Do Tourists Cause Global Warming?


The scientific journal Nature Climate Change yesterday published a study measuring the “carbon footprint of global tourism.” It’s big. Taking into account all tourism-related expenditures for transport, shopping, and food, it adds up to 4.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases a year, or 8 percent of global emissions. Here’s the study’s abstract:

Tourism contributes significantly to global gross domestic product, and is forecast to grow at an annual 4 percent, thus outpacing many other economic sectors. However, global carbon emissions related to tourism are currently not well quantified. Here, we quantify tourism-related global carbon flows between 160 countries, and their carbon footprints under origin and destination accounting perspectives. We find that, between 2009 and 2013, tourism’s global carbon footprint has increased from 3.9 to 4.5 GtCO2e, four times more than previously estimated, accounting for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Transport, shopping and food are significant contributors. The majority of this footprint is exerted by and in high-income countries. The rapid increase in tourism demand is effectively outstripping the decarbonization of tourism-related technology. We project that, due to its high carbon intensity and continuing growth, tourism will constitute a growing part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The majority of this footprint is exerted by and in high-income countries.” So you might suppose people in rich countries should eschew or at least dramatically cut back on cruises, jet-setting, and tourism in foreign lands. But the economic fallout for many poor countries would be nasty. As a review article in today’s Climatewire points out, for “small islands popular among travelers . . . the footprint of international visitors . . . may account for as much as 80 percent of their national emissions.” But that means tourism accounts for most of their national incomes. For example, in 2017, the Maldives got 76.6 percent of its national income from tourism.  

Maldives and other members of the Association of Small Island States are among the most aggressive advocates of penalizing and restricting fossil fuel consumption in industrialized nations. Have they thought things through?

According to the Nature study, the association between personal wealth and travel is so strong that in countries where per capita income exceeds $40,000, a 10 percent increase in per capita income yields a 13 percent increase in carbon footprint. Even a “modest” carbon tax like that advocated by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would have significant negative impacts on U.S. economic growth, household purchasing power, and employment. That would put a damper on many U.S. households’ vacation plans.

The Nature study looks only at tourism-related emissions, but the carbon footprint for all forms of travel is larger still. In a 2009 report, Beyond Transport Policy, the European Environment Agency (EEA) fretted that despite high motor fuel taxes and tough fuel economy mandates, European Union transport sector emissions had increased by 26 percent during 1990-2006. Here (lightly edited) is how I summarized the agency’s angst at the time:

Why have taxes and mandates failed to reduce transport sector emissions? The EEA report spotlights the unheard-of fact that the “key drivers” of demand for transport services are “external” to the transport sector. So despite what you’ve been told, people don’t drive just for the heck of it, buy airplane tickets for the sheer thrill of flying, ship products or order deliveries just to keep things moving. No, most people use transport vehicles to shop, work, educate their children, vacation, or supply products to customers. And—horrors—they do these things “without considering the consequences on transport demand and greenhouse gas emissions”!

What this implies, of course, is that we cannot have what the EEA calls a “sustainable transport system” until politicians and bureaucrats control those pesky “external drivers”—the other economic sectors that generate the demand for transport services.

The EEA report provides detailed case studies on how three external drivers—food production and consumption, short-haul air travel for business and leisure travel, and education—increase emissions by increasing the demand for transport. Each study reveals what every sober adult should already know. Work causes emissions. Play causes emissions. Education causes emissions.

In short, life causes emissions, especially where people are prosperous, free to come and go as they please, and seek to work, play, and learn.

While acknowledging that transport demand comes from “external drivers” on which transport policies have had little impact, the EEA report fails to go “beyond transport policy.” Despite promising a new approach, the EEA’s solution to the alleged problem of too many people driving, flying, shipping, and importing turns out to be imposing taxes on fuels, imports, passengers, and vehicles.

Both the recent Nature study and the older EEA report miss the big picture. A tourism industry big enough to account for 8 percent of global emissions is a big contributor to human well-being. Here’s how the World Travel & Tourism Council describes the sector in its 2017 annual report:

Despite the ever-increasing and unpredictable shocks from terrorist attacks and political instability, to health pandemics and natural disasters, Travel & Tourism continued to show its resilience in 2016, contributing direct GDP growth of 3.1 percent and supporting 6 million net additional jobs in the sector. In total, Travel & Tourism generated US$7.6 trillion (10.2 percent of global GDP) and 292 million jobs in 2016, equivalent to 1 in 10 jobs in the global economy. The sector accounted for 6.6 percent of total global exports and almost 30 percent of total global service exports.

For the sixth successive year, growth in Travel & Tourism outpaced that of the global economy (2.5 percent). Additionally in 2016, direct Travel & Tourism GDP growth not only outperformed the economy-wide growth recorded in 116 of the 185 countries covered by the annual economic impact research (including in major Travel & Tourism economies such as Australia, Canada, China, India, Mexico and South Africa), but it also was stronger than the growth recorded in the financial and business services, manufacturing, public services, retail and distribution, and transport sectors.

So by all means, let’s tax fuels, passengers, and vehicles—it won’t harm anyone except a few oil barons and coal magnates! And if climate campaigners really believe that, I’ve got some bridges in Brooklyn I’d like to sell them.