Exploring the Climate Science/Policy Jungle. II. What To Do About Air Travel/Tourism?

Fig. 2 | Top bilateral embodied carbon movements. In 2013, international travel caused a carbon footprint of about 1 GtCO2e, or 23% of the global carbon
footprint of tourism. Arrows point in the direction of embodied carbon flow, which—in accordance with the literature—is the direction of commodity trade,
and is opposite to the movement of people. Red arrows: bilateral international movements belonging to the top 10% of the total 1 GtCO2e. Yellow arrows:
top 10–30%. Orange arrows: 30–50%. Blue arrows: the remainder
Given that carbon is one of the major sources of climate change (landscape change and other greenhouse gases are also involved), a policy question, both nationally and internationally is “what industries get to emit CO2?” and what industries are asked via policy to reduce emissions by changing their practices and/or reducing their activity, and which are asked to stop completely (coal is an example of this).

For Each Industry
Is it an Energy Producer or User?
Via Policies, Are we asking them to: Reduce Impacts of Doing the Same Amount?
And/or Do Less?
or Stop Entirely?

In this post, we’ll take a look at international tourism, and discuss it as it relates to places and impacts in the western US. Let’s take a look at this2018 paper by Lenzen et al.(and the correction here). My point is to simply ask the question, for what industries and when, are carbon footprints a reason to change local/state/federal policies? For example, should Boulder, Colorado stop having international conferences to reduce its carbon footprint? Should Utah stop encouraging international travel to visit ski areas and National Parks?

At around 1 kgCO2e per dollar of final demand (Supplementary Table 6c), the carbon multiplier (Section ‘Input-output analysis’) of global tourism is higher than those of global manufacturing (0.8 kgCO2e per US$) and construction (0.7 kgCO2e per US$), and higher than the global average (0.75 kgCO2e per US$). Growth in tourism-related expenditure is therefore a stronger accelerator of emissions than growth in manufacturing, construction or services provision.

Travel is highly income-elastic and carbon-intensive. As global economic development progresses, especially among high-income countries and regions experiencing rapid economic growth, consumers’ demand for travel has grown much faster than their consumption of other products and services. Driven by the desire for exotic travel experiences and an increasing reliance on aviation and luxury amenities, affluence has turned tourism into a carbon-intensive consumption category. Global demand for tourism is outstripping the decarbonization of tourism operations, and, as a result, is accelerating global carbon emissions. At the same time, at least 15%
of global tourism-related emissions are currently under no binding reduction target as emissions of international aviation and bunker shipping are excluded from the Paris Agreement. In addition, the United States, the most significant source of tourism emissions, does not support the Agreement.


Recognizing the global significance of tourism-related emissions, the UNWTO proposed two mitigation strategies: (1) to encourage travellers to choose short-haul destinations with an increased use of public transportation and less aviation; and (2) to provide marketbased incentives for tourism operators to improve their energy and carbon efficiency16. Our findings provide proof that so far these mitigation strategies have yielded limited success. Neither responsible travel behaviour nor technological improvements have been able to rein in the increase of tourism’s carbon footprint. Carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes (especially for aviation services) may be required to curtail unchecked future growth in tourism-related emissions.

So, international tourism is a user of CO2 emitting energy. Emissions of international aviation are not under a binding agreement (the US is not party to the Paris Agreement, but that doesn’t matter with regard to airline emissions).

Do US/state/local policies ask the tourism industry to reduce its footprint (reduce impacts)?
Do US/state/local policies discourage international/(or long-distance air national, which may be m/l the same) tourism? In fact, current policies may well promote more tourism.

Let’s imagine some policy options. Someone at PERC, can’t remember who, suggested that National Parks charge non-citizens more for entry fees to help address maintenance backlogs. Since people are generally fairly well-off who do international travel, would this be a good policy choice? Or perhaps the extra funds could go into efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of tourism in the Parks? Or go to a research fund toward low carbon fuel for jets? Should states encourage international tourism (or from tourists who come via plane), when the results lead to greater carbon use (plus water use and potentially other more local environmental impacts)? What are the economic/environmental trade-offs and who decides? And are these impacts on anyone’s radar screen? Why or why not?

6 thoughts on “Exploring the Climate Science/Policy Jungle. II. What To Do About Air Travel/Tourism?”

  1. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” (Pogo.)
    The unspoken corollary is that this is an enemy that we would rather not fight. And it is a reason why we need a functioning government to help distribute the responsibility. Until we have that, I can’t get excited about looking at options.

    • But that’s exactly what governments do (however functional they are). In our case, the legislative and executive branches take ideas and provide space for people to has out the pros and cons and hopefully come to some kind of agreement. Without ideas, though, there is nowhere to go.

      Also, some of us do air travel a lot less than others.

      • With a government that doesn’t acknowledge a problem, there’s not much point in offering them solutions. (Personally, I like the “block rates” idea, but 1000 miles hardly gets you out of Montana.)

        • That’s why I said “the government”… there is the executive branch and the legislative branch… D’s in Congress make the case that they are very interested and that there is a problem.. that’s where I would go with ideas.

  2. “… are carbon footprints a reason to change local/state/federal policies?” Yes. Aviation emissions are in essence unregulated, as a consequence of the regulatory body (UN’s ICAO) being an industry dominated agency (established for making global rules on baggage, airspace, etc.). Aviation is the one economic sector that feels entitled to continue increasing its actual emissions of CO2 and other GHGs (greatly so), and because the emissions are mainly at high altitude, the climate forcing in multiplied by a factor of ~2x. ICAO relies mainly on offsetting and biofuels.

    Growth in aviation (last year air travel +7%, air freight +9% — doubling rates of 10 and 8 years, long-term average 4.5%/year) overwhelms improvements in aircraft efficiency (avg. 1-2%/year, considering time to integrate step changes into the global fleet, with low-hanging fruit already exploited).

    Supplying biofuels at the scale the aviation industry would require will be highly damaging environmentally, and will withhold (competitive $) what biofuels can reasonably be produced from portions of more energy-efficient surface transport that also will need them.

    I think we (developed nations with a lot of modestly-or-better affluent people) won’t take climate change and the need for effective policy seriously enough until a major focus in put limiting air travel, by whatever means. Flying is emblematic of entitlement and high lifestyle emissions, and is often closely tied one’s personal identity (the sociology is quite interesting). I therefore consider flying (whether from the viewpoint of the traveler or of a community trying to those will travel by air) to be a “keystone” climate issue.

    Some references:
    1. https://repository.tudelft.nl/islandora/object/uuid:615ac06e-d389-4c6c-810e-7a4ab5818e8d/datastream/OBJ/download

    2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269332986_All_adrift_Aviation_shipping_and_climate_change_policy

    3. http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/810024/20/Peeters%20et%20al.%202016%20Technology%20Myths.pdf

  3. Increasing block rates successfully reduced water demand in Tucson, Az. How about an increasing block rate for air travel. You pay less for your first 1,000 miles of air travel each year (or two), then the price increases with each increment of air travel after that.


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