Why the industry must join carbon-removal efforts

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Christina Beckmann
Christina Beckmann

Tourism is booming. It is especially powerful in emerging markets, often bringing jobs and revenue to places where opportunities are limited.

But travel is not without its own issues. While overtourism has become the cause du jour for some, there is a much more serious issue in play. The reality is, whether we are realizing our Instagram dreams or closing big deals on the other side of the world, our travel might be adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the rest of our pursuits combined.

International arrivals grew 7% in 2017, with receipts totaling $94 billion more than in 2016. Globally, the industry is responsible for 313 million jobs and 10.4% of global GDP. It is projected to continue on a growth trajectory of between 3% and 4% per year, about 43 million international arrivals annually, on average, between 2010 and 2030, according to U.N. World Tourism Organization projections.

It is the mainstay of remote rural areas as well as metropolitan centers. In the U.S. and EU, each person adds some 10 to 15 tons of carbon dioxide per year just living their daily lives, but a single London-Rio De Janeiro flight in business class adds about six tons per passenger.

This is not to criticize travelers or to call for people to stop traveling -- the benefits of travel are too great -- but to encourage a real solution: carbon removal. This short opinion piece is a challenge to leading tourism companies to organize and fund carbon-removal solutions.

Tourism is reliant on planes, ships and heavy road vehicles not only for initial transport but also for the activities people engage in once they reach a destination. A recent study quantifying tourism supply chain emissions beyond simple air travel found that "visitors from and in high-income countries demand a high proportion of transport, goods (shopping) and hospitality (accommodation and restaurants), reflecting their travel expectations."

Taking a supply chain view of tourism's carbon emissions reveals a serious reality: Tourism as a whole is responsible for 8% of global emissions, and it is growing in step with global economic development, accelerating emissions each year.

The industry is utterly dependent on various forms of transport for passengers and the goods they consume that have not yet started, or barely begun, efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Although we might already occasionally stay in hotels powered by renewable energy, it could be decades before renewable energy makes its way into our long-distance vacation transport needs. The technology just isn't available yet.

Parts of the sector, including many airlines and tour operators, have made measurable progress in carbon offsetting.

With carbon offsetting, the purchaser of the offset compensates for its own emissions by paying someone else to reduce their emissions elsewhere or to fund another carbon-offsetting measure, such as planting trees. This is what creates the "offset." Offsetting is a step in the right direction, but what the world really needs is less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Earth's atmosphere now holds enough carbon dioxide, however, that even if we stopped emitting completely tomorrow, we would still have a serious challenge dealing with the carbon dioxide already out there.

In any case, the notion of halting all emissions tomorrow is not realistic. For the tourism industry in particular, the systems we rely on to power our transportation and accommodations are likely to be reliant on oil products for decades to come, most probably after the point in time at which the world needs to be at zero emissions to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Therefore a new practice beyond offsetting must emerge.

The most meaningful action would be the removal of the equivalent carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby resulting in an effective outcome of zero emissions or what is widely referred to as net-zero emissions.

Forestry projects are an effective way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but the scale on which oil is used for transport may eclipse the reforestation options available, particularly given the need to reforest anyway to counter the general global deforestation now underway.

An alternative approach being pursued by numerous technology companies around the world is to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, transport it via pipeline if necessary and sequester it geologically, typically 2 to 3 kilometers beneath the surface.

This sounds fantastical, doesn't it?

While geological storage of carbon dioxide is a well known and thoroughly understood process in the oil and gas industry, the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is in its infancy. Airminer.org, the index of companies and projects mining carbon from the air, shows more than 80 companies around the world offering carbon removal. But only two have pilot plants, and both of them pull only modest quantities of carbon dioxide from the air and store it underground.

Key challenges for these innovative companies is the current high cost of the service they provide and finding customers or groups of customers who can afford it. Right now, the primary customers for their carbon dioxide are companies that use the gas in industrial processes, a market not yet meaningful enough to make a dent in our carbon dioxide problem.

Given that the global travel industry is a large contributor to global emissions and will need a carbon removal process in the future, there is a strong case to be made for engaging and nurturing it through its development phase today, bringing cost reductions, ensuring long-term success and providing a rigorous approach to managing emissions.

One idea is to combine tourism stakeholders into a group dedicated to paying for carbon removal and geological storage. Imagine a consortium of companies and destinations coming together to fund a plant specifically devoted to carbon removal for the tourism industry.

In tourism, one of our greatest challenges -- and opportunities, in this case -- is our distributed nature. As Megan Epler Wood notes in her recent book, "Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet" (Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), "the diversity of the chain of delivery makes it difficult to put the burden on any one part of the supply chain. And this why the travel industry has been called a stealth industry."

In the absence of an obvious single owner, the onus falls on all of us to find our own path forward, to organize and support the solutions that will enable tourism to keep delivering the many benefits we know it can provide.

If you are interested in learning more about carbon removal for the tourism industry, send an email to me at [email protected].

Christina Beckmann is director of education and research at the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

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