Climate change, carbon emissions and civil aviation: how tourism entrepreneurs (in any segment!) can take their share of responsibility

Climate change, carbon emissions and civil aviation: how tourism entrepreneurs (in any segment!) can take their share of responsibility

*By Gustavo Pinto, curator of responsible tourism programming at WTM Latin America

I am writing this article for WTM Latin America on board my 38th flight this year. By the end of the week there will be 40 and by the beginning of October, 42 flights. I’ve never counted the number of times I get on a plane each year, but with the excessive carbon footprint for business travel, I’ve forced myself to carry out this monitoring in 2023.

It’s a hard number to face as a responsible tourism expert who argues — at every class, lecture or panel I attend — that climate change, together with the use of single-use plastics, are the global causes of our concern as an economic sector for sustainable development.

I make this record of flights and carbon footprint without knowing for sure what I’m going to do with these figures. The first solutions that come to my mind (and probably to yours, reader) is to neutralize these emissions. Today, some airlines offer their customers this option, outsourcing (or, as they prefer to promote it, “inviting a collective responsibility”) the solution to this problem. But would this problem be solved?

Two facts about this solution: firstly, the volume of carbon emissions today is much higher than our reduction targets for 2030 – the deadline for reducing the global temperature increase by up to 1.5 ºC. Thus, the carbon neutralization of one passenger (or even many, or all of them) is no longer enough to control emissions and actively help keep humankind minimally safe from climate change.

A second fact is that the prospects for massive changes in the way civil aviation emits are still a long way off. In the current scenario, it is expected that by the mid-2030s we will be able to fly for up to an hour on fuels that are close to neutral – in other words, we are still a long way from this goal and the challenge of massifying the use of alternative fuels will still take a long time.

I return to my initial challenge. What should I do with the fact that by the end of the year I will probably have more than 50 business flights by the end of 2023 and my carbon footprint is extremely high?

Everything leads me to believe that, as passengers or as an economic sector, we need to take ownership of information on this subject. Search the websites of airlines (or cruises, or transport in general) to find out how these emissions are dealt with internally, whether there is a minimum monitoring of environmental sustainability results and whether these figures are improving year on year and what the short-term prospects for change are. In times of ESG this data should, at least, be public and promoted not only to shareholders, but also to customers and managers of tourist destinations where flights depart and arrive.

Understanding how airlines manage the environment, especially fuel use and carbon emissions, is already a huge step forward for our industry and the end customer – the traveler. Publishing data and making it easier for tourists to understand this information is the most efficient way of taking responsibility for short-term impacts in a society that still cares little about the issue.

As I always say in my speeches: you don’t have to spend a penny to take responsibility for the impact on tourism and this recommendation is a proof of that. Searching for data on the subject, interpreting them and facilitating understanding and ownership of the issue for the next links in the supply chain (regardless of what “link” your business represents) is an act that can cost little or even be for free, but which has a great impact if carried out in a coordinated and massive way among stakeholders.

My assessment is that this is how we will accelerate the structural changes we need to make to this problem – by disseminating information – especially on our continent, which has yet to show much concern about climate change. It’s worth remembering that, being mostly in a tropical region, Latin America will be one of the regions most negatively impacted by the variations in the planet’s climate in the short term, putting at risk the tourist destinations we depend on and love so much.

The opinions expressed in this text are the author’s opinion and do not necessarily reflect the position of WTM Latin America.

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Has an MSc in Responsible Tourism from Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK and was the founder of Inverted America, a consultancy and travel agency for responsible tourism working throughout South America. He was a founding member of “Muda!” (Brazilian Collective for Responsible Tourism), is a member of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT) and ICRT Brasil, and a specialist in social project management for PMD Pro.

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