Indian travellers’ carbon footprint is fourth-largest in the world, study shows
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Indian travellers’ carbon footprint is fourth-largest in the world, study shows

HAVE you ever wondered if that much cherished Swiss cowbell souvenir and that well-earned vacation may have played a role in global carbon pollution?

A new study estimates tourism releases four times more carbon into the atmosphere than previously thought. It also decodes India’s contribution to the carbon footprint from the fast-growing industry.

“India has the world’s fourth-largest carbon footprint from tourism, preceded by key emitters such as the US and China. Germany ranks third,” said Arunima Malik, lead author of the study that quantifies tourism-related global carbon flows between 160 countries spanning 2009 and 2013.

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A large population and a growing income level are the key drivers for this footprint, according to study co-author Ya-Yen Sun.

“Tourism is found to be income-elastic and it means that people demand lot more travels when their income increases. When combining with a growing middle class population, this will push up total visitor numbers for both domestic and international trips,” Sun of The University of Queensland, told Mongabay-India.

Claiming to be the first comprehensive assessment, researchers said the analysis quantifies the world’s tourism footprint across the supply chain – from flights, accommodation and food to the souvenirs.

The complex research took a year and a half to complete and incorporated more than an estimated one billion supply chains and their impacts on the atmosphere.

Noting that India is a ‘net destination’, Sun said this means more emissions are linked to international arrivals to India than emissions associated with citizens of India travelling abroad.


An Indian tourist takes a selfie in a Tulip garden at Sanasar in Udhampur district, some 140 kms from Jammu, on March 29, 2018. Source: Rakesh Bakshi / AFP

The study reports that global tourism accounts for eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions with transport, shopping and food being significant contributors.

In 2013, global tourism accounted for about 4.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. If things continue at the same pace, then by 2025, the sector will produce 6.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

In this assessment, the contribution of air travel emissions amounts to 12 percent (0.55 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) of tourism’s global carbon footprint, said Malik from the University of Sydney.

The majority of these carbon footprints are caused by domestic travel; business travel could not be distinguished from tourism, the authors stated in a press release.

‘Good time for India to make right investment decisions’

Coming close on the heels of the revelation that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have reached “highest” in 800,000 years, the assessment underlines that global footprint of tourism-related greenhouse gas emissions is “growing faster than international trade and is already responsible for almost a tenth of global GHGs.”

Tourism expert, Susanne Becken, who was not involved with the assessment, said that she agrees with the findings of the study. It confirms the need for travel and tourism to engage in the climate discussion and reduce carbon emissions, she said.

As for India, Becken opined that this is a very good time for the Indian tourism industry to make the right investment decisions such as investments in energy efficient buildings and low carbon transport among others.

“You have some great leaders in sustainability like the Taj Hotels of the Tata group. It is also a good time to future-proof the sector more broadly. Luckily, India has a large domestic tourism sector, which means that carbon emissions are relatively low,” Becken, director of Griffith Institute of Tourism, Australia, told Mongabay-India.

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Becken said that given India’s high share of vegetarian options, the segment could also be promoted to tourists.

India’s carbon emissions from aviation stood at 17. 97 million tonnes (MT) in 2017, an increase from 16.06 MT in 2016, as per the Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard, which was developed by Griffith Institute for Tourism in partnership with the University of Surrey. Per capita, India’s aviation emissions are very low, said Becken.

The dashboard provides a mechanism to monitor sustainability issues of tourism, explained Becken pointing out protected areas and tourism planning as one of the segments.

The dashboard illustrates eight World Heritage Areas (WHA) in India. They are Kaziranga National Park, Keoladeo National Park, Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Khangchendzonga National Park, Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Park, Sundarbans National Park and the Western Ghats.

Out of these, the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area and Khangchendzonga National Park, have tourism management plans.


Tourist vehicles plying in Sikkim contribute to carbon emissions in the Himalayan state. Source: Sahana Ghosh/ Mongabay-India

“We used this as an indicator to say that only WHAs that have a plan are likely to be managed sustainably. From this I would say that India has some progress to do and one might then also look further into the tourism planning in other protected areas in India, especially, if you think that ecotourism/nature based tourism is going to increase,” she explained.

So the best way is to combine tourism with community development, sustainability investment, said Becken.

Carbon taxes

As per the study, emissions produced to support tourism within India (destination-based accounting or DBA) was 268 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent while tourism emissions made by citizens of India (described as residence-based accounting or RBA) stood at 240 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent.

The respective values for the U.S., which topped the global rankings is 1,060 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (DBA) and RBA at 909 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent. This is nearly four times than that of India.

“The differences between US and India reflect the magnitude of tourism demand and the local production technology,” observed Sun.

The study also found that the per capita carbon footprint increases strongly with increasing affluence (wealthier people travel more), decreases weakly with improving technology (saving energy means emitting less) and that time has no significant bearing.

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India has witnessed a six-fold increase in passenger numbers over the past decade. According to Centre for Aviation (CAPA), Indian airports handled 265 million domestic passengers in 2016 and will cross 300 million in 2018.

Asked on factoring in the boom in low-cost airlines in India, Sun said the emergence of low-cost airlines generally stimulates the tourism demand, leading to a higher travel frequency but lower length of stay – resulting in a higher carbon intensity per trip and an expanding overall tourism emissions.

“If the local public transportation (such as railways) provides a good capacity, it can substitute some demand from air to land transport, but literature finds that this substitution is only good for short or median travel distances,” Sun clarified.

Global demand for tourism is outstripping the decarbonisation of tourism operations and, as a result, is accelerating global carbon emissions, the study states. “At the same time, at least 15 percent of global tourism-related emissions are currently under no binding reduction target as emissions of international aviation and bunker shipping are excluded from the Paris Agreement. In addition, the United States, the most significant source of tourism emissions, does not support the Agreement.”


Buildings are shrouded by smog in New Delhi, India, May 2, 2018. Source: Reuters /Adnan Abidi

In particular, the results of this study could serve to inform the work of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO – which advocates further tourism growth, even in already highly developed tourism economies) and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) in creating awareness of the carbon burden faced by tourism-stressed areas, the authors said.

Neither responsible travel behaviour nor technological improvements have been able to rein in the increase in tourism’s carbon footprint. Carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes (especially for aviation services) may be required to curtail unchecked future growth in tourism-related emissions, the study suggests.

According to Saurabh Kumar Dixit, associate professor, Department of Tourism and Hotel Management, North – Eastern Hill University, Shillong, travellers may be encouraged to choose short-haul destinations with increased use of public transport and lower use of aviation. Tourism operators be provided market incentives to improve their energy efficiency.

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“A notable example of this can be seen Wayanad (Kerala) where the forest department, in association with tourism industry stakeholders, has drawn up a unique project to help tourists to offset carbon emissions associated with their trip by planting trees at resort premises and other protected areas of the hill district,” Dixit told Mongabay-India.

For government and industry, Sun advises incorporating emissions of international aviation and bunker shipping in targets such as those most recently drawn up under the Paris Agreement.

“Support carbon taxes or carbon-trading schemes to encourage the speed of technology development of airline industries and other transportation. Implement the eco-labelling requirement for airlines so that consumers can make informed decisions,” Sun added.

This article was originally published on Mongabay.