The Burning Issue of Carbon

background to the post

In my previous post I suggested that we humans will only react to danger after an alarm is raised and if our senses are aroused – i.e., if we can see, touch, taste, smell or hear the danger.

The problem with carbon is that it’s invisible – the fact that we’ve passed the 400 parts per million concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere isn’t registering at all and our own pre-disposition towards denial, combined with willful and woeful blindness exercised by mainstream media, isn’t helping.

But what is interesting is the fact that the alarm bells are being sounded by the most unusual source – the investment community  and increasing incidences of extreme weather and its impact are being sensed or experienced (as in causing discomfort, pain, inconvenience) by a much wider population – see these studies showing major shifts in American awareness and concern for example. Panic and an orderly exit are to be avoided at all costs.

do the mathsIn this post, I am going to appeal to your head.  It’s all a matter of math and common sense – not the super complex algorithms used by money spinners in the City of London but more like the plain math used by Dicken’s Micawber.  In this case there are three kinds of math – an understanding of which is essential to anyone who cares about their own future and that of their family and children. It’s the kind of math that any responsible, conscious host, active in the tourism sector,  needs to grasp and deal with.  You can read the facts or watch the movie but in the latter case you’ll have to sign up to see it here: and promise not to host a screening ‘cos Al Jazeera now has the movie rights! (Now why could Al Jazeera have done the right thing and bought the rights to American TV which I don’t watch so that the rest of us could watch it online without having to go through this process????)

CARBON MATH
Thanks to Bill McKibben and the 350.org, there are just three key numbers that you need to grasp if you want to make sense of climate change. Fortunately, despite the plethora of statistics thrown about by both sides in this debate, you can take them as solid.

2 degrees Celsius
2 degreesThis is the maximum allowable increase in global average temperature over pre-industrial levels before life on Planet Earth for humans and many other fauna and flora becomes seriously unpleasant.  We don’t know for sure whether it is conservative enough but at least 167 countries have agreed it is a maximum. Note: the extreme weather and spate of record breaking climatic phenomena; the 30% reduction in the Arctic ice cap, the 30% increase in the acidification of the oceans with a 60% drop in coral have already occurred as a result of a 0.8 degree increase – so who knows what will happen when we up current warming levels by another 1.2 degrees?

565 Gigatons of Co2


carbon budgetThis is known as our “carbon budget” in other words, the maximum amount of carbon we can emit into the atmosphere by 2050 if we are to have a reasonable chance of staying below that 2 degree threshold. Sadly there are no signs that we’ve slowed down our spend of this budget as carbon emissions continue to increase globally at about 2-3% per year. Or another way of putting it – we’ll have spent our carbon budget by the time a child born today gets to celebrate her 16th birthday.

2795 Gigatons of CO2

unburnable carbonThis is what some very bright people in a company called Carbon Tracker have estimated is the amount of Co2 currently tied up in the reserves of existing fossil fuel companies.  Note: it’s 5 times the amount we can afford to burn. Or, to put it another way – 80% of the fuel reserves have to stay in the ground if we’re to have any chance of keeping under that 2 degree warming threshold.

ENERGY MATH
We know that our economy has come to depend on relatively cheap fossil fuel for its enormous growth over the past 60 years.  The value of the fossil fuel industry is estimated – based on known reserves – at $27 trillion and some $4 trillion of that is concentrated in the hands of just 200 companies. You can see why the thought of not extracting and selling 80% of that wealth might meet some resistance.

We all complain at the price of petrol or heating fuel but, remember that the income derived by the oil companies in no way covers the additional indirect costs that all of us are have to bear in the form of subsidies (over $1.9 trillion worldwide according to the IMF); health care costs, clean up costs after spills and accidents. The top 200 companies also are spending $675 billion each year on research, discovery and test drilling – funds which a growing number of analysts think is grossly wasteful given that these firms cannot or should not be burning all their existing reserves.

ENVIRONMENTAL MATH
Institutional and private investors as well as international and national governments are rapidly becoming aware of the huge cost associated with either environmental damage or failure to pay a sustainable price for vulnerable but critical ecosystem services. These “externalities” were estimated by UNEP and the Panel for responsible Investing (PRI) to total some $6.8 trillion in 2008 (equivalent to 11% of GDP) and are forecast to rise to $28.6 trillion by 2050 – here’s the report  Pricing environmental damage: US$ 28 trillion by 2050 – Principles for Responsible Investment. What makes tourism leaders think that tourism will continue to be exempt from paying its fair share especially once other sectors have to?

HOW DOES THE MATH ADD UP FOR TOURISM?

So why am I bombarding my readers – hopefully mostly tourism providers, hosts, employees etc – with these kinds of data?

The answer is simple – we’re all heading to that position known as between a rock and hard place!

"Rock, Hard Place" Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

The Rock – Given the concentration of wealth invested in the fossil fuels that drive our global economy, a financial crisis could well occur if investors decided en masse that those assets were too risky to touch and withdrew their support in the form of capital and credit. That prospect is not that far away – see the HSBC report on Unburnable Carbon.

hsbc unburnable carbon

The Hard Place – if we allowed the fossil fuel companies to realise their asset and burn all their reserves, we’d exceed our carbon budget by a factor of five and, to quote Christine Lagarde, the Head of the IMF, all fry!  BTW, just in case you wish to dismiss me as some kind of left wing, tree hugging, alarmist then take note that at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Lagarde said,  “the real wild card in the pack is increasing vulnerability from resource scarcity and climate change, with the potential for major social and economic disruption.” She called climate change “the greatest economic challenge of the 21st century.” And in response to a question from the audience, went on to say “Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”

There’s no way that an industry like tourism, so dependent on fossil fuels to transport its guests to the point of consumption, can expect to prosper, let alone survive, either scenario. (Pollock not Lagarde)

And the concept that tourism can save the world economy (as suggested in Abu Dhabi by its glitterati – see this post) is ludicrous.

It is in the best interests of the entire tourism industry to be doing all it can to face the carbon issue head on, wean itself off as much carbon as it can, and disinvest in companies or funds invested in fossil fuels. Only if there is a significant switch to renewable fuels in other sectors (ground transport, heating, cooling and electricity generation) can the aviation sector have enough time to kick its kerosene habit. (Pollock)

The financial crisis is not inevitable. But it will likely occur if we carry on with business as usual and muddle through until a combination of investor fear and public opinion determines that minimizing carbon spend is priority Number One.

The environmental crisis is not inevitable either – well, yet.  Both sunlight, human intelligence and ingenuity are abundant and the technologies already exist to eliminate our reliance on carbon producing fuels. A small fraction of the subsidies currently paid to fossil fuel suppliers could dramatically alter the energy landscape if diverted to renewables. But the spectre of food shortages, the large scale migration of people, rising sea levels and extreme weather will become daily occurrences unless we decide, individually and collectively, that is a future we don’t intend to create.

ACTION TO BE TAKEN BY CONSCIOUS HOSTS
So what can YOU do?

  1. Wake up, become aware and informed and get active.
  2. Reduce your personal and business dependency on fossil fuels. Show your guests you care – the ones who notice and appreciate your responsible actions are the ones who can help your business grow.
  3. Assess your suppliers and do as much as you can to localise and ensure that your fellow citizens in your community benefit from your visitor’s spending too.
  4. If you have investments – disinvest from portfolios that comprise fossil fuel companies –  it was disinvestment in South African companies that helped stop Apartheid. To show the power of this approach, 350.org is persuading students to insist their universities divest from their fossil fuel investment portfolios. Switch to alternative fossils.
  5. Ask your DMO difficult questions – are their forecasts based on past performance and “business as usual” assumptions. Do they have a resilience strategy?
  6. Lobby your governments to lift subsidies on fossil fuels ($1.9 trillion a year) and subsidize alternative sources instead.
  7. Whether you call it the Naked King or the Elephant in the room, at least have the guts to start a conversation about carbon in your community. You may not be popular today but your children will thank you and your business might just survive if action is taken now.. and
  8. Don’t associate protest with NO but with a resounding YES vote for a better, healthier, happier future. A very small fraction of the population has much to lose when the rest of us wake up. They control the messaging and are counting on our apathy.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Solving Overtourism will demand more than redefinition - November 24, 2016

    […] as fuel), then global warming would dangerously exceed the 2 degree target deemed as safe (see The Burning issue of Carbon). That “aha” moment spread quickly infecting students, pension funds, university endowments and […]

  2. WTM 2015 Responsible Tourism Day: Shock & Awe | Conscious.Travel - December 9, 2015

    […] The notion of carbon budgets and the need to divest from fossil fuels was discussed here: The Burning Issue of Carbon […]

  3. Walking the Halls of Hope and Despair, WTM 2014 | Adventure Travel News - November 25, 2014

    […] Tourism generates wastes and uses resources at a rate that can be accommodated in its early stage of development but not sustained after it has reached a certain scale and pace of growth. Mitigating the negative effects of climate change (most of which will hurt tourism) now requires that all economies drastically reduce their production of CO2 to zero by 2050. That is because the atmosphere can only absorb a finite amount of CO2 IF we wish to keep average temperatures at a level in which human society can flourish (see previous posts on subject here and here). […]

  4. Walking the halls of hope and despair, WTM 2014 | Conscious.Travel - November 12, 2014

    […] Tourism generates wastes and uses resources at a rate that can be accommodated in its early stage of development but not sustained after it has reached a certain scale and pace of growth. Mitigating the negative effects of climate change (most of which will hurt tourism) now requires that all economies drastically reduce their production of CO2 to zero by 2050. That is because the atmosphere can only absorb a finite amount of CO2 IF we wish to keep average temperatures at a level in which human society can flourish (see previous posts on subject here and here). […]

  5. Climate Change: Implications for Business as Usual Tourism | Conscious.Travel - August 14, 2014

    […] The Burning Issue of Carbon June 2013 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: