The Decision in Montreal - Can Tourism Be Sustainable?

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Belize flight
Belize flight
Megan Epler Wood

The 39th International Civil Aviation Organization will begin meeting in Montreal today to make the most significant decision on curbing climate change since the Paris agreement in 2015. Very few people realize that this meeting will dictate if travel can be genuinely sustainable.

At present, 2 billion passengers travel annually. But in the next decade approximately 6 billion travelers are expected to fly every year, an astounding 200% increase. And travel distances are doubling. Air travel is generally known to be the source of 2.5% of carbon emissions from all human activity worldwide. While this may sound acceptably small, the acceleration of the aviation economy will cause carbon emissions to outstrip almost all other sources of carbon pollution if business as usual reigns.

International emissions of CO2 from aviation have not been seriously considered until very recently, and were not part of the Kyoto Protocol, the landmark climate agreement which came into force in 2005 or the 2015 Paris Climate agreement. Responsibility for aviation emissions lies with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In 2010, ICAO set out optimistic goals for aviation to become carbon neutral from 2020 forward. But a flurry of analyses revealed that even with the most aggressive implementation of new technologies and fuels, total greenhouse gas emissions could only be expected to be reduced by 6.4% by 2050, far below original expectations.

ICAO is now proposing to bring aviation into alignment with global carbon management goals by establishing a market for the excess carbon produced by flying. This will be the only feasible route to reducing aviation’s carbon impacts. Market based systems to offset carbon excesses have attracted skepticism over the years, because they allow corporations to avoid costly long-term projects to produce carbon efficiency. But in this case, there are no other solutions, except limiting air travel, an option that most analysts and consumers do not care to discuss at all-- as was discussed in my previous blog.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that aviation will climb to 5% of the earth’s total emissions by 2050 with worst case scenarios as high as 15%. To make matters worse, climate risks from air travel are not limited to CO2. Nitrous Oxide, Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulfur Oxides, soot and water vapor emitted during air flights all impact the atmosphere where it is most vulnerable, the stratosphere. This makes aviation an increasingly dangerous climate actor.

The hard facts are that the next generation of aircraft from Boeing and Airbus will lower the per passenger impacts of flight by approximately 6% by 2025, a small dent in the overall use of fuel due to growing fleet sizes required to meet traveler demand. Alternative fuels are an extraordinary option with excellent efforts by Virgin, Jet Blue and United Airlines among others. But academic analysis indicates these fuels face market and supply limitations so grave that only 1-2% of aircraft fuel may be from biofuel sources for a generation.

The aviation “emissions gap” which would be caused by setting a cap in 2020 threatens to be 7.8 billion tons of carbon. As ICAO deliberates over the next 10 days, their decision will have momentous impacts on the global carbon budget and the question of marketing excess carbon worldwide. Vast new sources of investment in clean development and avoided deforestation around the world could be leveraged if there is adequate participation from the major travel economies in the new scheme.

Nations need to have a plan to upgrade aging fleets and leverage clean fuels to create the most efficient aviation programs in history. And they must agree to the new ICAO international market based system to offset excess carbon for at least the next 30 years. Sustainable tourism planners at the local level must develop visionary plans to qualify for clean development investment, which will only be available if they begin to measure their local tourism carbon impacts.

Sustainable tourism can no longer be a set of voluntary initiatives or a menu of consumer choices. It is in fact a growing industry, now at 10% of the global economy which must become part of efforts to cap global carbon emissions both on the ground and in the air. Visionary plans must be created to make tourism a clean development investment. I will explore this in upcoming blogs.

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