The Link Between Tourism and Climate Change — Sea Going Green (2023)

During COP25, I was able to attend events on climate change, tourism and the ocean (read my blog about it here). This inspired me to dive into how the tourism industry and climate change are interrelated as climate change represents a real threat to not only the marine environment, but also the future of tourism. You often hear about the contribution of aviation to global warming and how our coral reefs, which are attracting more tourists than ever, are dying as a consequence. This blog will give some insights into how tourism and climate change are interconnected and what the industry is doing to reduce its carbon footprint.

In 2018, the tourism industry made up an astonishing 10.4% (almost 9 trillion US$) of global GDP, representing more than 8.8 trillion US$. Tourism is considered a leading global sector in employment and international development. It creates 1 in 10 jobs (World Travel & Tourism Council) and it can bring financial freedom. Some countries, especially SIDS (Small Island Developing States) and other developing countries significantly depend on the income generated from the tourism industry to stay afloat. One cannot deny that the tourism industry and its global status makes it an economic powerhouse.

Climate Change Impacts on Tourism

Ironically, many countries that are vulnerable to climate change are considered tourism hotspots. During COP25, Patricia Espinosa (UNFCCC Executive Secretary) said that climate change is happening in destinations that are dependent on tourism, leading to losses of jobs, homes, lives, and hope. Areas that are close to the ocean as well as mountainous areas and polar regions are especially affected by the impacts of climate change in the form of floods, droughts, heatwaves or hurricanes. While the tourism industry in the Arctic may benefit from the global warming induced reductions in sea ice, tourism destinations in the tropics are projected to experience a decrease in visitor numbers due to more extreme temperatures and increases in the frequency and intensity of storms. In Europe, summer tourism will be redistributed away from Southern Europe to higher latitudes, and warmer regions will note a temporal tourism shift from high to shoulder seasons. Because of its strong links to other sectors, the tourism industry will be among the first to suffer when disasters occur; venues will become shelters and tourism will come to a standstill in the case of an emergency. Despite that, the travel and tourism industry remains one of the most polluting industries regarding carbon emissions, hence perpetuating global warming and natural disasters.

Tourism’s Contribution to Climate Change

Let’s break it down. The tourism sector contributes to around 8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as a result of: aviation (40%), transportation (30%) and the consumption of goods and services (30%) including food and accommodation (Lenzen et al., 2018). Espinosa (UNFCCC) claimed that 8% is huge and not sustainable. 8% makes the sector a bigger polluter than the construction sector. Tourism-related transport CO2 emissions are predicted to increase to almost 2 million tonnes by 2030, a 25% rise from 2016 to 2030, while during the same period international and domestic arrivals are projected to increase from 20 billion to 37 billion (UNWTO).

The COP25, Travel and CO2 Emissions

The growing and rapidly expanding tourism industry could consequently threaten the chances of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement since the majority of businesses have yet to make the necessary changes to meet these goals. Scientists argue that at least 15% of global tourism-related emissions are not under any binding reduction targets as emissions of international aviation and bunker shipping are excluded from the Paris Agreement (Carbonbrief). Therefore, the key to tackle tourism-related emissions is for policymakers to impose stricter regulations on international aviation and shipping so that they are pressured to cut their emissions themselves.

As every year, the discussion has come up of whether the COP conference is still in line with what it stands for. For example, there is a paradox, as in why 30,000 people need to fly around the world every year again and again for a conference on climate change and CO2 emissions. One proposed solution is to make the conference virtual. In some countries, however, access to the internet, technology and other resources is limited, which would not guarantee equal engagement from all delegations and stakeholders. The factor of different time zones also makes it more challenging to involve such an international group of attendees. Networking and face-to-face interaction would be limited or non-existent, which takes away the collaborative opportunities the conference can provide.

Sail to the COP

As already mentioned in the first part of this blog, I joined the group “Sail to the COP” during COP25, which was a youth group consisting of an initial 36 European students, whose goal was to sail from Europe to Santiago, Chile to raise awareness of the unsustainable and unfair practices of the travel industry. Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, the group received a message that the whole conference had been moved to Madrid. Knowing that they couldn’t make it back to Europe in time, they had two weeks to recruit and organize a group of representatives to be present in Madrid. The four main issues that they identified within the tourism industry were: (1) unfair policies favouring aviation over climate-friendly travel alternatives, (2) a strong lobby for the aviation industry, (3) lack of cooperation between countries and businesses and (4) lack of awareness of environmental impacts and issues of social justice.

Their goal was to put fair and sustainable travel on the international political agenda. At COP25, they called for action from the travel industry by organising several protests at the host venue and even the Environment Minister of Colombia joined in, which made it a huge success.

Tourism’s Contribution to Lower Emissions: Taking Action

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) is at the forefront in tackling the main roadblocks in climate action within the tourism industry. In September 2019, the WTTC launched a plan aiming to be climate neutral by 2050. Climate and environment action is a top priority for all the members of WTTC in order to grow and develop sustainably. Under the United Nations, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is taking on the leadership on tourism. At COP25 a side event on the transformation of tourism for climate action called on embracing a low carbon pathway with awareness and optimization as key elements (UNWTO, 2019). The One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme is a mechanism that was created specifically to promote sustainable tourism around the world. Although tourism has been included in most NDC’s (Nationally Determined Contributions), “not enough has yet been done” (Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary UNFCCC). More cooperation across different international organisations and at all levels is needed to reach sustainable development. Governments need to align their policies so that at an international level they can collectively work towards more ambition. Additional commitment from the private sector will play a vital role in tourism’s effective climate response.

Disconnecting tourism growth from GHG emissions still remains one of the biggest challenges of our time. Change must happen immediately by - first of all - decarbonizing the tourism transport sector. We cannot continue with a business as usual attitude if we hope to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5°C by the end of century.

Some promising news came in a new report published during COP25, which actually revealed that relative CO2 emissions per passenger travelled is estimated to decrease as a result of innovation. The tourism industry therefore has the potential to foster positive change and raise further awareness for business and the tourists themselves. By encouraging CO2 reductions, the image of tourism can be transformed and its strength can be used for the good of our planet. There is hope, but urgent change is needed if we want to see a sustainable and resilient future not just for this sector, but for all of us.

More info:

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Catherine Tremblay

Last Updated: 30/10/2023

Views: 6009

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (47 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Catherine Tremblay

Birthday: 1999-09-23

Address: Suite 461 73643 Sherril Loaf, Dickinsonland, AZ 47941-2379

Phone: +2678139151039

Job: International Administration Supervisor

Hobby: Dowsing, Snowboarding, Rowing, Beekeeping, Calligraphy, Shooting, Air sports

Introduction: My name is Catherine Tremblay, I am a precious, perfect, tasty, enthusiastic, inexpensive, vast, kind person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.