The Elephant in the Room

Flying Elephants and Travel Emissions Part 2:

In our last newsletter, we made a case for using the recent slowdown in long haul travel to explore how to tackle visitor travel emissions. With vaccination plans rolling out and news that in British Columbia all target groups will receive their first shot by the end of July, borders are bound to open at least on a continental level. So, it’s prime time to explore low carbon travel, where the industry is at with respect to low carbon travel, the routes to low carbon travel and how tourism communities may play a leadership role. 

As we explore the topic of low carbon travel we will try our best to also understand the whole picture including the role of communities. We also invite others to share their thoughts and experience on this topic in an effort to learn together.  We begin here by describing the background conditions for why we think low carbon travel is needed, what it is and a possible starting point for the tourism industry.

Our Starting Point 

The balance of the earth’s stored carbon flows is out of whack due to human activities, so carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are rising in our atmosphere. These rising levels, and the related global heating and ocean acidification (attempting to absorb the CO2) they are causing, is a global priority. 

Tourism and travel are fueled by the earth’s stored carbon. It is estimated that travel and tourism contribute 8% of annual global CO2 emissions and extending current tourism growth patterns leads to a 169% increase in annual tourism emissions by 2050. Aviation currently accounts for 40% of travel and tourism emissions, vehicle use accounts for 32%, and accommodation/destination activities make up the rest.  In the community of Whistler, visitor travel emissions are up to 18 times greater than all the emissions from the community itself. Clearly, travel is a major contributor to rising levels of CO2 and a major contributor to human caused global heating and ocean acidification.

To minimize the consequences of dangerous levels of CO2, 195 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement (the US recently rejoined) in 2015 pledging to limit global heating to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels. To do this, global net human-caused emissions of CO2 will need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050 (IPCC, 2018). We need to act now.

Our Destination – Low Carbon Travel  

As a major CO2 emitter and vulnerable to global heating itself, the tourism and travel industry, as well as  tourism-based communities must respond. If they don’t, they will likely be forced to as part of the required shift toward a low carbon world.

Fortunately, the industry may be waking up to the issue. For example, the World Travel and Tourism Council committed the industry to becoming climate neutral by 2050 (consistent with science-based targets in the Paris Climate Agreement).

This commitment to being climate neutral means travel, accommodation, food and destination activities must no longer add to the increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere – Low carbon travel in support of this goal could possibly be a matter of substituting all fossil fuels used in travel and tourism services for renewable alternatives, electrifying travel and tourism services with renewable sources of energy, and even requiring a focus on regional travel, longer stays, and higher value tourism. Building the momentum required to shift to low carbon travel however will require more than these technical approaches. It will also need supporters and working examples.

Very few, if any, community destinations in British Columbia can claim to offer low carbon travel, because it is hard.  But, as a starting point, communities wishing to show leadership toward low carbon travel can:

  1. Admit to their contribution to the problem of global heating
  2. Adopt aggressive reduction targets consistent with limiting heating to a global average of 1.5 degrees Celsius, while encouraging the local tourism industry do the same
  3. Develop stories and descriptions of a bright low carbon future that optimizes benefits for the community

Setting targets and creating positive vision is vital, though as our next article in the series shows, achieving targets on the scale required – especially for air travel – will be difficult. Fortunately, there may be some ways for tourism destinations to lead the industry forward.


Has your community or tourism marketing organization considered the carbon emissions of visitor travel and adopted targets to reduce CO2 emissions to levels consistent with the Paris Climate Agreement? Why? Why not?

Send your answers to dwilson[at] or email to talk about how we can help you with your climate action.