tl:dr It’s bad, getting much worse, and it’s going to dramatically change tourism, but ultimately tourism is not the problem and it’s long past time the industry demanded change.
I’ve been suffering some weapons grade cognitive dissonance about air travel for tourism for quite a while now.
At this stage, it’s pretty obvious that air travel, and transportation in general, is one of the largest contributors to our planet’s soon-to-be-fatal case of black lung. How could it not be? The next time you strap yourself into the 18-inch airplane seat you’ve briefly rented, take a moment during takeoff to think about Newton’s Second Law of Motion: force is equal to mass times acceleration.
When the engine thrust begins to move you from a standstill to 180 mph, as you sink back into your seat and your organs begin to vibrate, think about the mass of the contraption you’re sealed into. An enormous hunk of metal, densely packed to every corner and curve of the fuselage with cargo and humans of various size, that must, for starters, perform the mind-bending miracle of getting off the ground.
Then this behemoth must accelerate to 550 mph while carrying you, your wheelie bag, your in-flight beverage, someone’s emotional support donkey and several tons of other shit up to 30,000 feet. For some flights, takeoff alone burns 25 percent of the total fuel needed for the trip.
Now imagine that event happening 45 million times in 2018 alone. Since 2003, coincidentally the same heady year that I sold everything I owned and embarked on 4.5 years of nomadic world travel, writing and next-level carbon damage, the number of annual airline passengers has doubled. That’s only the first of several “holy shit” revelations I had while researching this post.
In 2018, 4.3 billion people climbed into the air-worthy, pressured tubes we all take for granted when the in-seat entertainment is broken, an increase of 38 million passengers from 2017. At the current rate of growth, a whopping 8.2 billion people will travel by air in 2037. Though factors like the rapid, across-the-board decline in civilization will probably slow that trend, possibly to the point of decline.
As per usual, in terms of rectifying this species-threatening carbon disaster, the U.S. is leading the way in not leading the way.
“If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.” From the New Yorker article “What If We Stopped Pretending the Climate Apocalypse Can Be Stopped?”
After an encouraging three-year decline, the Rhodium Group estimated U.S. carbon dioxide emissions rose 2.7 percent in 2018, with the transportation sector being the largest source of emissions for the third straight year. The industrial, building and power sectors were the other major contributors.
As individuals, Americans are among the biggest carbon-spewing dickheads on the planet. The average American figuratively farts out more than triple the per-person global average of carbon dioxide (roughly 16 metric tons each year). That carbon stays in the atmosphere for centuries.
Since tons of carbon dioxide is a context most people can’t relate to, Professor John Nolt of the University of Tennessee likely wore out a calculator arriving at the following conclusion:“The average American causes through his/her greenhouse gas emissions the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people.” There’s something for you to daydream about the next time you’re filling your car with gas.
Avram Hiller of Portland State University drilled down further, calculating the future ramifications of a single 25-mile drive. “At a ratio of one life’s causal activities per one life’s detrimental effects, it causes the equivalent of a quarter of a day’s severe harm,” he concluded. “In other words, going for a Sunday drive has the expected effect of ruining someone’s afternoon.”
To put it another way, a week-long road trip with your pals will suck-ify an entire month for one of your grandchildren or great grandchildren.
Ha ha, whatever dude, someone will figure things out before our decedents are gasping for air and killing for clean water. Right?
For that to happen, action would have to happen on a global, cooperative scale. We’re nearly 20 years distant from the debacle of George W. Bush stealing the election from Al Gore who was already urgently warning us about what we then called “global warming.” (We had to stop using that phrase, because deniers would have a redneck, coal-rolling jamboree every time they saw a snowflake.) Now here we are 20 years later, far more aware of what our near-future holds and only a fraction more motivated.
We’ve been reading about these climate crisis predictions for decades, then segueing to [fill in vacuous celebrity]-related news without so much as a “whoa.” Back in 2007, a United Nations panel crunched the depressing numbers and declared that the climate crisis will “adversely affect hundreds of millions of people through increased coastal flooding, reductions in water supplies, increased malnutrition and increased health impacts” in the next 100 years.
But 100 years was an unfathomably long time for our monkey brains to consider and whatever Jay Z and Beyoncé were doing was happening that very minute, so we dismissed it.
As I warned in my previous climate crisis post, those hundreds of millions of people will become climate refugees, scrambling to find a new place to eke out a life in an ever-shrinking area of the planet’s year-round habitable regions. We’re now 88 years from that U.N.-predicted outcome and the migration of people has already begun.
Literally, the worst
So, Americans are the worst. No news there. But let’s finally get to the heart of this post: air travel for tourism.
The German nonprofit atmosfair reports that US-based airlines, unsurprisingly, are lagging way behind foreign air carriers. To be fair, no carriers anywhere are quite ready to take drastic steps, or even a slow shuffle, toward solutions, but the long-view possibility of a ruinous air travel reduction in our lifetimes has not been lost on airline executives. Pieter Elbers, CEO of KLM, made the following nod in a June letter: “we invite all air travellers to make responsible decisions about flying.”
OK. Not exactly the impassioned, transformative language we need right now, but the mere acknowledgment by a major carrier that air travel is a large contributor to the climate crisis and, perhaps, you might want to take the train instead, is kind of a big deal. Most other leading polluters are spending tens of millions of dollars each year on lawyers and PR hacks, denying that the climate crisis even exists.
A one-way flight from New York City to London emits one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger. Now multiply that by the several hundred passengers in each of the roughly 2,500 flights that roar over the North Atlantic every day.
As if you didn’t need another reason to shoot them the stink eye while boarding, first-class passengers have upward of three times larger carbon footprints than passengers in coach, due to all that luxurious space and the added weight of those transformer futon seats.
We don’t even need to leave home to increase the tonnage of pollutants we’re putting into the air. Amazon and others, who have made two-day and overnight shipping commonplace, have driven a renewed demand for cargo planes and increased flights.
All these flights spew about 860 million metric tons of carbon dioxide globally each year. And that’s not the end of it. Aircraft also leave behind a dusting of other pollutants responsible for the planet’s warming, like particulates, sulfur compounds, and nitrogen compounds.
Flying isn’t even the worst polluter. Cruise ships, including the new, “efficient” ones that cruise lines have been placating us with, blast out three to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than planes.
The rise of Flygskam
The cognitive dissonance I’m feeling about flying has a name in Sweden: “flygskam,” or “flight shame.”
My new job has me regularly commuting from Minneapolis to Denver; a 90-minute flight. That’s not so bad, right? Wrong. What I didn’t realize (but seems obvious now) was that shorter flights are worse, because of the fantastic amount of fuel required to take off and climb to cruising altitude. Short flight, long flight, they all have to make that six mile climb. Thus, shorter flights actually have a larger carbon footprint per passenger-mile, than longer ones.
Conversely, planes are (relatively) fuel efficient at cruising altitude. So, assuming it’s a direct flight, Minneapolis to London flights blast less carbon into the air (per person per mile) than Minneapolis to Denver flights. Though the super long-haul flights dip back down in fuel efficiency due to the weight of the extra fuel they carry to complete the journey.
For the record, the Worldwatch Institute estimates that the most fuel-efficient flight length is 2,600 miles – or slightly father than the distance between New York and Los Angeles.
What about alternative fuels and power sources? There has been increasing chatter about electric planes and hydrogen-powered engines, but we’re so far from that being a commercial reality that society will have long-since collapsed before something like that becomes technologically feasible for large scale deployment. Our progress with engineering biofuels and electrofuels powerful enough to keep you and your golf clubs airborne haven’t gotten far either.
And yes, they just barely managed to circumnavigate the planet in a solar powered plane a few years ago, but it wasn’t exactly a comfortable (single-seater), fast flight (it took 16 months, including time for repairs) and you can forget about getting on one of those things with more than knapsack of luggage until they become substantially more powerful.
Tourism is not the issue
Now that I’ve covered how comprehensively awful air travel is for our planet, let’s quickly remind ourselves how air travel has improved society by fantastic leaps. In the past century, we’ve gone from being barely more evolved than medieval serfs, ogling different colored humans in zoos, to the pan-cultural wonders and social enlightenment that most people north of the Mason-Dixon Line enjoy today.
Travel is unmatched in its capacity to educate us about history, cultural understanding, interpersonal communication, innovation, human evolution and even the sustainability of our natural environment – the same natural environment that we kinda damaged on the way to get that education. And tourism is still one of the largest industries on the planet, creating millions of jobs that are often in places where economic development is desperately needed.
Over a long enough period of time, losing this hands-on access to the planet’s fantastic diversity of environments can send us staggering backwards to the days when maps trailed off at the edges with “Here there be dragons.” We need to work towards a solution that gives curious individuals access to unexplored parts of the world without making it uninhabitable in the process.
“That already exists, Leif, you dumb dumb” you may be thinking. “It’s called voluntary carbon offsets. Let me Google that for you.” Atmosfair is among the many entities collecting flight offsets from travelers wanting to rest a bit easier in the air. As far back as 2007, Lonely Planet was buying carbon offsets to cover my air travel for guidebook research trips.
The idea is that these funds go to small-scale carbon reduction efforts, namely planting trees, renewable energy projects, and even distributing efficient cooking stoves to families in Africa and Asia. But despite all the years of work and data collected through these programs, we’re still not certain that we’re calculating these offsets accurately. Anja Kollmuss, an analyst in Zurich who studies carbon offsets and trading, reported “The research shows that three-quarters of the offsets don’t deliver the reductions they claim to deliver.” Whoops!
Is it our responsibility to stop flying to save the planet?
No. Well, not entirely. As individuals, we can’t substantially reverse our collision course with the climate end times by flying less and cutting thick, juicy hamburgers out of our diets. (Thank Buddha.) We need governments and whole industries to fall in line, which ain’t going to happen while yet another election-losing U.S. president is feverishly rolling back emissions standards and Brazil’s President Bolsonaro is pretending that the Amazon is burning down because of activists and gremlins. Things are going to get much worse before they get better. And none of these assholes are going to be around to face the music when it does.“And they say the noise causes cancer. You tell me that one (makes whirring noise mimicking a turbine).”
On a side note: Imagine being the kids and grand kids of the people doing all the damage, while being fully aware that they’re screwing their decedents out of a reasonably comfortable quality of life. That’s “not enough hugs as a kid” times a million.
With this in mind, the tourism industry will have to make some long term adjustments to their marketing efforts. Assuming a recognizable tourism marketing industry even exists in 2050, which is a big assumption, outreach will need to narrow and focus on the local and drive market. Also, start conditioning your gag reflex now, the “staycation” concept will almost certainly be back at full tilt, since for many of us that will be the only option we have.
As much as it behooves us to make changes to our lifestyle, the only way we’re going to get through this is to vote and pressure the top polluters in the world to change their ways. The tourism industry as a whole needs to start throwing its weight around to protect its future.
The global Travel & Tourism sector generated a record $8.8 trillion in 2018, supporting 319 million jobs. If global tourism entities banded together and pooled their resources, they could go head-to-head with gas and oil lobbyists, particularly as gas and oil’s stake in a strong tourism industry is so fantastically high.
The tourism industry is going to take a long, hard hit in our lifetimes due to climate crisis ramifications. Once that punch lands, it may be impossible to completely un-punch it. Now that Brand USA, the late-blooming American national tourism agency, has a solid foothold in Washington, they need to lead the world, drop their gloves and fight like their lives depend on it. Because, in fact, 319 million lives do depend on it, not to mention the continuing evolution of the human species.