Travel in the Era of Nature and Climate Breakdown

The UK has become the first country government to declare a climate emergency, given the impacts of man-made climate change. In the same week, a UN 3-year, 15,000-source reference, 1800-page Global Assessment of Nature has also laid the blame of biodiversity breakdown squarely on the heads of man.

These aren’t separate issues. Both are consequences of man-made production and consumption.

But what does the simultaneous breakdown of nature and climate mean for travel?

Let’s look at some top line stats and facts of those three things together to consider…

Mount Kilimanjaro from Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya

Mount Kilimanjaro from Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya

Climate Change: The Facts

We’ll start with the Climate Emergency: Our guide to Climate Change breaks it down simply yet comprehensively.

In short, there are lots of contributory factors, but mainly 4 big man-made systems:

But the world cannot meet its carbon emission reduction target without individuals making lifestyle changes too:

  • Waste less food and buy less meat and dairy, but more locally sourced seasonal food.

  • Drive electric cars but walk or cycle short distances; take trains and buses instead of planes.

  • Use videoconferencing rather than business travel.

  • Use a washing line instead of a tumble dryer.

  • Insulate homes.

  • Demand low carbon in every consumer product.

Here are some stats on the relative CO2 carbon tonnes of different simple consumer actions to combat climate change.

‘Land use’ is one of the big systems which needs to change. It is also one of the reasons cited for biodiversity breakdown: as forests are cleared for agriculture, fuelled by increase of animal products, so habitat homes for native species are destroyed.

Elephants in the foothills of Mount Kilimamjaro, Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya

Elephants in the foothills of Mount Kilimamjaro, Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya

Nature Conservation: The Facts

The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment of Nature underlines how much humanity relies on the natural world to live: for food, water, air, and to absorb the warming CO2 gas that's driving climate change.

It acknowledges there are also a number of key contributory factors to the biodiversity breakdown, including:

  • Exploitation of animals including hunting

  • Pollution

  • Invasive species

  • Humanity (the world’s 7.6 billion people - representing just 0.01% of all living things)

The top line stats include:

  • 1 million / 25% animal and plant species threatened with extinction within decades.

  • More than half of the increase in agriculture at the expense of intact forests since 1980.

  • 100 million hectares of tropical forest lost, mainly from cattle ranching in South America and palm oil plantations in South East Asia; 70% of agriculture related to meat production (1980–2000).

  • Degradation of soils, reducing the productivity of 23% of land surface.

  • An 87% reduction in wetlands (1700-2000).

  • Just 3% of the world's oceans free from human pressure (2014).

  • Overfishing has decimated fish stocks: 33% harvested at unsustainable levels (2015).

  • Live coral cover on reefs nearly halved (over the past 150 years).

  • Cities have expanded rapidly, urban areas doubled (since 1992).

  • Pollution increased ten-fold (since 1980).

  • Natural ecosystems declined by 47% on average (relative to earliest estimated states).

This crisis for nature is expected to continue to 2050 and beyond unless major changes are made.

Climate change makes it worse: we’ll see nature more and more impacted, and charitable organisations’ donations challenged by ever-increasing numbers of causes, at a time when state funds for conservation are increasingly cut all over the world.

And where biodiversity is ‘natural heritage’, we also have ‘cultural heritage’ wanting conservation. Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris raised eyebrows when private businessmen and public figures stepped in to offer enormous donations to the fire-destroyed rebuilding and renovation efforts. A lot of people asked, why not support wildlife, or indeed people, as that’s only a building? But donors felt a connection and wanted to support it as more than a building, but as their icon, as part of their identity.

The problem is, where is our connection to nature? Why don’t we feel the same?

Maybe we do, but we didn’t know. We’ve taken it for granted, and this is the world-on-fire alarm everyone needs.

To be fair, Notre Dame, whilst expensive, is one building in one place that will incur a finite cost in a finite time. Nature will not. Nature is all around us globally, an ecosystem of connected processes in which there’s no end to building and renovating.

Plus, huge funding does occur: The need for funds has led to growth in private sector corporate donors, in popularity of public-private partnerships such as in National Parks, and in huge contributions to nature conservation by private individuals, for example you may have heard of Leonardo Di Caprio’s and The Gates’ Foundation efforts.

Donations also occur as a result of travel and tourism. How many people would donate to the plight of lions, elephants, rhino, or indeed social causes of communities who rely on biodiversity to survive, if they did not travel and witness such amazing nature? Charities, parks, support organisations and species themselves would suffer from a loss in tourism income.

But it’s not enough. Because nature is ongoing – at least without us.

Like climate change we are the problem, which we need to prevent, and that we can’t just pay to fix it. Unlike climate change, with its extreme weather experienced, the annihilation of nature is a largely silent crisis. But both require changing behaviour – often in the same way - to avoid ecological disaster.

Mount Kilimanjaro from Tembo-House, Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya © Ian Johnson

Mount Kilimanjaro from Tembo-House, Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya © Ian Johnson

Travel & Tourism: The Facts

Let’s talk about the travel industry in general. Here are some top line stats for tourism:

  • 1.4 billion consumers (UNWTO, 2018)

  • 10% of world GDP (WTTC)

  • 10% of all global jobs supported: directly, indirectly via the supply chain or induced (WTTC)

  • 1 in 5 of all new jobs created (WTTC).

  • Growing at around 4% per year, more than most industries, outpacing the world economy. (WTTC)

  • 3rd largest industry after fuels and chemicals and ahead of food and automotive products as exports (UNWTO)

  • 30% total world services exports (UNWTO)

  • First export sector in many countries, especially developing, up to 84% exports (UNWTO).

  • Market share in emerging economies increased from 30% in 1980 to 45% in 2015; expected to reach 57% by 2030.

But there is no denying there is a carbon impact of travel. In fact, it’s 8%, for the full life cycle of all accommodation, food, beverages, infrastructure, construction and maintenance as well as retail services that tourists enjoy such as in hotels, shopping and souvenirs (not including non-CO2 effects from aviation): It’s worth noting that the carbon impact of tourism is far from just aviation.

Previously, tourism was thought to represent around 5-6% of emissions: three quarters (4% total) from transport, including 40% (2.5% total) from aviation, and 32% (1.5% total) from cars; 21% (1% total) from accommodation, the rest from activities (UNWTO-UNEP-WMO, 2008).

Now, aviation’s growth (just under 5%) is outpacing even tourism as a whole (4%), so increasing its percentage of emissions, at a time when other industries’ decarbonisation is decreasing their share. Thus, even if it meets its (Corsia) targets, which are based on ‘carbon neutral growth’ with offsets, not reduction of emissions, it is predicted to consume 12% of the global carbon budget for 1.5C by 2050.

But tourism’s relationship with the environment is complex.

As we’ve seen, tourism has the potential to create beneficial impacts by contributing to environmental protection and conservation. It raises awareness of environmental values and serves to realise values by connecting to actual experiences, all the while operating as a tool to finance protection of nature and increase its economic importance. It offers priceless emotional connection and a “worth more alive” business case.

Tourism can reach into communities worldwide to empower them to economically support sustainable development.

More than 1 billion people cannot access reliable electricity, 2.3 billion lack basic access to sanitation, 844 million people lack basic access to water, 1.5 billion do not have access to reliable phone services, and about 4 billion are without the internet (UN, 2018). Such communities worldwide are desperate for industry & infrastructure, jobs and income. Tourism can and does bring this support.

In fact, so key is travel and tourism to global sustainable development, it’s even explicitly mentioned in three of the UN’s 17 Global Goals (#8 Employment & Economic Growth , #12 Consumption and Production and #14 Life Below Water), and actually has the potential to contribute, directly or indirectly, to all of the goals, as we’ve already mentioned: #6 Water & Sanitation, #7 Energy, #9 Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure, #11 Cities & Communities, #13 Climate Action, #15 Life on Land, #17 Partnerships - plus #1 Poverty, #2 Zero Hunger, #3 Health & Well Being, #5 Gender Equality, #10 Reduced Inequalities and #16 Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions.

So we can’t just stop flying. It would cut off international travel and tourism from those who arguably need it most, it’s too vital to too many.

Breakfast with Community and Conservation under Mount Kilimanjaro at Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya

Breakfast with Community and Conservation under Mount Kilimanjaro at Campi ya Kanzi, Kenya

What’s the solution?

How do we reconcile the carbon impact that tourism has with the need to support climate, conservation and communities?

Sustainability isn’t perfect. It’s not black and white. It’s a journey on which we can all do the best we can and we can probably all do better.

At Earth Changers, we’re not professing to know all the answers.

We’re pragmatic. We don’t think most people will want to stop flying. And nor would much of the world that tourism supports. We’re not against all flying. But we do think you we can all be carbon-conscious and reduce frivolous flying.

So our recommendation is to do your research and choose green tourism options.

Staycations create carbon impact too: for their accommodations, services, tours and food.

Make sure your air miles count.

Don’t fly when you don’t need to fly. When you do, ensure your trip has positive impact.

The question to ask yourself is, what’s the (less carbon-impacting) alternative?

Do you need to fly for a business meeting or conference? Can you use digital technology instead?

Within the same landmass, can you take public transport such as the train or bus instead of flying?

Do you really need to fly for multiple weekend breaks away during the year?

Our 10 Tips to Reduce your Carbon Footprint in Travel (and Should You Carbon Offset?) can give you the suggestions you need.

Focus on quality over quantity and combine trips and time into less frequent but positive impact trips. It’s why we created Earth Changers.

Have a look at the ‘Places’ on for our curated collection of carbon-conscious transformative tourism supporting communities and conservation.

And let us know where you’d like to go if you don’t see the destination featured.