Change Tourism, Not Climate!

1 March 2009 (Anita Pleumarom)

Tourism has been identified as one of the major contributors of global warming, primarily due to the high energy use for transport. If tourism was a country, its current Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions would today rank fifth, after the USA, China, the European Union and Russia. Given the expected international tourism boom in the coming years, the forecasts are even more perturbing.

This book sets out to explain why this untenable situation has emerged, namely the failure of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to explicitly include GHGs generated by tourism in any global reduction targets as well as in the negotiations on the post-2012 reduction targets. It highlights the absence of considerations of equity and justice in tourism and climate change discussions among policymakers and industry leaders and critically assesses the UN World Tourism Organisation and its position on sustainable tourism.

Unless tourism policymakers take drastic action to reverse the dominant “business-as-usual” attitude within the industry, tourism will become a key force of GHG emissions in the world, undermining the overall progress made to stem global climate change.

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6. What the UNWTO should be doing

t is a general problem that tourism policymakers and industry leaders respond belatedly and poorly to tourism-induced problems. The UNWTO’s mission has been to promote global tourism without any barriers, but given the enormous challenges caused by today’s major crises – climate, energy, environment, food crises – it is indispensable and urgent that the agency rethinks its policies and programmes, not only in order to adequately respond to the risks of climate change, but to tackle irresponsible and unsustainable tourism development in a comprehensive way. When addressing the critical issues such as poverty and climate change, the UNWTO’s main concern seems to be the economic well-being of the tourism industry. In the meantime, valuable research, including those of other UN agencies, and the voices of civil society organizations and local and indigenous communities who present tourism realities from a grassroots perspective have been constantly ignored or played down. The well-being of the millions of people in tourist destinations, many of whom are impoverished and marginalized due to unjust and harmful tourism, has hardly featured on the agency’s agenda over the last decades. Acknowledging tourism’s ecological and climate debt is a precondition for the development of proper solutions and action plans to solve tourism-related problems. But the UNWTO’s common practice is to resort to public relations and to actively participate in the greenwash of the industry. It is disturbing to see how UNWTO representatives continue to hoodwink the public about tourism’s real role in climate change. For instance, whereas 23scientists leave little doubt that local communities in many destinations around the world are facing catastrophic and irreversible consequences of climate change, Geoffrey Lipman, the UNWTO’s Assistant Secretary-General, recently made careless statements in an interview at the UN News Centre. Suggesting that the climate crisis was no different from events like the oil crisis or hijackings of planes that temporarily hampered the industry, he opined tourism “found ways to respond and overcome it. There is no reason why it can’t adapt now.”
The UNWTO may not be qualified and credible enough to take leadership in the climate change and tourism process. If the UNWTO is serious about its commitment to public good and not only short-sighted and profit-making industry interests, it should act according to the following recommendations:

  • Ensure that its contributions to climate protection and to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals are based on relevant and reliable research and scientific standards; 
  • Guarantee that the public is given complete, accurate and impartial information about all tourism-related concerns, including tourism’s multidimensional impacts on communities and the environment, tourism’s real contribution to global warming and climate change impacts on destinations;
  • Establish a formal structure and mechanisms within the UNWTO that allows all concerned parties, including committed civil society organizations, to fully and meaningfully participate in the climate change and tourism process. It is of vital importance that communities and peoples adversely affected by both tourism and Climate Change play an essential role in defining and guiding the work of the process and all related activities;
  • Ensure that the process reflects grassroots calls for equity and jus-tice and respects the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As the Indigenous Peoples Anchorage Declaration on Climate Change states: “We uphold that the inherent and fundamental human rights and status of Indigenous Peoples, affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), must be fully recognized and respected in all decision-making processes and activities related to climate change. This includes our rights to our lands, territories, environment and natural resources as contained in Articles 25–30 of the UNDRIP. When specific programmes and projects affect our lands, territories, environment and natural resources, the right of Self Determination of Indigenous Peoples must be recognized and respected, emphasizing our right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent, including the right to say ‘no’.”
  • Fundamentally rethink the effectiveness of global tourism growth as a means of achieving poverty reduction under current political and socio-economic conditions. The New Economics Foundation research found, for example, that  between 1990 and 2001, “for every $100 worth of growth in the world’s income per person, just $0.60 found its target and contributed to reducing poverty below the $1-a-day line. To achieve every single $1 of poverty     reduction therefore requires $166 of additional global production and consumption, with all its associated environmental impacts.” In conclusion, “there is a danger throughout the global economy, and not least tourism, of locking in a self-defeating spiral of overconsumption by  those who are already wealthy, justified against achieving marginal increases in wealth amongst poorest members of society.”
  • Acknowledge that the global tourism system, which has emerged in and is controlled by rich developed countries, has a historical responsibility and needs to provide compensation for the ecological and climate debt that it owes to destinations in developing countries;
  • Agree to a comprehensive review of international trade and investment rules, which have resulted in the exploitation and destruction of the environment, disruption of local social and economic systems, obstruction of climate justice and exacerbation of peoples’ vulnerability to natural and human-induced disasters;
  • Distance itself from World Bank’s and other international financial institutions’ tourism-related funding policies and programmes as they have exacerbated unsustainable development and climate change;
  • Encourage and assist UNWTO member states to return and restore lands – including Indigenous Peoples’ territories – forests, waters and oceans, cultural heritage and sacred sites that have been illegally and unfairly taken over for     tourism purposes, causing hardship to communities and peoples and exposing them to activities and conditions that contribute to climate change;
  • Use its influence to ensure that international tourism as well as air and maritime transport are included in all future climate change negotiations and agreements and dealt with in an equitable manner in accordance with the historical responsibility of developed countries and the tourism industry;
  • Join efforts to persuade private travel and tourism companies to drastically reduce their energy use and increase energy efficiency; furthermore, to undertake deep cuts of GHG emissions at their source, eventhough this may result in a shrinking of the industry;
  • Agree in principle to environmental taxation in tourism; this should primarily include a global ecotax on jet fuel and/or a levy on GHG emission rights. As Buades notes, “it is critical that the level of the levy is genuinely dissuasive, that is, aimed not at revenue collection but rather at encouraging a real and considerable decrease in the volume of international tourism via airplanes and cars.”
  • As corporate social responsibility and other voluntary initiatives have proven insufficient, support initiatives for a stringent international policy framework not only to tackle climate change but to systematically phase out damaging and unsustainable tourism practices;
  • Object to false solutions to climate change – such as carbon trading, the Clean Development Mechanism, forest offsets, REDD and agro-fuels – that negatively impact local communities’ rights, lands and natural resources and threaten traditional livelihoods and food security.

In conclusion, the climate crisis requires nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the global system — in economic, political, socio-cultural terms. The greatest burden of adjustment must be on the rich developed countries and their corporations, as well as on southern elites, all of whom have to share responsibility for this crisis. Where tourism is heading to is
difficult to predict, but profound structural change of the industry will be inevitable. The UNWTO is called upon to play a meaningful role in reorganizing the international tourism system in a way that it no longer blocks forward-looking and just global climate policies and people-centred sustainable development.

Tourism Climate Change
by Anita Pleumarom
1 March 2009