Tag Archives: climate change

Aviation Emissions: will flying under the radar on a wing and a prayer help or prevent tourism to flourish?

I make no apology for this being a long post or provocative. The topic is complex and contentious and required a significant investment of time and effort to digest let alone understand. Those who want  a PDF with more references and reading are welcome to write me: theconscioushost@gmail.com and I’ll send.

This post is being written a few air miles from Paris in the penultimate  day of COP21 – the third major stage in humanity’s journey toward a collective commitment to prevent the planet’s climate warming to an unbearable level.

elephants in the roomIt turns out that while  prospects for some form of binding agreement are far better than at the Copenhagen talks five years earlier, two sectors, described by many as “elephants in the room” have done their best to avoid being included in any form of binding agreement and they are shipping and aviation with potentially disastrous results. (As of Wednesday night the key paragraphs related to the two sectors that together accounts for 5% of global emissions has been dropped)

A few hours ago this statement was issued by the NGO, Transport and Environment (T&E)

“The dropping of international aviation and shipping emissions from the draft Paris climate agreement makes keeping a temperature increase under 2 degrees close to impossible. Those parties calling for an ambitious agreement must insist that language on international transport be reinserted.

The journey started in earnest in 1992 with the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) followed five years later with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. Because the Kyoto Protocol was designed to obtain national commitments, it lacked a mechanism to manage global phenomena such as shipping and aviation so the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organisation were mandated to reduce emissions. Unfortunately neither has yet succeeded in doing so as is evident in the graph below.

shipping & aviatios emissions
ICAO has since moved at a speed slower than most Greenland glaciers. Major breakthroughs have included the agreement to study, the agreement to plan, and the agreement to agree. This sector’s sense of urgency is evident in this progress statement.

At ICAO’s triennial assembly in 2013, an agreement was reached to proceed with a roadmap towards a decision to be taken in 2016 for implementation in 2020.

Only in this context, does the headline of a press release issued by the Global Travel Association (GTAC) [1] make sense. The release is vague and does not define what a successful outcome might look like but we know from other press releases that the aviation members, notably IATA, ATAG and ICAO, prefer to avoid inclusion in any binding agreement. They believe that progress can best be made at the ICAO meeting due to take place in September 2016 – by which time they’ll know just how strong (demanding) the Paris deal shapes up.

gtac press release.jpg

As you would expect, the aviation and shipping lobby have supporters and opponents – countries that stand to benefit from the next phase of globalisation are reluctant to pin these transport sectors down while numerous NGOs, the IMF, the EU and even the World Bank would prefer to have these sector participate in the deal.

A Turbulent Future

Going forward, it’s quite possible that instead of flying under the radar, aviation (along with shipping) could find itself in the spotlight as the drama of reaching a binding agreement intensifies. Despite this, the bulk of the tourism industry is silent and seems to be looking the other way – either unaware of the spotlight or hoping it will quickly dim or be directed elsewhere. Despite the fact that climate change dwarfs virtually all other issues focused upon by the responsible /sustainability community, discussion of this topic has been surprisingly sparse.

This silence is a tragedy and a disgrace and provides convincing evidence that much of the tourism industry is either asleep at the controls, or playing Captain Smith on tourism’s Titanic.

And here’s why:

  • Lack of regulation and the onset of globalisation have meant that aviation and shipping emissions grew by 78-83% between 1990 and 2010 compared to a growth of just 40% in all other sectors.
  • Furthermore, according ICAO’s own research, aviation-related emissions are set to increase by a further 270% by 2050 such that, 35 years from now, the two unregulated sectors (shipping and tourism) would together account for 40% of all global emissions! There will be no possibility to “fly under the radar” unnoticed then – if you could fly at all.Failure to include two industrial sectors whose combined emissions are equivalent to UK and Germany combined in any binding agreement would completely dash the survival aspirations of many Small Island Developing States and other vulnerable nations and significantly undermine our chances of not over shooting the 2 degree warming limit (see previous post and Kevin Anderson’s speech at WTM 2015).
  • The two sectors are in danger of losing a social licence to operate should all other sectors pursue rigorous de-carbonisation programs bound by a global agreement and held to account by an increasingly informed public experiencing more and more personal inconvenience, havoc, and harm as average temperatures continue to rise, climate-related hazards increase in frequency, and crops fail etc.
  • There are two other elephants in the room that need to be reckoned with: equity and growth. First equity: 45% of total CO2 emissions are generated by just 10% of the population and, while there is a direct correlation between rising middle classes and rising emissions, it is also becoming clear that within the middle classes distribution of emissions is highly skewed to a minority. Increasingly inequalities within national borders are more important than those between countries and a privileged elite in emerging countries is starting to outstrip working class Europeans (in terms of emissions per capita). The same pattern applies to aviation demand. In the UK, for example, just 15% of the population takes 70% of the flights and 55% didn’t fly abroad at all in 2013.Second volume growth – as has been discussed frequently on this web site, and especially here, tourism’s dependency on volume growth constitutes the other elephant in the room. There is no evidence that the tourism sector has been or will be able to de-couple resource use and emission production at anywhere near the rate needed to compensate for its aggressive growth forecasts. From both an equity and resource efficiency perspective it vital that the tourism industry shift its focus from more to better and that will require the attention of everyone.
  • Losing that social licence to operate may take a more tangible form – currently not a cent in tax is paid worldwide on aviation fuel for commercial aircraft or fuel oil for container ships, passenger ferries or cruise liners, nor are these sectors required to collect VAT on ticket salesin Europe According to Euractiv, aviation enjoys fossil fuel subsidies amounting to € 60 billion and since most flights are taken by the world’s wealthiest people (that includes people like me and you dear reader) it’s only a matter of time before it becomes politically expedient as well as socially desirable for passenger levies to be imposed on those who are most responsible for emissions from this sector.
  • Unless the visitor economy makes every effort to reduce emissions as a whole – on the ground and in the air – it will also find its bullish growth projections impossible to achieve as international tourism becomes the victim as well as contributor to climate change. Rising temperatures will render many sunny, warm destinations unbearable for much of the year, rising sea levels and strong, more frequent storms will disrupt travel patterns with increasing frequency; increased civil unrest due to food shortages, drought and political breakdown will increase the volume of refugees and incidences of terrorism and or protest and impede the free unhindered movement of people across international borders. In a worst case scenario, if “business as usual” does prevail and the rest of the economy fails to meet whatever pledges a deal in Paris binds them to, then we’re on course for a 4-6 degree increase described as simply catastrophic. International travel will have come to a stand still.

The Aviation Position
The alternative approach favoured by the ICAO, the aviation sector and the main-stream tourism leadership, looks promising but falls far short of what’s needed despite all the good intentions and accomplishments made by individual enterprises within the sector as described in ATAG’s colourful publication Solutions and the recent WTTC publication Connecting Global Climate Action. The aviation sector’s strategy for reducing carbon has four pillars:

brandalism airline ad

(C) Brandalism

  • Technology – new planes (1.3 trillion dollar’s worth) and winglets
  • Operational Improvements – continuous descent and shortened flight times but which nevertheless are proving harder to achieve due weather-related disruptions and changes to flight paths
  • Biofuels known as “sustainable alternative aviation fuels” credited with enormous potential but also unlikely to be commercially viable until the mid 2020s and, depending on funding or science, possibly later.
  • Smart Economic Measures” also known as Market Based Mechanisms or MBM for short that translate into a globally uniform approach to carbon trading and offsetting.

Essentially, ICAO is planning to cap aviation emissions at 2020 levels and offset the rest confident that “after 2020 the industry will start seeing some of the larger emission reduction possibilities of advanced technologies and sustainable aviation fuels which will allow the industry to aim for its most ambitious goals: to ensure net carbon emissions from aviation will be half of what they were in 2005 or 320 million tonnes of carbon, despite the growth in passenger numbers and cargo.”

Please note the words in bold and especially the word net in front of carbon emissions. This is not the same as actual reductions in CO2 but an offset purchased from other sectors of society or achieved by a massive reallocation of land from food to fuel production. In plain language – the aviation sector expects CO2 savings will generally be made in other sectors of the economy to enable aviation-related CO2 to grow or be cut by less.

Dr Kevin Anderson’s colleague, at the Tyndall Centre, Alice Bows-Larkin, challenges the effectiveness of “market based measures” suggesting that, for them to work, carbon prices would have to soar higher than most policy makers could countenance. Failure by this sector to make real cuts will require all others to make deeper reductions

“The rapidity with which the CO2 budget is being consumed requires immediate cuts in CO2 growth rates across all sectors. As long as aviation and shipping are outside of a global and strictly bound trading scheme, 2 degrees C implies that CO2 growth rates need to be near zero by 2015 to 2020”

 Bows-Larkin then concludes:

Technologies to cut CO2 in the required time frame are few and far between. Nations where per capita flying as well as growth rates are high have no option but to consider constraining growth in the short term, until fuel efficiency improvements or use of biofuel can more than offset the CO2 produced by a further rise in passenger-km.

In a 2014 paper, All adrift: aviation, shipping and climate change policy, available here, Bows-Larkin raises an interesting ethical and moral issue.

Should aviation, which in a global context is dominated by relative affluent leisure passengers, take priority over others sectors for the use of sustainable biofuels in preference to less popular policies aiming to curb or even cut growth rates? … For aviation, pinning so much hope on emissions trading to meet the 2 degree  C challenge is misguided.

climate reality pic of rbFortunately some high profile business leaders and one boss of an airline are sounding more committed and ambitious (see Guardian article Dec 6th). Richard Branson, CEO Virgin Airlines, is part of a coalition calling for the deal to embrace carbon neutrality by 2050 (as opposed to the end of the century); eliminate fossil fuel subsidies; tax carbon; and fund clean energy research so we can eliminate fossil energy. This group is also urging us to set 1.5 degree warming as a target (as opposed to the 2 degree limit) in order to protect the most vulnerable – millions living at sea peel along river deltas or on low lying islands….

I sub-titled this post – flying on a wing and a prayer – for good reason.

Future investors are likely to ask – is the aviation strategy appropriately responsible and sufficiently imaginative to ensure sustained community support over time – especially when we get daily reports of disasters, droughts, floods, famine etc.  While savvy existing investors might also doubt that they’ll get a decent return from $1.3 trillion invested in new aircraft if aviation experiences worsening impacts caused by a changing climate, if airport expansion is constrained and additional price mechanisms are introduced to ensure the limits of carbon budget aren’t exceeded.

Conclusions: The Tourism Conundrum

In short, the future for aviation will not be a repeat of the past. The sector is in for a very turbulent ride ahead and this is an issue that affects all of tourism and should involve the entire sector. This is not about blame. Nor should it be about special treatment.

None of us who work in the tourism sector and especially those of us who travel long distances by air can avoid burning carbon. The tourism industry is absolutely vital to the global economy as it is currently structured. But then so is agriculture, IT, health, manufacturing and education all of which are being asked to find creative ways of cutting back their contribution to a global carbon budget/footprint. Neither tourism as a whole nor aviation as a sub sector can or should ask for special treatment. Nor can the non-aviation aspects of tourism pretend that they aren’t part of either the problem or the solution and try to ignore the carbon elephant in the room. Nor can the aviation sector act in isolation and resist imposition of levies that could raise funds to help the ground aspects of tourism move as quickly as possible to carbon neutrality. If there is a failure right now, it is that we’re not seeing the system as a whole, not collaborating as interdependent partners, and failing to own up to the need to tackle huge challenges.

I am neither a carbon nor a finance expert but common sense dictates that the following concepts should at least be considered.

  1. Given that flight-related emissions are generated by a relatively small proportion of the population and given that much of mass industrial-style tourism does not generate sufficient yield in many developing countries to enable them to either adapt or mitigate, then some form of global frequent flyer passenger levy or user pay scheme should be introduced and paid into a fund distributed to the receiving countries for the purpose of  generating a carbon neutral tourism sector on the ground. French economists Lucas Chanel and Thomas Piketty have calculated that a €189 levy on business class tickets and a €20 on economy class would raise an estimated €150 billion a year for climate adaptation.
  2. Each destination should be required to produce a carbon mitigation and adaption strategy as part of a community-shaped destination development strategy that would provide a clear benchmark of the carbon footprint generated by inbound visitors. Such strategies would mark an initial step towards sound destination management and develop pathways towards becoming carbon neutral on the ground. Such an undertaking would also have the benefit of pulling together an entire host community to ensure that it is ready – creative and resilient enough – to face and flourish in a very uncertain future.
  3. The non-avaiation portion of the travel and tourism industry which, in terms of companies, far outstrips the aviation sector, needs to become part of this discussion. It has a vested interest in the outcome. Should the fate of an entire industry worth over $7 trillion be determined by the airlines and other multinational leaders who have been the primary beneficiaries of both its growth and subsidies to date? How are the interest of the significantly larger number of small and micro enterprises, their employees and their resident neighbours represented here? The reports and statements issued by GTAC consistenly support business as usual (albeit with some green and sustainability added on) despite growing recognition that deeper systemic or structural innovation is needed to respect biophysical realities and social equity. Hence our focus on community action.

At this time in tourism’s history it doesn’t matter what motivates you to face the tough questions – whether you wish to make your business more profitable, your community safer or to increase your reputation in a transparent world of changing values. What matters is that we don’t shirk the painful and the difficult and procrastinate any longer.

mlk 2

In response to Martin Luther King’s injunction, I would say the time is now.

[1] GTAC is a relatively new coalition of the key drivers of mainstream tourism formed to offer:.. .‘One Voice’ to spur governments to develop policies which contribute to the profitable, sustainable and long-term growth of the industry. GTAC is comprised of Airports Council International (ACI), Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), International Air Transport Association (IATA), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), World Economic Forum (WEF), World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)”


BREAKING NEWS (after initial publication midday Thursday)
ICAO expectations for an emissions deal from their September 2016

Informative article on the 5th elephant no one either wants or is allowed to discuss – carbon generated by America’s largest single employer – the military.

WTM 2015 Responsible Tourism Day: Shock & Awe


While 99% of the participants at the World Travel Market were blithely conducting “business as usual” in their brightly lit booths, the intellectual equivalent of shock and awe was being unleashed by the climate change equivalent to Greek rebel and former Deputy Prime Minister, Yanis Varoufakis.

November 4th 2015 may, with hindsight (and, probably, some wishful thinking), turn out to be an historic and symbolic moment in the history of mass tourism. That morning we witnessed a clash of two mindsets and two styles of power.  Kevin Anderson was the gladiator brought into the ring by a very brave Harold Goodwin to stimulate debate and discussion on what apparently has become a rather boring topic in tourism industry circles.

Undeterred, Anderson, one of Britain’s top climate change scientists, delivered a brilliantly succinct speech that seemed to impress even the “I’ve seen it all” Stephen Sackur. The professor come mountain climber provided just the right mix of data and acerbic insight in 17 minutes to prove to even the sleepiest in the audience that apathy, resistance and denial of the need to change course might be suicidal. His key points summarized:

  • Based on science, the international community agrees that 2 degrees warming is the limit of acceptable warming – if the planet’s average temperature rises beyond that then humanity is in serious trouble.
  • But we’re not to deceive ourselves by averages as staying within that boundary will still produce incredible hardship and pain to the planet’s poorest, most vulnerable and innocent of inhabitants. Anderson pressed home the point thus: “At a two degrees rise many millions of poor people, mostly in the southern hemisphere, will die. it means we are prepared to sacrifice the lives of many poor, low emitting people.
  • The only way we can have a 66% chance of staying within that boundary is if we act now by reducing our generation of CO2 emission by 10% per annum and stop pumping any carbon into the atmosphere at all by 2050!
  • Unfortunately, our track record for changing our life and business-styles thus far has not been encouraging. Since we first became globally aware of the problem in the 1990s, humanity has pumped 60% more carbon into a stressed atmosphere.
  • This graph below shows the gap between carrying on as normal (the purple line) and meeting the reduction’s target that society at large has identified as tolerable (the trajectory depicted in orange). It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase most delegate heard on their tube journey; “Mind the Gap!”
    the gap
  • If we don’t alter course, we’re headed towards a rise of between 4 and 6 degrees in average global temperature which even the most conservative of organizations, such as the International Energy Authority and the IMF, now believe to be disastrous for humanity. Again, Anderson made sure we understood the implications: “Four degrees centigrade warming is incompatible with an organised global community. We will reach for a kalashnikov and start killing each other.”
  • To make the reductions necessary and deliver some equity (i.e., take care of those who have not caused the problem in the first place), the wealthy nations, who produce the lion’s share of emissions, need to take drastic action now and start reducing carbon missions annually by 10% and produce 90% less carbon in 2030 than we did in 1990.
  • To do that we need to consume less and produce less. In the tourism sector, and particularly within wealthy western economies, that means flying less often to far away places and making sure all the infrastructure that supports tourism around the world produces virtually no greenhouse gases at all. That will radically affect lifestyles and incur costs. The pain is unavoidable.
  • Unfortunately because the tourism sector is growing at such a rate (doubling in traffic in less than 20 years and moving towards more carbon intensive forms of tourism), it will, despite all efforts to become more efficient, generate 1.3 times more CO2 by 2030 and 2.64 times more CO2 by 2050 than it does now. That’s our contribution to the gap.

In order to send his dumbstruck audience away with a positive message, Anderson ended with this quote, clearly having delivered on its first pre-requisite:

unger quote

So it was with bated breath, we all awaited for signs of the second requisite, imagination, from the panel of industry leaders representing Boeing, Hyatt, UNWTO and a Tourism Minister from South Africa.This is when the real essence of the problem became apparent. What we witnessed in the next half hour was the clash of mindsets that Anderson identified as the crux of the problem and a subject I have been banging on about for the past 20 years. Anderson framed the challenge at its core as:

ultimately shackles

There’s absolutely no point in getting angry and blaming – we’re all slaves to our dominant paradigms and I can see why the industry leaders took the position they did – their immediate personal survival and prosperity depend on taking the prevailing corporate view – business as usual with some greening where necessary. Mr. Boeing talked about the fuel efficiencies they had achieved, stated that governments should invest more and then suggested, somewhat incredibly, that he didn’t know what profit his company made; Miss Hyatt took the same route – the hotel company is  investing heavily in becoming more sustainable but its spokesperson claimed to have no knowledge of Hyatt’s expansion plans; and Mr. UNWTO asserted that to not grow tourism was to be defeatist; that no one should be afraid of growth and, in fact should embrace growth – even though growth was never defined and, if it meant more people taking trips more often,   would certainly be at odds with the carbon reduction requirements Anderson had so eloquently and passionately just described. Interestingly, the only panelist who agreed that painful changes to our lifestyles might be necessary was a politician who also confessed he wouldn’t be running for office again!

There is nothing defeatist about facing the truth head on.  Continuing to do what we’ve always done will simply worsen our situation. Imagination and creativity are vital. We simply can’t afford stubborn resistance or intellectual laziness. Kevin Anderson is completely right to suggest that a complete systems change is needed along with leadership, courage, innovative thinking, engaged teams and difficult choices – little of which were evident from the panel but were evident in the subsequent Responsible Tourism Awards session that followed. The next 45 minutes provided a veritable cornucopia of imagination, creativity, joy and even playfulness all rising up from the messy but fertile soil of “grassroot communities” and small businesses experimenting and imagining a better future. If you don’t believe me, have a look: it’s all on video here…(Kevin Anderson’s presentations starts at 9:31 minutes in)


The whole motivation underpinning Conscious Travel is to create a space for both clarity and imagination to flourish. If the same amount of energy and money were to be spent exploring alternatives to the current model as are spent defending and justifying the old one, we would have found several ways to close the gap. As has been demonstrated year after year at the numerous award ceremonies held by all major tourism associations, there’s no shortage of imagination, leadership, courage, innovative thinking and a willingness to make difficult choices in the face of seeming intractable problems.

In two subsequent post to this, I’ll identify where we need clarity and some approaches to imagining a tourism that is better and better for more.

The ideas presented under the banner Conscious Travel are not original. What is perhaps new to tourism, is a fresh way of seeing, being and doing that enables us to shift into different patterns of behavior with less fear and more confidence. Once you get that this planet is not only our only home but a living organism of which we are a vital part; that we’re each and all connected participants in an amazing web of life; that each of our personal decisions matter; and that we can create conditions for our collective wisdom to guide us, much will become possible. It also helps to see that we’re playing our part in a vast, epic drama – an evolutionary shift from ego to eco consciousness and that such shifts are a natural part of life’s grand journey towards more complex and beautiful ways of being.

More Reading:
Jeremy Smith,  publisher of the amazingly content rich TravIndy wrote a concise and less critical summary of the debate here:

Previous Posts on this Blog Relevant to the subject:

  1. My response to the notion that growth is not to be questioned was summarised in this post: Walking the Halls of Hope and Despair, WTM 2014
  2. The notion of carbon budgets and the need to divest from fossil fuels was discussed here:
    The Burning Issue of Carbon
  3. A Licence to Grow or Get better – Which Do You Choose? 
  4. Climate Change: Implications for Business as Usual Tourism
  5. My first attempt to assess the impact of climate change on tourism was published by the Icarus Foundation in 2007  – The Climate Change Challenge: Implications for Tourism

The Relevance of VUCA and ANTHROPOCENE to Tourism

What do military personnel and hunter-gatherers have in common?

In addition to being highly mobile, often clad with weaponry of some sort, they possess high levels of situation awareness, a nose for danger and an above average capacity for adaptation and improvisation.  Their “fight and flight” responses are on full alert.

Given these capacities, it is not surprising that it was the US military who first named the new conditions in which humanity would have to operate for the remainder of the century and very likely beyond. Traditionally tasked with obtaining “intel” they are adept at reading the signs and joining the dots. As early as 20 years ago, they concluded that established methods of observation, analysis and forecasting were no longer up to the job. They coined yet another anagram to draw our attention to the new state of play suggesting with conviction and accuracy that we now live in a VUCA world in which Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity are dominant characteristics (1).

As military men are spared the restrictions of time consuming peer reviews and a drawn out publication process their observations preceded conclusive scientific evidence from biophysical scientists by a few years. But the physical scientists have since caught up in style and have introduced a fancy new term of their own – the Anthropocene; a name that is likely to last much longer in the history books.  It applies to the arrival of a new geological epoch, no less, whose commencement may have started as early as the 1850s when atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and methane began to rise as a result of the introduction of the steam engine and the industrial revolution that followed. It marks a time when human activities have reached such a scale, scope and pace as to alter whole planetary systems. (2) (3)

As is the case with all “phase changes” its early beginnings were imperceptible and potentially reversible at first but really took off in the very early 1950s – coincidentally,  the same time I was born. I mention this not to suggest any causal relationship between the two events (!!!) but to bear personal witness to the fact that it’s unprecedented for any human to be born in one geological epoch and reach the end of their lives in another.  It seems to give a whole new depth of meaning to the term Baby Boomers as it is our generation that is witnessing this profound beginning. It’s also our generation, whose activities during what is known as the Great Acceleration, that kick-started this incipient shift.

The changing of epochs is a geological process that normally takes thousands of years so this unprecedented situation just goes to show that while change may be a constant, the rate at which change changes most certainly is not!

The Great Acceleration refers to the scale, pace and scope of human activity that has occurred since the end of the Second World War – a period during which the earth’s population tripled and GDP expanded some 20-fold.  Owen Gaffney of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program has created an illuminating slide deck illustrating the most impactful period of human history in terms of our relationship with the biosphere. It’s well worth watching.


In order to appreciate the immensity of this shift, I  also encourage you to watch this brief and beautifully crafted video explaining what the Anthropocene means. If you feel you don’t have time, or if you doubt that humankind can have had such an impact, consider this:

  • Humans now move more sediment and rock each year than all the natural processes of erosion –rivers, rain, glaciers, frost.
  • Humans manage 75% of all land outside ice sheets
  • Greenhouse gas concentrations are higher than they have been recorded for just under a million years
  • Humans now take out more nitrogen from the atmosphere than the biosphere does as a whole
  • The average global temperature has increased by just under 1 degree Celsius in one hundred years and is forecast to rise by an equal amount in less than another thirty-five years if business as usual prevails.
  • Human activity is correlated with a lost of 60% of species in that same period.



So what has this to do with VUCA and hunter gatherers?

1. By entering the Anthropocene we’ve left a short but uniquely stable period in earth’s history – an epoch called the Holocene when the ideal conditions for humans to thrive and multiply emerged and have been sustained. The Holocene began around 12,000 years ago and made it possible for homo sapiens to stop wandering around searching for food and start growing his or her own.

2. Prior to the Holocene, notably for the previous 400,000 years the Earth System had stabilised around a very different pattern characterised by huge swings in temperature (between + and =4 degrees C) that corresponded the arrival and then disappearance of huge ice flows out from the poles. As illustrated below, the last time the earth’s temperature rose significantly higher than today was in a time called Eemian when sea levels were  also 4-6 meters higher than now.

last 800 thousand years

During the past 100,000 years, early man – our hunter-gatherer ancestors – had to put up with huge swings in climate that made survival very difficult. It’s estimated that the population of homo sapiens was reduced to a mere 15,000 fertile individuals and flirted with extinction until a warm period enabled them to start wandering out of East Africa.


last 100000 years coloured

3. It was as if Planet Earth was seeking and found a balance or an internal rhythm around 12,000 years ago and average temperature fluctuations have stayed within a boundary of + or – 1 degree until very, very recently. This new stability provided a degree of predictability that humans could observe without which any form of agriculture would have been impossible. Without agriculture, there would be no settlements and without settlements there would be limited exchange of knowledge.. Our current lifestyles, transport infrastructure and agricultural surpluses have all been developed to function under the benign conditions typified by the Holocene and could not be sustained if pre-Holocene conditions were to return.

4. The arrival of the Anthropocene marks the end of that period of stability and predictability – a “regime shift”, ironically,  caused by our success as a species in the Holocene. The military strategists were right – even if they didn’t know of the science. This is not just another “trend” or even another “risk factor” or “threat.”  This change is about as big as it gets and there is simply no aspect of human existence that isn’t going to be affected by it.

5. This doesn’t  have to be a sad story with an unhappy unending. It need not be a Greek tragedy with lots of wailing and lamentations. On the contrary, what’s so very different is that we know so very much about the benign Holocene conditions that we can avoid straying away too far away from that state. Thanks to the work of  Johan Rockstrom et al, we have a dashboard that can be applied to keep humanity operating within safe planetary boundaries. We have all the tools to track our progress and many argue that we have the knowledge and tools to thrive – even as 9 billion people – within those boundaries. More importantly we have the knowledge and tools to regenerate our local environments and ensure tourism is in truth a force for good.

Using those tools and the insights of modernsnakes-and-ladders, however, will take awareness of the challenge (hence the need to wake up now); recognition that we can’t assume someone else will take care of us (hence the need to grow up); and development of a compelling vision of a better way of living together on this most beautiful of planet (hence stepping up and working together to create a better model). It will also require re-thinking virtually everything, including how we are going to move 1.8 billion across international borders safely every year from 2030 onwards.

If we don’t, then sharpen you spears, check out the bows and arrows, hone your foraging skills and make friends with the indigenous peoples of the world. Maybe evolution is like the game “snake and ladders” after all, and we’ll just slide down the snake to climb the ladder again. Unlike the game, however, it’s not about throwing dice but making conscious choices and collectively, co-creatively developing the skills of a hunter gatherer described at the beginning of this essay. Not because we need return to foraging but because we need to thrive in a less stable, more unpredictable world. I am confident that by so doing the outcome will be better and better for more.



1. The notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College in the late 1990s and took hold after the terrorist attacks on the world trade centre in 2001. See: Kingsinger, P. & Walch, K. (2012 July 9). Living and leading in a VUCA world. Thunderbird University. Retrieved from http://knowledgenetwork.thunderbird.edu/research/2012/07/09/kinsinger-walch-vuca/.

2.  The terms Anthropocene was popularised by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and subsequently a team of scientists have published several papers on the subject. Steffen, Will et al. “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship.” Ambio 40.7 (2011): 739–761. PMC. An application has been made to the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London for its formal acceptance.

3. Background history of the proposal for a new epoch http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_anthropocene_debate__marking_humanitys_impact/2274/

4. Contrary positions toRockstrom

Revealing the Invisible

A frequent observation made in modern society is

“If you cannot see a problem, you’ll ignore it and if you cannot measure it you won’t manage it.”

NASA has removed both excuses.

Thanks NASA! Just thought I’d share…..


Walking the halls of hope and despair, WTM 2014

World Travel Market 2013, ExCel, London, ExCel, London


I confess I have never been wild about the World Travel Market – its central hall was the site of my personal “Road to Damascus” several years ago when I experienced the full extent to which tourism has become an industrial production and consumption machine.

I admit to being overwhelmed by the sheer scale, busyness and sterility of the event where products are pushed and deals done; brochures and media stuffed into plastic bags then discarded; and sustainable clichés fall like feathers from the upper galleries onto the hard selling activity in cubicles on the shop floor.

Walking the central hall this year I felt a visceral inner and outer tussle between despair and hope.

The number of “responsibility” seminars was, encouragingly, greater than ever before but still totally outnumbered and out attended by sessions devoted to trends, technology, social media, and market segments. Within the responsible tourism stream, the same pattern applied. Subjects like “Increasing the local economic impact” and ‘Using responsible travel to drive sales” attracted far more participants than subjects like reducing energy and water. (Note: I learned much from these sessions; applaud and thank organisers, speakers and Jeremy Smith for his excellent distillation: 10 things I learned from WTM 2014 with great links to speaker interviews)

There’s a simple explanation for the topic and attendance bias I suppose – the vast majority of people paid to attend WTM are engaged in marketing and sales. It is a market after all. But that explanation points to an issue that was hardly mentioned– and that’s the G-word: Growth. Tourism succeeds when it grows because we have defined success as more. Because growth is the goal, we allocate resources to the people, technology and processes that produce growth and measure our progress towards sustaining it.

And that leads me back to despair – because until we describe our predicament accurately and delve deeply into the root cause of the challenges we face, as an industry and as humanity, we’ll waste time and scarce resources tinkering at the edges. Our well intended “busyness” will keep thousands employed, produce endless conference fodder, and generate hundreds of checklists, certification bodies, “new” green initiatives, declarations and reports but won’t actually move us off the road to catastrophe.

The deeper problem is that more has become the end and not the means.

Somewhere in the last 60 years, while we’ve been so busy expanding, we’ve made it the responsibility of commerce to grow but not necessarily improve the lives of the community in which it takes place. GDP is used to measure growth in activity not welfare. We’ve become so used to growing and to the benefits that we believe it brings, that we’re literally hooked. We certainly behave like addicts. We seem to need more of it to feel its benefits. We complain and suffer when growth slows or stops. We associate a life without it as being uncomfortable at best and possibly life threatening at worse and we can also be blind to the hurt we cause ourselves and others.


(c) polyp@polyp.org.uk

As is also the case with addiction, the object of our craving is now causing more harm than good and producing a number of side effects that threaten our collective welfare. Many of these side effects – the pressure on biodiversity, the mistreatment of animals held captive; growth in human trafficking, and social inequity — were rightly included as responsible tourism topics at WTM. But climate change, universally recognized as one the biggest threats to human life and prosperity, was not officially assigned any airtime  this year despite the urgency now communicated by 97%+ of scientists (see Guardian summary). Climate change was not named as a topic in any of the seminar sessions. Yet climate change is surely a major and critically important symptom of an organ (in this case, our life supporting ecosphere), adjusting to the effects of an addiction afflicting its dominant species.

Addicts, we know, spend increasing amounts of time as their disease progresses, denying and concealing their dependence. The absence of sessions at WTM in which neither climate change nor the negative impacts of growth were officially discussed, and the complete absence of their mention in the brochure used to launch the “New” 10YFP Programme on Sustainable Tourism all signal avoidance behaviours classically used by addicts not yet ready for rehabilitation.

Finally, this statement from the Director of Sustainable Development of the UNWTO in the only article labeled “Responsible Tourism” in WTM Business,  shows what really matters:

“The tourism sector is embracing responsible tourism not as an option, but as a condition for its continuous growth

Forgive me if the thought of sterilized needles and methadone replacement comes to mind.

So What’s Wrong with Growth?

The problem is fundamentally a semantic one. The verb “to grow” has three meanings:

miriam webster

Over the course of time, we in tourism have assumed that more of an entity or state is better than equal or less over time. Look at any tourism strategy from the smallest of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, National Tourist Boards or even the UNWTO and you will see that the goal is to grow tourism by a percentage increase over its performance the previous year. Performance is measured in the trips, people, and their spending at the host destination. In short, size matters and the shared meaning of growth is MORE.

So what’s wrong with that?

Well, there wasn’t much wrong with that at all when we started out some 60 years ago deploying mass transport to enable working men and women and their families have a holiday, visit parts of their country or venture to foreign lands. The tourism “industry” sensibly applied what had proved to be a very proficient method of making and selling things – an industrial system of production and consumption and, as a consequence, during the span of one human lifetime, tourism became a global economic sector of enormous importance contributing 10% of GDP and keeping over 250 million people in a job.

Since World War 2, tourism has brought benefits to virtually every country; lifted people out of poverty through accessible employment; created an untold number of entrepreneurial opportunities; enabled millions to enjoy face-to-face encounters with people of very different cultures; help fill public treasuries with useful tax dollars that were applied to education, health care and other social services; supported the development of important infrastructure and provided billions of dollars in foreign exchange and investment capital.

Phew!  Surely that’s an accomplishment to be proud of?

Yes, it is. But it’s not the complete or honest story. It ignores the inefficiencies and inequities built into the industrial system that only become apparent over time. So duplicating that rate of growth going forward may not bring more “good” with it. There are reasons why continuing to grow bigger is neither desirable nor at all likely. Let’s tackle the issue of likelihood first.

It will be difficult to sustain such growth forever because the operating model on which it was based was designed in and for a different world. The conditions that ensured its success are fast disappearing.

The model flourished when energy was cheaply available from abundant, accessible sources of fossil fuel; when there were literally hundreds of new, virtually empty and exotic places to explore and cultures to get to know; when host communities needed cash and investment to play in a global cash economy; when there were vast quantities of resources, capital and know-how to deploy with limited debt to be paid; and when huge numbers of people were determined to put two decades of war behind them and improve their material well-being.

Continuing to grow in size is not desirable now simply because the world is full (1), and because the industrial model of production and consumption contains within it certain characteristics and flaws that worsen with time. For the purpose of this post, I’ll concentrate on just four of the biggest:

  1. 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 COto 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).
  2. Tourism is on a course that would increase its carbon contribution by 150% at precisely the time when it needs to focus on decreasing its absolute contribution to zero! Even if all ground operations became carbon-negative, the airline sector – vital to international tourism and responsible for 40% of tourism emissions now – will be a major contributor to the global total by 2050 if current forecast/ growth rates are achieved. Despite all the talk about being responsible, not a single nation has a carbon mitigation strategy for the tourism sector (2)
  3. With a human population expected to increase by a further 2.5 billion between now and 2050, tourism will also face increasing competition for land, water and food in areas where – thanks to the effects of climate change – public funds may be unable to cope with the basic needs of resident populations. According to UNEP (3), mass tourism leaves an average of 5 cents in the host country for every $1 spent by visitors.  As the costs of mitigation and adaptation to climate change and the demands of a burgeoning visitor population rise, where will these hosts find the resources to supply adequate waste management, security, health and transportation services in addition to meeting the needs of their own growing population?
  4. cheap travelMass tourism has a tendency to produce diminishing returns to investors and host communities over time. Tourism demand is highly volatile, seasonal and beyond the control of host destinations. When demand ebbs there is a tendency to discount and that response, combined with a lack of control over capacity, leads to a general fall in income per transaction. Price discounting necessitates either rigorous cost cutting or vertical and horizontal integration which can exacerbate a tendency for service levels and customer satisfaction to also decline.


What can we do?  There are two answers and the clue lies in the second and third definition of the verb “to grow.”

First, we re-define “growth” as better and second, we grow up!

Re-defining Growth As “Better and better for more”
Let’s shift our focus to a more inspiring end goal – enabling all stakeholders and especially the communities that welcome guests to flourish; in other words express and exude health and vitality; be resilient; open to change and qualitative development. In short thrive and prosper and become all they can be.

Let’s make sure the growth we get is:

  • honest (acknowledges and deals with costs and harm as enthusiastically as it promotes the benefits);
  • fair (ensures the benefits accrue to all stakeholders equitably); and
  • natural (is life enhancing and in harmony with the natural rhythms of life).

Let’s make sure that what host communities deliver and what guests experience constitute an antidote to the types of uneconomic growth that prevail today in many parts of the world:

  • jobless growth, where the economy grows but produces few jobs or ones that are poorly paid and erode the dignity and health of the worker;
  • ruthless growth, where the proceeds only benefit speculators,  and the rich or powerful:
  • voiceless growth, where economic growth is not accompanied by extensions of democracy or empowerment and where residents are deprived as say in who and how many guests they welcome; and
  • futureless growth, where the present generation squanders resources needed by future generations.

Note though: The challenge when discussing tourism from a global perspective is that it ignores the enormous variability in circumstances between destinations. Volume growth may be needed in many destinations where there is over capacity brought about by a “build it and they will come” approach. Conscious Travel is not only about generating higher yields but empowering hosts communities to make informed decisions about how much, what kind, where and when. In some instances, more visitors are needed to ensure vitality and resilience.

We Grow Up!
Growing from an adolescent to an adult requires understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around you personally; that you are a member of a community on which you depend and to which you are obliged. It’s a reciprocal relationship of respect and caring. It also recognizes that there are limits. You neither can nor wish to keep growing bigger. You expect to change as you pass into adulthood – both physically and emotionally. You look forward to exploring how you can express your uniqueness within the constraints set by your culture and environment. While sometimes you’ll kick against those constraints and may even succeed in redefining them; other times, you’ll see that they are useful and stimulate more creativity and innovation.

You stop growing bigger when you grow into adulthood – you mature; you start to want to express yourself; to become more, to stretch – but qualitatively not quantitatively. You want to contribute to a larger whole. You want to be the best you can be. You strive to go where no man has gone before. That yearning diminishes much more slowly than your body ages – take that from me!!

And this process is totally natural!

In nature, nothing grows forever except perhaps the universe itself,  (it’s been expanding outwards at a phenomenal rate for 13.7 billion years).

There are no straight lines in nature. What looks like a straight line in nature is simply a part of a fractal curve that appears throughout life itself. It has what sounds like a mysterious name – it’s called a Sigmoid curve. But Sigmoid is just Greek for the letter S and the curve describes the letter lying on its back and illustrates a natural cycle that pervades all life.

Butler TALC copy

Thanks to Dr. Butler, the tourism community is familiar with the Sigmoid Curve even though they aren’t recognized as such. Dr Butler introduced the most enduring model of tourism destination development but, while he correctly named it as the Tourism Area Life Cycle Model (TALC), he based it on a concept derived from the industrial model of production and consumption – the life cycle of products. It’s an indication of the author’s modesty, that Dr. Butler is surprised by its popularity, potency and durability (4).

The TALC model is applicable not just to individual resorts – each of which sits at its own unique point on the curve – but to mass industrial tourism as a whole. If you define success as volume – as opposed to net benefit – you’ll place mass tourism between stages 3 and 4 on the TALC curve. But if measured in terms of its net benefit then we’re most definitely at or approaching stage 4.


Evidence for Hope

We don’t need to tear down the old model. The alternative model is emerging all around unwto-report-cover-217x300us. Both need to co-exist while the alternative grows in strength and complexity. Several pioneers of a new, less harmful, more beneficial model were acknowledged and applauded by receiving Responsible Tourism Awards at WTM and many others attended and contributed to the sessions that accompanied the trading on the exhibit floor. At the WTM, the UNWTO and Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) launched their jointly produced Global Report on Adventure Tourism  in which ATTA revealed from its Industry Snapshot 2014 that an estimated  65.6% of the total trip cost of an adventure package remains in the destination(s) visited – a vast improvement on the 5% estimated by UNEP for mass tourism. Proof that there is huge potential to improve the net benefit to host destinations.

We don’t need any more divisions; no more “them” and “us”. Those of us who have been working in all aspects of the new, whether it be in sustainable, responsible, geo, fairtrade, or social tourism; whether our focus is on environment or social issues; or whether we’ve been involved for years or minutes, need now to join hands. Some can focus on building inspiring working prototypes of the new. Others can build bridges with the keepers of the old until it makes sense for them to move.

nature's timeless principleWhat we do need is coherent thinking as a “we” tied together by a common vision for humanity that can thrive and flourish on a living planet.

What we do need is to understand nature’s timeless principles to recognise when it’s time for transformation, maturation, evolution (5).

We also need courage to undertake a fearless inventory and speak the truth. It was Chris Doyle’s article for the WTM that persuaded me to attend and I was honoured to join him in the two lively and provocative sessions organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA).

This is the most exciting time to be alive. It’s the very first time in human history when individual humans have the capacity to be aware that their personal choices do matter in the evolutionary trajectory of a species, no less!

No wonder we’re being called to stop growing in size but in wisdom, insight, maturity and compassion. Because tourism plays such a direct role in connecting people to each other in places where they can experience the power and beauty of nature  and discover their true identity, we must step up into a much grander sense of purpose.

More of us must engage in the task of building a better model – shifting from one S curve to another.

It all makes that brightly lit central hallway in a box called Excel seem rather unappealing, don’t you think? There’s a mysterious and amazingly beautiful world of living beings out there in the sunshine by the river – let’s join them there and flourish.

References and Reading
(1) Economics in a Full World, Herman Daly, Scintific American September 2005. Download here 

(2) Climate Change Implications for Tourism University of Cambridge Download pdf here

(3) UNEP, Negative Economic Impacts of Tourism – available online here

(4) Tourism Area Life Cycle R.W. Butler,  in Contemporary Tourism Reviews, Goodfellow Publishers, Oxford, 2011

(5) See Giles Hutchins: Transformational Times Call For Transformational Minds.

Personal Note: This post is the first in a series of reflections about how tourism can flourish in a post carbon, post growth society. The “book,” which so many of my dear supporters have said I must write, is finally in the making. It will be so much better if you add your comments to these blogs, share and encourage others. No individual, no enterprise, no community can go it alone. The stakes are too high.


When will tourism industry start talking sensibly about tourism growth? Author Jeremy Smith, founder Travindy. Another call for this discussion to take place.

WTM 2015 Responsible Tourism Day – Shock and Awe
One year later in 2015, resistance to contemplating another model i.e. one that does not deed on volume growth acme very evident.

DO UNWTO Figues mislead?

Tourism What’s the Point ? (just in case we have forgotten)


Climate Change: Implications for Business as Usual Tourism

icarus climate change report coverSeven years ago, several experts in sustainable tourism in Canada and I founded The Icarus Foundation and  published a report called the Climate Change Challenge; Implications for the Tourism Industry  urging destinations to develop a climate change strategy. It’s available from slideshare here.

Earlier this year,  another report, with virtually the same title  was prepared by a far more august institution – The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership report, Climate Change: Implications for Tourismsynthesizes the most pertinent findings of the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (referred to as AR5) and is the most succinct, to-the-point summary of the subject available today.

On page 14, the Cambridge authors observed

“No country has yet developed a low-carbon tourism strategy, leaving the sector to find its own way to address climate change in the face of considerable uncertainties” and “The transition to low-carbon strategies by tourism will need to be initiated by the sector itself.

climate change implications for tourism coverIn the seven years that separated the two reports a significant event occurred – the global financial system almost collapsed and the tourism industry felt the pangs of contraction that absorbed its attention to the exclusion of all other factors. Even though the global economy is characterised by boom and bust cycles and even though that same economy was clearly experiencing a boom throughout the 90s, no one dared forecast a bust and many seemed surprised when it happened-  some actually believing that a new economic era had begun that defied normal economic gravity.

2013 marked the year when the tourism industry breathed a sigh of relief – tourism forecasts were almost back to normal with the UNWTO forecasting a 4.0-4.5% growth globally for 2014 and PATA forecasting visitor arrivals to the overall Asia Pacific region growing at an average rate of just over 6% per annum over the period 2013-2018.

Now please look at the destination strategies available in your region, and, if possible, name me one that does not start with or focus on a growth target – that’s a genuine request, by the way.

But how likely or desirable are such growth rates especially when you consider the base not to mention the converging change drivers buffeting the global economy from every angle and from within as well as without?  In 2012, international traffic passed the 1 billion mark in terms of trips across borders and domestic overnight travel was considered to outstrip that by a factor of 6-8.

My work on Conscious Travel was partially stimulated by the lack of consideration paid by the tourism industry to this critical issue – I felt we had to paint a picture of a better alternative to industrial tourism to encourage both reflection and action. Even though I disagreed with Milton Friedman on so many issues, I did subconsciously agree on this observation he made:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available, until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable[i]

[i] Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago, Chicago University Press,1982)

The single biggest challenge tourism will face over the next decade could well be the withdrawal of a licence to operate as normal. We can expect attention to switch from % increase or decreases in carbon emissions to a focus on absolute carbon budgets. Despite its best efforts at “greening,” tourism’s growth will result in a tripling of emissions from transport and accommodation – a growth that cannot be ignored or talked away. Here are the key points made in the Cambridge summary – all of which suggest that “business as usual” a.k.a. “growth as usual” is highly unlikely – suggesting that a strategy of better, not more,  might be worth looking at more closely. I fully understand that there are many parts of the planet where tourism does need to grow demand if its host operators and communities are to enjoy a decent living but that in many others the question – when is enough enough? might apply. In this post I am, as are the Cambridge authors, looking at tourism as a whole.

These bullet points, extract from the Cambridge report,  will take you a few minutes to read but hopefully will engage you in hours of reflection and months of action if they are to have any meaning or purpose at all.

  • Calculations of the contribution of tourism to global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions range from 3.9% to 6% of human emissions with 4.9% the best estimate. As the world becomes more affluent, the sector is expected to grow by an average of 4% annually and reach 10% of global GDP within 10 years. The sector’s emissions are on a course to grow 130% between 2005 and 2035.
  • Tourism will be affected by policy changes and efforts to reduce GHG emissions causing global warning, especially in the context of the steep growth in its emissions. Emission from transport and the built environment account for 95% of tourism’s emissions, meaning that reductions from those two sectors will dictate much of its mitigation potential.
  • Coastal tourism is the largest component of the tourism industry with more than 60% of Europeans opting for beach holidays, and the segment accounting for more than 80% of US tourism revenues. Rising sea levels will have a profound and multiple impacts on coast tourism. For example, nearly a third of Caribbean resorts are less than 1 meter above the high water mark. Sea level rise of 1 meter would damage 49-60% of the region’s resort properties, lead to the loss or damage of 21 airports and inundate land around 35 ports. The cost of rebuilding tourist resorts in the region by 2050 is estimated at between US$10-23.3 billion. Beach erosion could reduce prices that operators can charge for accommodation.
  • Given the significance of its climate impact, tourism will come under significant pressure to reduce GHG emissions if governments enact policies to curb climate change in line with its target of keeping the rise in global average temperatures below a 2 degree increase over pre-industrial levels. These pressure will become all the more acute given the sector’s projected growth.
  • Under a business-as-usual scenario, the sector’s emissions are forecast to grow by 130% between 2005 and 2035; and emissions from air travel and accommodation are expected to triple. Studies show that for some countries, such as the UK, unrestricted growth of tourism would, by 2050, see the sector consuming the entire carbon budget available under a 20C scenario
  • Emissions reductions from improvements to fuel efficiency and technological fixes are expected to be offset by growth in tourism. Strong policy measures are likely to be necessary, especially to change passenger transport behavior, where “a large price signal” is needed.
  • Changes in lifestyle are therefore likely to be an important component of any effort to drive emissions reductions from tourism. Such changes might include, for example, a reduction in the demand for long-haul tourism in favour of holidaying more locally.
  • The tourism sector’s emissions are somewhat concentrated: for example air transport accounted for 43% of the sector’s emissions but only 17% of trips taken. Cruises tend also to have high associated emissions. This means that reducing demand in a few small subsectors of tourism could have a significant affect on emissions.
  • No country has yet developed a low-carbon tourism strategy, leaving the sector to find its own way to address climate change in the face of considerable uncertainties.
  • The sector will not be uniformly affected. Urban tourism will be less vulnerable than coastal tourism. Pilgrimage, family visits or gambling will be less affected than beach tourism, angling or nature watching. The relative attraction of destinations to tourists will change as temperatures rise, while climate change is already encouraging “last chance” tourism to threatened environments.
  • The sector will face significant climate impacts and is likely to be required to make a significant contribution to measures addressing global GHG emissions.

Other related posts from Conscious Travel

The Burning Issue of Carbon June 2013

Lessons Learned from Fair Tales, Extreme Weather and Bubbles

A licence to grow or get bigger – which do you choose? 

Breaking News

Skift report just published: Cheaper Airfares Are Great For Flyers, Terrible for the Environment
“A recent study found that when US budget carriers such as JetBlue, Spirit, Fronteir, Alaska and Southwest launch new routes, they drive down prices, charged by all carriers as much as as 67%”

It’s finally happened: Meet the First Town Forced to Re-locate thanks to Climate Change

Lessons Learned from Fairy Tales, Extreme Weather and Bubbles


Emperor who wore no clothiersSince I watched Rajan Datur’s video coverage of the WTTC Global Summit on Fastrack in Abu Dhabi last month (see last post), I’ve been unable to silence a song from my childhood that replays in my head – Danny Kaye’s musical rendition of the famous tale of Hans Christian Andersen: the Emperor Who Wore No Clothes. If you have children or grandchildren with any innocence left check out the old but enduring charming film. Click the image, start 1.10 mins in and let the message soak in!

I had taken a pause from blogging for four months for two reasons – to complete a project and to turn off the chatter of an over informed brain. Pauses clarify.

While in my first post of 2013 I expressed disappointment with the position taken by the Summit’s leaders, allocation of blame wasn’t my intent.

At this incredibly portentous time in human history, we’re each and all caught up in a web of denial that has become the sticky stuff that binds our relationships with each other and the natural world.

At best we are entranced; at worst addicted. Our neurological development has not kept pace with our technical prowess and, like the King in Andersen’s story, our hubris has blinded  and our constant “busyness” has deafened us to the wisdom of our subconscious.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale it took an innocent child with an unbroken heart and senses fresh and intact to see and speak the truth.

There’s been considerable research as to why humanity is acting so slowly in response to the converging change forces pushing us towards the cliff’s edge. The reptilian parts of our brains are wired to sense and respond to the personal threat that our senses register. The newer, frontal lobe that is the source of our technical brilliance and feeds off endless analysis and discussion, has not yet evolved similar response mechanisms. Furthermore, our need to belong and be accepted is more associated with this growing part of our neurological development.

We’re like movie goers on a Friday night who’ve settled down into a comfy sofa with popcorn and coke to accompany our hard earned night of entertainment and distraction. Someone yells “fire” and our reptilian brain leaps into action. But if there’s another reassuring voice saying the alarm was false and, since we can’t smell fire and no one else is scrambling to their feet, we relax deeper into our chairs. We’ve paid good money for our seats and we deserve a night off. Yet all it would take is the whiff of burning plastic and distant signs of rapid movement across the theatre and our urge to shift would be irresistible. Getting to the exit before death/injury by trampling or burning would instantly become our first priority.

montana-thunderstorm-615So in that sense I am grateful for our lousy Spring weather – even though I am thoroughly fed up with grey skies and have felt colder here in the UK in May than I did in December. Extreme weather is nature’s kind way of arousing the reptile in us and perhaps it can do what armies of bickering scientists or retired politicians with slide decks and a huge budget have yet failed to do – wake us up to a reality no one wishes to contemplate. Research shows that the more we experience extreme weather events personally, the more likely we are to acknowledge that climate is changing faster than normal.

The Need to Focus
Over the past 2 years I’ve been invited to speak at over 20 tourism gatherings and presented my share of slides and facts joining up the dots of change, interpreting the clouds gathering on the horizon and suggesting responses.  (It’s all here on slideshare). But I now realize I have sold both my audience and myself short.  The message wasn’t clear and compelling enough.  The metaphorical “fire” in my story is actually frozen sunlight (carbon) – the fossilized remains of other species we’ve been burning to fuel the fastest most amazing economic and social expansion in human history. Carbon is not only the most dangerous, pervasive waste product of our “industrial civilisation” but, by focussing on the problems it generates,  we could also solve many equally challenging but derivative problems: biodiversity loss, economic disparity, food security etc.

We’ve got two worlds existing in tourism – the traditional mainstream that is preoccupied with business as usual (i.e., more of everything so long as that delivers more profit even if it delivers less value to the places it exploits). I don’t expect this group to like my message – yet.  There are plenty of agencies and consultants all too willing to provide the platitudes and spin to make the status quo feel comfortable and, as illustrated in Abu Dhabi,  even glittering and chic. They seem oblivious to the fact that the industrial model on which is it based inevitably passes its prime and starts to generate diminishing returns and less net benefit.

The other world comprises a huge but fractured, sometimes fractious fringe that is growing and spreading like multiple infections that haven’t yet coalesced.  By necessity, participants in alternative tourism are forced to focus on symptoms not causes of our malaise and because there are so many varied and increasing expressions of what is irresponsible, their efforts appear disjointed and only of local relevance. But the good news is that they are growing in number and their experience is highly practical, resourceful and their commitment to building a better tourism never to be underestimated or under valued. Their weakness, on the other hand, stems from the fact that they are too inward looking – applying labels, arguing over definitions and  decrying the expression of a problem but not joining up with their counterparts in society who are addressing deeper causes and systemic disfunctionality.

It’s as if we are arguing over the cut, make and style of the King’s clothes rather than admit he is, in fact, naked.


The challenge facing us all transcends discussions about good versus bad tourism. Tourism – even in a better form – will not survive a failure to deal with the issue of carbon. Like junkies we are dependent and addicted.

Drug cartels and drug pushers benefit from their trafficking when they are not caught. It’s a very profitable business that absorbs participation from all levels of society. Carbon pushers – the fossil fuel companies  – are now are pulling our strings but are as addicted and at risk as the rest of us.

The real crisis of carbon is only just being recognized: $27 trillion in asset value can only be realized if that resource is burned. And, if it is – to quote the courageous head of the IMF, Yvonne Lagarde –  we all fry. If it is not exploited, it becomes a “stranded asset” infinitely less attractive to investors than a dubious Credit Default Swap.

unburnable carbonThe light is going on in the boardrooms of institutional investors, rating companies, and even in investment banks that fossil-based energy sources could pose a real and growing credit risk and if these fears are acted upon, it will cause the biggest market shift in human history.

I feel confident predicting that the next really big topic of conversation will be the carbon bubble that has the potential to dwarf all previous bubbles that burst in recent history. Furthermore, it’s in tourism’s best interest to prick that bubble sooner rather than later to avoid financial meltdown that will seize up markets.

Do you smell smoke? I can. It’s seeping out from the high rise offices of the financial community.

Time to move. The exit is over here (see next post). It was a crap movie anyway!


Why Contribute To Responsible Tourism Week?

We’re in the middle of Responsible Tourism Week – a global unconference made possible by the hard work and dedication of Ron Mader and anyone who is committed to sharing ideas related to creating a tourism sector that doesn’t cost the earth. If you want to know how you can contribute, check out Ron’s slideshow here .

Tweet this link (don’t forget the hashtag #RTWEEK2012) and encourage your friends and colleagues to get involved; join Ron’s wiki, contribute case studies; and, wherever possible travel responsibly. All you have to do is budget some time to draw attention to the need for and benefits of creating travel experiences that maximise the net benefit to host communities.

My contribution today is a reminder why we cannot afford to shirk our responsibilities. Just because Al Gore is no longer taking his slideshow around the world or the IPCC is no longer in the news, and climate change, as a news topic, has become so yesterday,  doesn’t mean that the earth is not warming. In fact, Co2 emissions continue to rise at an accelerating rate. For those of you who like the numbers, they reached 393 parts per million in January 2012 and you can watch the monthly increase here.  (Now, I fully recognize that my European friends might find it quite ironic and unsympathetic of me to write this while they are experiencing another brutally hard winter in Europe – see Europe’s Deep Freeze: Why Climate Change is Not Entirely to Blame. ) One reason for the acceleration might also be the positive feedback loop effect when warming reduces the weight of Arctic ice allowing methane, long trapped beneath the ice, to push through to the surface – see article in methane plumes  here

So here’s the reminder of one reason why we have to use each waking moment to work together to create a less polluting form of tourism if we are to live up to the name and dream of “responsible tourism.”

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