Analysis - July 2, 2007



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July 2007


Print Issues, Sustainable tourism,

Is flying really that sinful?

The tourism industry already has a plethora of environmental issues to address, but more than ever, flying is considered as the biggest sin. Travelers are increasingly preoccupied with the environmental and social ethics of their consumption patterns and some reports claim that more people choose not to travel, in an attempt to curb their contribution to anthropogenic climate change. For example, a recent bulletin of the Canadian Tourism Commission reported that 29 % of UK travelers confirm having already cut back on air travel because of environmental concerns. Thus, the travel and tourism sector need to demonstrate it is taking its share of responsibility towards sustainable development. If not, more consumers may continue to choose to avoid travel, which will adversely impact on the entire tourism sector.

Atmospheric pollution from aircrafts contributes 2 % to 3 % to global greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is less than other sectors, such as road transport, forestry, or agriculture. According to current scenarios of civil aviation carbon dioxide emissions, in 2050 they will increase by factors of 3.3 to 5. Thus, if aviation emissions continue to grow while other sectors reduce their emissions, the relative importance of tourism’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions will grow. Consequently, tourism involving flying will become a more significant contributor to environmental problems.

The problem

At least the airline industry is addressing the problem and it was the first sector to commission a special report to determine its baseline performance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1999. A recent International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)1 conference, and first ever on aviation emissions, outlined the nature and magnitude of the current problem. Discussions also extended to mitigation measures, where the tourism sector has an important role to play. However, the near absence of tourism industry representatives at the conference is a clear sign that many opportunities remain for a cooperative approach to finding solutions to current problems.

Scientists today confirm that new aircrafts are more efficient than the average car on the road. Engine fuel consumption and aircraft fuel burn per seat improved 70% since the 1960s. Nonetheless, planes use non-renewable natural resources, and between 1990 and 2004, fuel consumption by the aviation sector increased by 2 to 3% per year. Despite alternative fuel technology developments, kerosene remains the primary fuel for planes in the short to medium term. Alternate fuel developments continue to deliver major advances, however fuel source and production raises other environmental issues. In addition, unlike conventional fuels, alternative fuels such as biofuels are currently not regulated nor standardized.

Aircraft emissions are complex and many scientific uncertainties remain. There is pollution from fossil fuel combustion on the ground and in the air at high altitudes. Besides the well-known carbon dioxide emissions, planes also emit water vapors, nitrous oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulfur gases, soot aerosols and metal particles. At high altitudes these gases behave differently and emissions also change the radiation balance of the troposphere. Planes also contribute to condensation trails that cause cirrus cloud formation, which is unique to aviation in the climate change debate.

Today the aviation sector’s target for 2020 is to reduce fuel burn and carbon dioxide emissions by 50%. It is currently estimated that technological improvements alone can bring more than 1% improvements per year. In order to achieve further engine innovations from technology development means environmental trade-off between low gas and noise emissions (especially nitrous oxides) and these also impact on operational costs. Thus powerful research and development advances are needed, coupled with appropriate programs and strong collaboration effort by stakeholders, such as airlines, airports, traffic managers, regulators and governments.

The ICAO conference also included discussions about local air quality and emission standards for aviation. Although standards exist for several gases2, presently there are none for particulate matter and carbon dioxide. The setting of standards is a very complex procedure. Current research is investigating how to enable appropriate monitoring and standard setting of aviation emissions.

At airports aircraft are responsible for about 50 % of the emissions produced on average. Other emissions result from ground transportation and use of support equipment. Airport efficiency is highly variable at different destinations, thus many opportunities exist to improve operations. For example, the time taken to taxi in and out, take-off climb and subsequent descent and landing procedures contributes very differently to emissions. For example, on average (all flights globally) it is estimated that 6.5 kg of carbon is emitted per passenger during take off and landing, compared to 0.02 kg per passenger at cruising level. There appears significant emission and fuel burn savings by optimally assign aircraft amongst available altitudes. Calculations also suggest that current traffic flow is inefficient and rerouting may improve emission performance as well prevent conflicts (with other planes, weather and on ground). Even a 2 km reduction in average distance flown by planes could lead to over 200 million km of travel per year, resulting in over 2 million tones of carbon dioxide savings.

Major issues remain

Although mitigation measures via technology and traffic management promise continued improvement in the future, market-based solutions are also part of the solution. However, questions still remain as to who is really accountable for aircraft emissions? Is it fuel suppliers, aircraft operators, airport and navigation service providers, or the manufacturers? Or is the end user, i.e. travelers? Or – the tourism industry responsible for destination marketing?

Current market-based solutions to greenhouse gas emissions include taxes, carbon trading and voluntary reduction mechanisms, such as carbon compensation schemes. Environmental taxes are already part of tourism at several destinations in various forms and they are not generally popular with everyone. Since the early 1990s several European airports notably in Switzerland, France, Sweden, UK, Germany have implemented local air quality charges to respond to local air pollution problems.

Aviation fuel is currently exempt from taxes. Some transport research3 suggests that the potential impact of a carbon tax on international tourism would be small. Even if a very high global tax of $ 1000 per tone of carbon emitted were applied in the year 2010, it would not change travel behavior and only reduce carbon dioxide emissions from aviation by 0.8 %. Under such a scenario, tourist destinations on short haul flights may see a decline in international tourist numbers. Island destinations would be losers in general. Eastern and Central Europe and countries such as China and India would gain, while Western Europe, the Americas and Africa would lose. Modeling also suggests that a carbon tax on aviation fuel would affect medium distance flights least.

The ICAO conference also offered discussions about voluntary reduction mechanisms. There is a clear increase in carbon neutral travel and the carbon market is growing exponentially. However this raises new issue concerning the credibility and the effectiveness of carbon compensation mechanisms (the next topic to be covered by J.Priskin in a forthcoming Globeveilleur).

Where to next

The ICAO conference suggests the airline sector needs to be a part of post Kyoto (2012), thus it endorses development of an emission trading system for international civil aviation. Air transport is, and has been an enabler of economic growth and it is a catalyst for growth. ICAO believes that global problems need global solutions and we need a co-coordinated approach to problem solving. The airline industry also knows that it will take Promethean solutions to improve the sector’s environmental performance.

As global forecasts suggest a growth of international arrivals by air, averaging up to 5 % till 2015, the tourism industry cannot continue to hide behind its clean image because it is a part of the service sector. Nor can it conveniently stay focused on destinations, and ignore that travel to and from them is up to 90 % of environmental problems, such as contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is that some segments of the tourism market are showing signs of willingness to pay, although attitudes are highly diverse (Figure 1). Last May, the Canadian Tourism Commission reported that nearly 70% of Canadians would be willing to pay an extra $ 10 or more for every $ 1000 they spend on air travel, if the funds collected were used to develop sustainable resources of energy (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Amount Canadians are willing to pay to offset carbon emissions when traveling by air


Source: Canadian Tourism Research Institute, The Conference board of Canada.


1. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations created in 1944 by the Chicago Convention. It has 190 contracting States and one of its strategic objectives is to minimize the adverse effect of global civil aviation on the environment. ICAO has a Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP), composed of public and private sector reps and NGOs representing the aviation industry.

2. At present emission standards exist for carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, unburned hydrocarbons and smoke.

3.. This research was on international tourism only and also excluded business travel for data reliability purposes concerning international arrivals by air.

– Canadian Tourism Commission (2007) Travelers Keen on Going Green. Tourism Intelligence Bulletin Issue 39, May 2007. – Canadian Tourism Research Institute, The Conference board of Canada, Vancouver. 5 pp.
– International Civil Aviation Organization 2007. Presentations and statements from the ICAO Colloquium on Aviation Emissions with Exhibition, held in Montreal Canada 14 – 16 May 2007. []
– Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1999) Special Report: Aviation and the global atmosphere. Summary for policy makers. Geneva. 23 pp.
– Tol, R. S. J. (2007) The impact of a carbon tax on international tourism. Transportation Research. Part D 12. p. 129-142.
– United States Environmental Protection Agency (2000) Aircraft Contrails Factsheet. EPA430-F-00-005. Washington DC. 6 pp.
– Weissman, A. (2007). Binge Flying, sinful travel and paranoia. [www.] 21, 2007. 2 pp.

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