Travel is trendy, but mindful travel is trendier

Travel industry to be the most impacted by climate change, according to recent IPCC report.

When I was 19, I travelled to Ladakh on a Snow Leopard Conservation Project with the World Wildlife Foundation. This was my first time in the picturesque world of the Himalayas. It took a few days to stop the new-gen boy from clicking pictures of this sudden introduction to serenity, but my phone memory gave up even before I did. Soon, I let go of all digital distractions and dived deep into adapting to different terrain, its beauty, and its challenges. I visited Pangong Tso Lake during this time.

Standing mighty at feet of 13861.55, the landscape looked drop-dead gorgeous. But at its shore was a pile of trash: Plastic water bottles, food wrappers, polythene bags, single-use plastics and other kinds of litter. It was irony at its best. It was my wake-up call.

Despite several campaigns promoting responsible travel, plastic bottles are often found tossed in tourist spots.
Despite several campaigns promoting responsible travel, plastic bottles are often found tossed in tourist spots.

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has revealed that 95 per cent of the earth’s land areas could become degraded by 2050. It also added that between 17 million and 72 million people may have to relocate from coastal settlements if sea levels rise somewhere between 0.3m and 1.7m. The land and sea constitute a major part of tourism. Therefore, understanding the climate change issues and their impact on tourism is essential.

The staggering numbers

The report, which is the second part of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), claims to be the most-thorough review of climate impact. It says that “greenhouse gases from human activities had caused approximately 1.1°C of global warming by 2010-19 compared to 1850-1900, and that global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming over the next 20 years.”

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These disturbing figures mean our future generations will not be able to travel and explore this planet as effectively as I did. The report presented the main physical climate impact projected for the world’s regions.

Citing examples, the report states that, “the African continent is already experiencing higher warming and sea-level rise than the world average. In the next decade, Africa will see more frequent and intense heatwaves (up to five times more common in 2050 than today) as well as heavier precipitation, more frequent and intense droughts, and more common and severe coastal flooding. In Europe, the frequency and intensity of hot extremes are increasing and will continue to do so, while glaciers and snow cover will continue to disappear. In North and Central America, for example, the IPCC states that tropical cyclones and heavy rainfall will become ever more frequent as the world continues to warm.”

How did we end up here?

The tourism industry does not exist in isolation. It feeds many sub-industries and all of them collectively contribute to its inextricable impact on the planet. The natural greenhouse effect already has traces of water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) in the atmosphere. It is because of these gases that the solar radiation reaches the earth’s surface, but they also absorb infrared radiation emitted by the planet. This leads to the heating of the surface of the planet. However, it is also important to distinguish between the natural greenhouse effect and the enhanced greenhouse effect.

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According to the World Meteorological Organisation, “The natural greenhouse effect is caused by the natural amounts of greenhouse gases and is vital to life. In the absence of the natural greenhouse effect, the surface of the earth would be approximately 33 °C cooler. The enhanced greenhouse effect refers to the additional radiative forcing resulting from increased concentrations of greenhouse gases induced by human activities. The main greenhouse gases whose concentrations are rising are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and ozone in the lower atmosphere.”

The IPCC reports too states that,” Greenhouse gases from human activities had caused approximately 1.1°C of global warming by 2010-19 compared to 1850-1900, and that global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming over the next 20 years.”

Wastage of food

Another industry that ‘feeds’ the harmful aftereffect of tourism is food. It is a big attraction while traveling. According to the United Nations, “Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted. Food losses and waste amount to roughly US$ 680 billion in industrialised countries and US$ 310 billion in developing countries.”

Globally, wasted food accounts for about 8 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

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Wastage of paper

Though the digitisation of the travel industry has reduced the dependency on paper, roughly over 15 billion trees are chopped in a year. Within this industry itself, paper is used for tickets, invoices, flyers, posters, handbooks.

Use of single-use-plastic

While the travel industry is one of the highest contributors to plastic- waste, it also suffers from it. According to a reports, over 73 per cent of beach litter worldwide is plastic. While tourists are the people who are indirectly creating the waste, they also are repulsive to places that are not clean.

Jet fuel carbon emission

Another industry that has hugely benefitted from the travel industry is the airline sector with an average global commercial airline industry reaching up to 472 billion dollars in 2021, despite a global pandemic. Though jet-propelled globe-trotting cannot be for everyone, we are travelling all the time. So, the onus to conceive sustainable tourism from ideas to action lies on everyone. 

Impact on GDP and employment

The travel industry, which covers over 185 countries across the globe, is one of the largest economic sectors creating a total of 330 million jobs and contributing to 4.7 trillion U.S. dollars in 2020 alone. However, behind every Instagram-influenced picture, there is a face, a story, a family, and sometimes a whole community’s livelihood. This industry is also hugely influenced by the scarcity of resources, damage to infrastructure because of extreme weather events, and an outbreak of deadly diseases that could drive the majority of human migration and displacement. 

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Travel isn’t relaxing anymore

According to the report, travel will no longer be suggested as an antidote to mental health issues. Emerging research has also found an increasing mental health burden of extreme weather. Post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety, grief, and survivor guilt are among some of the mental health challenges observed in people after extreme weather events.

Where do we go from here?

The way we treat our planet today is indicative of how we leave it behind for future generations. We must think about consumption differently and vouch for non-carbon tourism. There are many such ideas that are to be conceived. Lifestyle changes such as sustainability, plant-based diet, opting for public transport, reducing the usage of plastic of all kinds, sustainable fashion, and living are some of the most chosen options. 

It’s a no-brainer that the world’s poorest are the most vulnerable, even in such a crisis. Over the last 10 years, the deaths caused by rampant floods, drought, and storms have been 15 times higher in the most affected. Most of Africa and large parts of Central America are comparatively less affected like those located in western and northern Europe. Between 1970 and 2019, more than 91% of the deaths from weather, climate, and water hazards across the world have been in developing nations. And these climate hazards have a direct impact on the tourism industry. Though tourism tends to recuperate after every disaster, the question is: Will it survive the most invisible crisis of all—climate change?

Travel and tourism cannot be seen in isolation. The need of the hour is to focus on adaptation techniques. Eight years since the life-changing visit to Leh Ladakh, I turned into a sustainable traveller. I hitch-hike and choose public transport on most days, carrying my own steel cutlery and water bottle. I own only four pairs of clothes. On days when I’m not chasing the world on the map, I’m addressing climate change and promoting sustainability through articles, blogs, and talks. As a travel enthusiast, I take accountability to guard this industry and I call upon fellow travellers to join me in this endeavour. Serious measures need to be taken to better guide tourism before we are too late. The moment to act is now!

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Aakash Ranison is a Responsible Traveller & Sustainability Advocate. He’s been traveling for the last 10 years and working on simplifying climate science with his arts, books, and digital content.

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