New Study Finds Just One Scenario for Tourism that Meets ‘Net-Zero’ Goal, Given Current Forecasts

With global tourism set to double in size by 2050 from 2019 levels, current strategies that rely solely on carbon offsetting, technological efficiencies and biofuels are woefully inadequate. Such measures alone will fail to meet the Paris Agreement-aligned goals to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.

Instead, global policymakers and climate planners attending COP27 are urged to combine all those measures with significant investments and incentives for bringing forth the greenest forms of transport, and limits on the most polluting. This is the only scenario that can provide comparable levels of revenue and opportunities to travel in a decarbonising world.

These are the findings from a soon-to-be-released report, Envisioning Tourism in 2030, published by the Travel Foundation in collaboration with CELTH, Breda University of Applied Sciences, the European Tourism Futures Institute, and the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions, and with additional input and perspectives from a broad range of businesses, tourism destinations and other stakeholders across the world.  They conclude that destinations and tourism businesses must take action now to identify new opportunities and build resilience to changes in visitor patterns, potential new restrictions and regulation, and the worsening impacts of climate change.

The team behind the report have used a sophisticated ‘systems modelling’ technique to explore future scenarios for global travel and tourism. They found only one decarbonisation scenario that could match current growth forecasts and so double revenue and trips in 2050 from 2019 levels. This scenario is achieved through trillion-dollar investments in all available decarbonisation measures and by prioritising trips which can reduce emissions most readily – for instance those by road and rail, and shorter distances. Some limits must also be applied to aviation growth until it is fully able to decarbonise, in particular capping the longest-distance trips to 2019 levels. These made up just 2% of all trips in 2019 but are, by far, the most polluting. If left unchecked, they will quadruple by 2050, accounting for 41% of tourism’s total emissions (up from 19% in 2019) yet still just 4% of all trips.

The best-case scenario identified means the world can still travel and tourism can support the destinations and businesses that rely on it, avoiding COVID-like restrictions and regulations. Step out of this scenario and it will be much worse for the planet and tourism. The report emphasises the huge undertaking required to achieve this future, but show it is technically possible, if the will is there.

“It’s clear that business as usual for tourism is neither desirable nor viable,” said Menno Stokman, Director at the Centre of Expertise Leisure, Tourism & Hospitality (CELTH). “Climate impacts are already here, increasing in frequency and severity, with monumental costs for humanity and the environment that affect tourism more than most other sectors. Current decarbonisation strategies will reach net zero far too late. So we must reshape the system. From a climate perspective, once we reach net zero we can travel as much as we like. Shifts in investment will get us there within a decade for shorter-distance trips. But for long-haul we need more time, and we should take this into account as tourism plans its future.”

A global coordinated response also needs to address the existing inequity within the tourism system. Many countries, particularly those in the Global South, have yet to fully develop their tourism economies and will have fewer resources to invest in green infrastructure. And some destinations, such as island nations, which are both more susceptible to the impacts of climate change and most dependent on tourism and long-haul visitors, must be the first to be supported.

“As always, the risk is that the most vulnerable people and nations, those that did the least to cause climate change in the first place, will lose out,” said Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation. “We urge governments at COP and beyond to coordinate globally and consider what is fair in terms of who pays for this huge investment, and what is equitable in terms of optimising global travel distribution. We must not exacerbate the existing system, which often fails to yield fair outcomes for host communities. Instead, tourism’s coming transformation is the sector’s opportunity to make good on its promise to be a catalyst for positive change once and for all.”

The Envision Tourism in 2030 recommendations aims to support the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, a UN-led initiative supporting the Paris Agreement goals, and which the Travel Foundation helps implement. Intrepid Travel was among the first signatories when it launched last year at COP 26 and, alongside Destination Vancouver, Visit Barbados and the Netherlands Tourism Board, is sponsoring the report.

“This research clearly shows the need to plan now for a resilient low carbon tourism sector. We must recognise the future will be different from business as usual and that the climate crisis is not a competitive advantage,” said Dr Susanne Etti, Global Environmental Impact Manager at Intrepid Travel. “Tourism operators should unite behind the Glasgow Declaration to align, collaborate and accelerate collective action and innovation to decarbonise travel. Only then can our industry truly achieve its huge potential sustainable development,” Dr Etti added.