging. Efforts to lower the carbon footprint have mostly been limited to climate neutrality pledges and headline-grabbing small steps like eliminating mini-shampoo bottles, replacing plastic straws with paper ones and serving sustainable food on flights.
Just calculating the impact is hard. Any serious account should include carbon emitted directly from tourism activities, but also from the whole supply chain, also known as Scope 3 emissions. That would involve food, accommodation, transport, fuel and shopping.
Because few if any major players or industry bodies are reporting emissions thoroughly and periodically, any estimates must be considered conservative. A 2018 research paper published in Nature concluded that 2013 tourism emissions were 4.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide, up 15% since 2009.
More than two thirds of that comes from air and car transport, according to a report by the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization from December. Tourism transport was 5% of global emissions in 2016 and 22% of transport emissions that year.
Of course tourism emissions will plummet this year. This seems clear enough just looking at the neatly-aligned sunbeds on the beach, so different from the overcrowded, chaotic tapestry of towels and umbrellas this part of the Mediterranean is famous for. The socially-distanced sunbathing, just like the decline in tourism emissions, was possible only because tourist numbers in Spain were down 72% for the first half of the year.
There’s no way to know what will happen once international travel picks up. The lack of serious demands from governments and the tokenistic announcements by airlines, hotel owners and cruise ship operators make it so tempting to think all is lost, that tourism is missing a once-in-a-lifetime chance to transform itself radically and contribute to fighting climate change.
Yet solutions to lower tourism’s carbon impact already exist and the industry could take advantage of the unprecedented green stimulus packages governments are launching. Electric vehicles and energy-efficient hotels powered by renewable energy are economically viable today. Plastic-free meals are not yet, and hydrogen fueled planes could become a reality one day.
For most of us, carbon neutral holidays in a hopefully not-so-distant future will likely involve touring cities in electric buses, dining in terraces lit by wind-powered light bulbs and sleeping in hotel rooms so well insulated that make air conditioning obsolete.
To contact the author of this story:
Laura Millan Lombrana in Madrid at firstname.lastname@example.org