16 April 2024

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

COMMENTARY: Tourism and aviation emissions mitigation policy – disparate and inadequate

Travel and tourism represents directly some 3.5-4.0% of world GDP and employment and around 5% of CO2 emissions. Air transport is increasingly dependent on tourism – and tourism has been making increasing use of aviation, particularly internationally. But despite their symbiotic relationship, on greenhouse gas emissions mitigation the two components essentially operate in policy silos at both national and global levels. Chris Lyle reviews recent studies including a seminal and wide-ranging Stocktake by the Tourism Panel on Climate Change undertaken to assess progress on sector climate action and provide insight for advancing climate resilient tourism development worldwide. Present inadequate mitigation action, potential implications and pathways for tourism are addressed here, including the need for integrated tourism and aviation policy.

As a complement to the first Global Stocktake by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded at COP28 in Dubai in December 2023, the Tourism Panel on Climate Change (TPCC), an independent science-based collaboration, released a complementary Tourism and Climate Change Stocktake at the sectoral level. Aviation is the single increasingly dominant contributor to travel and tourism emissions, particularly at the international level, and the TPCC has recently also issued a Horizon Paper (by this author) that takes a comprehensive look at related mitigation policy regarding international aviation emissions. Both documents are available as downloads on the TPCC website.

Also in 2023, a report, Envisioning Tourism in 2030 and Beyond, published by the Travel Foundation, addressed aviation emissions in the changing shape of tourism in a decarbonising world.

The TPCC and Travel Foundation publications are the first global assessments of travel and tourism’s contribution to climate change and mitigation options to encompass international aviation since the definitive study, Climate Change and Tourism – Responding to Global Challenges, published in 2008 by the UN World Tourism Organization (now UN Tourism) with the UN Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. These studies produced critical findings in relation to the aviation and tourism nexus.

First, tourism has seen significant growth and is continuing to grow faster globally than the rest of the economy, putting greater pressure on the need to decouple growth from emissions. Continued capital investments and trends toward longer average travel distances and more air travel are key barriers to emission reductions. Tourist transport emissions increased by 65% between 1995 and 2019. Air travel was a key driver of this growth, now contributing 26% of all tourist trips (domestic and international) but 75% of tourist transport emissions. Aviation contributes 40% of the GHG emissions of tourism overall and at least 60% of the emissions from international tourism.

Existing technologies are unlikely to mitigate aviation emissions fully by the aspirational target of 2050. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can contribute to mitigating aviation’s climate impact, but their net greenhouse gas improvement, broader sustainability, scalability and climate justice implications will constrain production. Emerging technologies will play an expanding role after 2040.

Neither tourism nor aviation policy is yet integrated with global and national climate change frameworks, despite an increase in sectoral climate pledges. Only 18% of the UNFCCC’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and 43% of National Adaptation Plans submitted over time address tourism. Tourism is omitted from climate change frameworks in many countries where the sector represents a high proportion of the economy. Few parties currently incorporate international aviation emissions in their NDC filings, although these include the EU and its member states and some others have indicated their intention to do so.

The separate treatment of domestic and international aviation is a governance challenge for effective mitigation policy. International aviation emissions policy (but not domestic) has effectively been outsourced since 1997 by the UNFCCC to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), whose action is significantly circumscribed by its regulatory dictate.

The Travel Foundation study found only one scenario for travel and tourism to achieve net zero by 2050 and that incorporates an increasingly substantial contribution of SAF, revolutionary zero-emissions technology entering the air transport market from 2040 onwards and slowing the growth in aviation – including capping long-haul flights (over 3,500 km) to 2019 levels.

Demand management in the form of emissions capping of air transport is likely to become necessary sooner rather than later if the Paris Agreement targets are to be met, and early evaluation of options should help to minimise the economic and social impact.

National/local action

More and more tourist destinations are becoming aware of the need to mitigate climate change and local entities –  mostly SMEs, including hotels, tour operators and car rental companies – who are actively working to reduce emissions under the umbrella destination management of tourism authorities. But these efforts are most frequently subsumed by the emissions contribution of flights to and from the destination, which are rarely if ever addressed by tourism bodies. A critical issue here is the extent to which the respective tourist provider and receiver parties should be responsible for the flight emissions.

Aviation and tourism were both devastated by the Covid pandemic. But while the aviation sector has been focused on build back and growth, tourism started its recovery earlier through domestic travel, and some parts of the tourism industry are engaged in taking a broader perspective, rethinking the tourism model. Many destination countries are concerned about low retained revenue yield and negative impacts on local communities and facilities.

One aim is also to restore balance between ‘overtourism’ and local quality of life, including reflection of the national environmental and ecosystem sustainability promoted through welcoming international tourists. More generally, tourist destination countries are encouraging longer stays and less frequent visits, non-peak travel and alternative destinations within the same country, as well as imposing restrictions, for example, on access to attractions and accommodation (notably AirBnB), hotel construction and fast-food outlets.

However, there is as yet no indication of whether this focus on higher quality, higher priced tourism with less attention to traffic volume will have a significant impact on air transport. Many destinations still have an approach of ‘build it and they will come’, facilitated by the aviation focus on growth.

Global framework

There are significant legal differences globally between both the environmental and the economic regulation of aviation and those of tourism. As regards greenhouse gas emissions, tourism and domestic aviation (including airports, associated ground transportation and locally related business) are treated directly under the UNFCCC while international air transport emissions mitigation policy is dealt with by ICAO. Equal application provisions in the latter Organization’s governing Chicago Convention continue to dog climate change discussion and agreed action tends to be ‘least common denominator’ and diffuse, with no direct accountability to any individual country.

In 2019 the ICAO Assembly adopted CORSIA, a global carbon offsetting scheme, followed in 2022 by a long-term global aspirational goal (LTAG) for the Organization and its member states to work together to strive to achieve net-zero carbon emissions for international aviation by 2050. However, no intermediate goals have been set and pathways towards the 2050 goal will only be established in 2025.

International aviation had come back into the UNFCCC mainstream in 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow, if only at a side event initiated by the United Kingdom host, where an International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition (IACAC) was set up, presenting a declaration calling for “ambitious actions to reduce aviation CO2 emissions at a rate consistent with efforts to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5⁰C.” As with the ICAO LTAG (which it preceded) the IACAC declaration, with an updated version currently signed by 59 States, has no intermediate goals or pathway backup.

The silo split between aviation and tourism was reflected at COP26 in that a Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism was adopted separately. The Declaration is currently signed by over 850 private sector organisations, predominantly SMEs and tourism marketing entities – but from the whole aviation sector only a single airport. Consistent with UN Tourism and the World Travel and Tourism Council (which is a signatory) the Declaration is aimed at a “global commitment to halve emissions by 2030 and reach Net Zero as soon as possible before 2050.”

Differences in economic as well as climate change regulation between tourism and aviation add to the intricacy. Both international and domestic tourism are subject to the trade in services rules of the World Trade Organization. But international air transport is generally governed by around 3,000 bilateral air services agreements and a few regional agreements, many of which include legally-binding implications affecting emissions mitigation tools, for example on taxation. This complex regulatory framework has to be accommodated when developing economic measures for reduction of air transport emissions, particularly in the case of international operations.

ICAO and UN Tourism have recently increased cooperation “to strengthen the relationship between air transport and tourism in research, policy and management areas, improve coordination on efficient border management priorities, and support travel and tourism recovery and transformation in light of the climate change imperative.” At the same time, one of ICAO’s objectives for 2024 is to “collaborate with the United Nations World Tourism Organization and global tourism boards to promote travel by air.”

For its part, UN Tourism has developed a Statistical Framework for Measuring the Sustainability of Tourism, “an organizing structure for integrating statistics on the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable tourism.”  But the current (February 2024) version barely even references air transport – and ICAO only in a single footnote.

Demand management

The UNFCCC, basing itself on present scientific consensus, advocates global greenhouse gas emissions will have to peak by 2025 and be halved by 2030 over 2019 levels, with an aim of ‘climate neutrality’ by 2050. Emissions from the international air transport sector, given its economic role, Scope 3 generation and UNFCCC treatment, are expected to follow the same goals – which are largely accepted by the industry, certainly as regards the longer term.

All avenues of exploration and development of technology, propulsion and SAF should and will continue to be pursued, but there is increasing evidence that even when all these measures are taken together they are substantially inadequate for meeting the above goals, whether shorter or longer term. There remains a pressing need for substantial additional action. There are therefore increasing calls for demand management. Fiscal measures face significant obstacles in the form of the economic and environmental regulatory structure of international aviation and thus the concept of specifically capping aviation operations is now on the radar. Imposition of a structure for capping emissions consistent with the Paris Agreement goals would provide definitive limits and, brought into play when other measures are insufficient, would be a paramount driver of emissions mitigation. A viable emissions capping approach within the regulatory framework governing civil aviation is discussed in this author’s article published by the Responsible Tourism Partnership.

As regards demand management in addition to most other emissions mitigation measures, the UNFCCC principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR) is fundamental. In particular, there are many Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) very much dependent on aviation for their tourism sectors, the employment it creates and the foreign currency it brings. While they make up only 5.4% of all tourism transport emissions they deserve special treatment in the name of climate justice. They need a better mechanism for determining and realising their national interest in weighing up the benefits and costs of aviation-dependent tourism to their countries. Also in pursuance of CBDR, and taking a leaf from ICAO’s CORSIA, routes to and from these countries could at least transitionally be exempted from emissions capping.

In that context, research could be initiated on evolution of ‘essential air services’, linking the environmental pillar of sustainability with the economic and social pillars. The concept of such services has long been defined and given special regulatory treatment in a number of domestic jurisdictions and it is not too early for the travel and tourism community to start thinking about working towards their development for widespread international application (for a descriptive methodology see the UNWTO initiated study by ICAO on An Essential Service and Tourism Development Route Scheme). At some point, those small volume destination countries without a national airline may need to (re)assess the need for one, at least for operations to and from nearby major international hubs.

The bottom line

The tourism sector should take much greater responsibility for the emissions caused by the demand for aviation that it generates. For example, destinations should evaluate the options for focusing on geographically nearer originating markets. The sector also needs to get much more directly involved in the decarbonisation of aviation, particularly international aviation, and to address ways forward against the risk of the industry becoming a distressed or even stranded asset. In evolving tourism models, industry and destinations should integrate international aviation emissions into assessments and actions to mitigate climate change.

The initiative will have to be taken by tourism authorities and the tourism industry, including through entities such as the UNFCCC, the World Economic Forum and the World Travel and Tourism Council – the aviation side needs to be nudged beyond its silo.

Views expressed in Commentary op-ed articles do not necessarily represent those of GreenAir.

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