One of the greatest advances of the 20th century has been the strengthened connections between countries, thanks in particular to air travel. Air travel reduces distances and journey times as never before in history. Wherever we are, one, two, three days are enough to reach any point on the globe. Travelling at the speed of light is fine, but it comes at a cost. An environmental cost, which the traveller does not pay when buying the ticket, but which weighs on all living species like a debt after each flight.

CO2 and Aviation

It is not about being sensational, but about facts and science. So let’s dig into it:

Global distribution of air transport consumption
Global distribution of aviation fuel consumption – ScienceDirect

We can also add to this list of facts that international shipping and aviation are the only sectors not included in states’ action plans under the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Climate Agreement

Many argue today that the contribution of air travel is somewhere around 3% of global greenhouse gases, without considering the short-term radiative effects, and so it is not the highest priority when combatting climate change. Given the other massive portions related, for instance, to agriculture or energy generation limiting air travel might not be a priority.

This view is valid when looking at the present numbers and percentages and these thoughts are reinforced if we consider the strong engagements of the world of air transport that is working towards a capping of emissions to the levels of 2020 (or rather 2019 in this case) and carbon neutrality by 2050. However, taking a second look at the above 3 points, one would grasp the complexity of the situation, especially the underlying portion related to personal travel for leisure.

Travelling by plane has become more accessible

Indeed, the development of the middle class around the world is pushing the demand higher and higher. It is good news to see scores of populations reaching stable and comfortable revenue levels, however, the social norm, habits, and education, implies that this goes hand in hand with international mobility and the visiting the most exotic and fragile places (tick the boxes on that bucket list).

Taking a second look at the numbers, one will notice that an extremely limited number of the global population travels internationally by plane today.

 What if that demand doubles? Would the companies resist this surge of demand? Would we see new companies created to cater for this new demand? What would be their commitments towards sustainable development? Unfortunately, we are used to attitude of “business first” and yet again a new failure for the human being to resist short term monetary benefits for long term survival. We have actually already witnessed that exploding demand has led, well no surprises, to a massive increase in offer … sky-rocketing the global emissions from the industry.

Companies, individuals, institutions, each has a role to play.

And if businesses are not ready to resist the temptation, and recent history in the aviation sector shows that they will not, would individuals do it ? There is an essential part of our education that links time with money, and since time is finite we need to get the most of it. The plane’s capacity to compress time, and thus to avoid spoiling it, is something fundamental in our culture. Asking people to change this mindset seems a huge task that would need at least a generation to see concrete results.

The case of the individual action and pressure is not lost though, we are seeing several initiatives around the globe that try to tackle the issue of global awareness and importance of individual actions in creative ways. For instance, Amsterdam is striving to be the first city to ban fossil fuel advertisement (that is oil&gas companies, but also related sectors, including airlines) from its streets.

The multiple benefits of air transport

This shows that there is a growing global conscience regarding the issue of climate change, its relation to our activities and the contribution of air travel to that. There are significant collateral damages to limiting travelling by plane. One of the biggest side effects is the tourism domain and all its actors and stakeholders. In a pre-covid world, tourism accounted for about 10% of the global economy, that is 1 in 10 jobs are related to tourism and benefit from it.

Rhinoceros preserved thanks to the benefits of air transport

Beyond its economical weight, tourism has direct positive societal and cultural impacts, strengthening the bonds between people across countries, helping global dialogue, embracing cultural diversity and mutual understanding.

But also, tourism has incredibly positive effects on the environment, think of all the natural parks and reserves that substituted poaching with preservation thanks to revenues from tourism. Think of all global awareness regarding biodiversity, fauna and flora that is causally linked to education and on-site experiences from travelers.

When value and values collide

In the common language we came to distinguish these two words, a value is usually a price or quantifiable amount, that is based on offer and demand, while values to the contrary are the ensemble of implicit moral rules that are, by definition, not quantifiable. CO2 emissions are measurable, quantifiable and responsibility can be established. This is the case of transportation and all its ecosystem. While it is easy to trace the supply chain of fuel, the airports, the airplanes, find the purpose of travel and link it to personal leisure and tourism. The real value of tourism is not traceable, and its positive contributions to the society, culture and environment are not concrete measurable quantities.

These two notions are difficult to reconcile, especially in a time of climate urgency where we need to take direct, concrete and drastic measures as quickly as possible to avoid a dark long-term scenario with temperature rising, collapsing ecosystems and biodiversity. In this case, everything  that is seen as “accessory” is quickly removed. Travelling by plane to the other end of the globe for is regarded as a leisure by a growing part of the population and the tourism sector has to deal with this trend. A trend that is not expected to dim as climate change is in action and an increasing number of people are started to feel the impact in their daily lives.

Looking to the future – alternatives

There are numbers of alternatives under development, whether from the tourism sector itself or other sectors. The present COVID-19 crisis has seen a significant increase in the development of local tourism offers (in the countries where there is sufficient demand), or the novel staycation offers that provide a new equilibrium between personal and professional travel. Or the surge in the online travel experiences.

Some innovative international mobility are also under development, a carbon neutral plane using CO2 itself as fuel is under conception or other non-fossil fuel like hydrogen. Moreover, the global cultural shift regarding an individuals relation to work and how to hit the right work-life balance that could lead to the increase of the time allocated to hobbies, including travel and tourism, and increased geographical flexibility are all growing societal trends where the tourism sector shall actively participate to support the shift we need to operate to reach our sustainable development goals.

Acting together is the solution!

A global significant effort is required form the society to successfully address the challenge of climate change. The first step to address an issue is to acknowledge it. Thanks to its vital importance to large sectors of the society, tourism needs to accompany this global shift by working in harmony with a very wide range of stakeholders. From technology providers, to large transportation companies, but also local authorities and policy makers to participate to the new definition of work  and the reinvention of the way we lead our lives!