Tourism’s CO2side

katmai bars

Tourists from around the globe fill the bear-viewing platform at remote Katmai National Park/NPS photo


All that trendy ecotourism, as it turns out, might not be so eco, but then it’s only a small part of the climate problem caused by well-to-do residents of first-world countries who want to tour the globe, according to a new, peer-reviewed study published this week in “Nature Climate Change.”

Flying to exotic, faraway destinations like Alaska, Switzerland and Patagonia has helped push tourism-related, carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions to the level of almost a tenth of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to lead author Manfred Lenzen, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Researchers examining the big picture of tourism, Lenzen added in a media statement,  found that tourism’s carbon “footprint increases strongly with increased affluence and does not appear to satiate as incomes grow.”

The link between increased affluence and tourism growth does not bode well for the chances that tourism CO2 will level off any time soon on its own accord.

Tourism from China, the most populated country in the world, is being rapidly driven upward by “growing affluence and higher disposable incomes, as well as easier access to travel documents…,” the South China Morning Post reported in January. 

The Chinese Academy of Sciences concluded mainland Chinese tourists made a record 4.53 billion domestic and overseas trips in 2017, dwarfing the 1.54 billion trips by residents of India and the 1.25 billion by Americans.

The widely traveled Japanese and French were seemingly stay at homes with only 320 million and 280 million trips respectively. Travel by residents of those countries is expected to grow slowly. China’s travel industry, meanwhile, is rapidly expanding.

And accelerating the production of greenhouse gases in the process.

Cost of motion

The new study is the first to calculate the total carbon costs of tourism, but the high CO2 costs of travel have long been known.

In some cases, the Union of Concerned Scientists observed a decade ago in “Getting There Greener – The Guide to Your Lower Carbon Vacation,” one vacation splurge can produce more than one and a half times the global warming pollution created by a family’s whole year of weekday commuting.

“Whether traveling with a family, with a partner, or alone, those seeking a carbon bargain should seriously consider rail and motor coach travel,” the guide said, noting the large carbon footprint of air travel.

And the lastest study suggests the carbon costs of travel, especially by air, might have been under-estimated.

“The new research – led by world-leading Integrated Sustainability Analysis supply-chain research group at the University of Sydney – found the global comprehensive tourism footprint of tourism-related greenhouse gas emissions is four times greater than previous estimates (and) is growing faster than international trade,” the University of Sydney reported.

“Our analysis is a world-first look at the true cost of tourism – including consumables such as food from eating out and souvenirs – it’s a complete life-cycle assessment of global tourism, ensuring we don’t miss any impacts,” said Arunima Malik, a co-author from the University’s’ School of Physics.

“This research fills a crucial gap identified by the World Tourism Organization and World Meteorological Organization to quantify, in a comprehensive manner, the world’s tourism footprint.”

None of this is likely to come as good news for what is now a $1 trillion per year global business.


In this interest of slowing climate change, the paper suggests people fly less and pay a carbon tax to atone for their travel. A tax could be disastrous to tourism destinations where costs are already high, such as in Alaska.

Tourism is Alaska’s second largest employer, according to the state of Alaska. Outside the state, Alaska is promoted as the “see it  before you die,” once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the last North American wilderness and its disappearing glaciers.

Inside the state, it is pitched as a lower-impact business than mining, logging, agriculture or commercial fishing.

Ya-Yen Sun, from the University of Queensland’s Business School and the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, one of the co-authors on the new study, called for a re-think of the idea tourism is a  “low-impact” business, She went so for as to suggest it might be time for limits on “international flights to specific nations.”

The study suggests those tourists coming to see the disappearing glaciers could be helping ensure the glaciers disappear.

Fifty-five percent of Alaska tourists arrive in the north on cruiseships, according to a study conducted for the Alaska Travel Industry Association, but air travel is a significant component of the Alaska tour business. More than 2.5 million people pass through Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport every year and a significant portion of them are tourists.

The airport is ranked the 56th busiest in the nation despite the comparatively small population it serves.  The Anchorage metropolitan statistical area is ranked only 134 largest in the nation.

The new study is sure to add some interesting fuel to the ongoing climate debate. Lenzen cast tourism as a “carbon-intensive industry” expected to add an increasingly significant proportion of global warming gases if not restrained.

The study examined tourism in 189 countries, along with their upstream supply chains that sometimes crossed national boundaries.

The U.S. topped the carbon footprint ranking, driven by that U.S. desire for independent travel. A mob of people touring in a bus has a smaller, per-person carbon footprint than an individual in a rental car or a couple in a fuel-sucking motorhome.

The U.S. was followed by China, Germany and India in terms of carbon expenditures.

“The majority of these carbon footprints are caused by domestic travel; business travel could not be distinguished from tourism,” the Sydney press release noted. But it recognized this is not a universal truth.

In “the Maldives, Mauritius, Cyprus and the Seychelles, international tourism represents between 30 percent and 80 percent of national emissions,” it said. It also conceded there are obvious economic benefits to tourism.

The study said “international arrivals and tourism receipts have been growing at an annual 3 percent to 5 percent – outpacing the growth of international trade – and that tourism is forecast to grow at an annual four percent, outpacing many other economic sectors.”





7 replies »

  1. When John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, first came to Alaska in 1879 and noticed the retreating glaciers; I wonder if he had any idea that the coal fired steamship he traveled on would one day be blamed for the retreat of the many glaciers he documented as retreating and explored so thoroughly.

  2. The irony in this is that the US started this problem by being green. Being green is good. But by US environmental regulations driving industry to non-green China, the US screwed the planet. Chinese industry ramped up with abandon, with no enviro regard. Many Chinese became affluent and are now travelling and China’s total negative impact on the planet is at its maximum. Being green only works when everyone is on the same page.

  3. It’s not so much how you get there, but what you are when you get there. Big footprint difference in activities one may choose. Hiking versus 4wheel tours as an example. Skins versus helisking is another.

  4. This means the CO2 footprint of the jets, first-class commercial and private, and all those limousines, of all those celebs and scientists going to their innumerable circle-jerk “global warming” conferences (conveniently in ritzy tourist destinations) have also been underestimated. They flit around the globe enjoying their elite lifestyles while simultaneously sermonizing how the rest of us need to destroy our lifestyles to “save the planet.” I’ll believe it’s a crisis when the alarmists start acting like it is

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