Sustainable Tourism and Flying
Richard Parncutt

April 2017


There is no question that Westerners visiting developing countries should respect the customs and culture of the locals. They should ensure that their tourist dollar goes toward local development rather than multinational corporations. Unfortunately, that often does not happen. But there is more to it than that.

Sustainable tourism also means avoiding flying. If you haven't got time to travel to your preferred destination by surface transport, you should stay at home. 

That may seem a bit harsh. Surely if we can afford a flight, we are entitled to it? Besides, how are we Europeans supposed to travel to India for our meditation retreats without flying?

Before aeroplanes were invented, countless British people traveled to India, and countless Indians travelled to Britain. How did they do that? Ask a stupid question... Try this link: rome2rio or search the internet for "cargo ship tourism".

If you are ready for the truth about sustainable tourism (most people are not), here it is: The aviation industry is making a large and growing contribution to global warming. The oft-quoted figure is "only" 2% of global anthropogenic CO2, but given the relentless growth of the industry, this figure is probably closer to 3% by now. More importantly, the total global warming effect of aviation is 2 to 4 times that of the CO2, due to the other greenhouse gases involved and the high altitude at which they are released.

If the Wikipedia page on this topic doesn't shock you into giving up intercontinental flights for short visits to exotic destinations, nothing will. Please read it.

What about Lonely Planet?

I must admit that I am a great fan of Lonely Planet Guides. In fact, an embarrassingly large section of my bookcase is devoted to them.

In recent years, all Lonely Planet Guides have contained an honest, informative statement (toward the end of the book, on the travel page) about the contribution of aviation to global warming. Apparently, the travel of all Lonely Planet authors is offset. The statement seems perfectly reasonable at first sight. But if you think about it, it is far too little, far too late.

If we were being honest about climate change, we would agree that Lonely Planet and all other such guide books should immediately stop recommending flying. In fact, they should immediately stop providing helpful information about air travel, because such information - and travel guides generally - merely encourage large numbers of people to fly. Instead, travel guide authors should explore the different surface travel possibilities. Beyond that, they should recommend that people take their holidays in their local region. 

Another truth that many are ignoring is that offsetting simply doesn't work. Offsetting is always welcome if it means financially supporting organisations that are planting trees, taking political action to slow climate change, and promoting sustainable energy. But it is misleading to claim that such donations "offset" the CO2 produced when flying. Here's why:

A typical intercontinental return flight consumes the equivalent of roughly one ton of carbon per passenger. That's comparable with driving a regular car in a regular way for a year. To offset that would require not only a certain number of new trees. Planting the trees is just the start. The trees must be reliably nurtured to maturity and then reliably looked after for several decades. Even if that works, which it usually does not, there is a big time lag of a decade or two between the emissions and the offsetting. During that time, global warming is happening.

The honest solution is to stop both flying and deforestation. Right now, both are proceeding at an alarming rate, and most of us are in denial about it.

The bottom line

Burning large amounts of fossil carbon is causing large numbers of future deaths - no matter how or why we are burning it. It follows that all burning of fossil carbon has to stop as soon as possible, everywhere. Given that aviation is a major contributor, flying is only justifiable in urgent, life-and-death situations.

This is the "plane truth" that most people are avoiding. The carbon party is over. It's time to clean up the mess. 

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at gmx dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage