Time to focus on the real environmental costs of tourism; not only plastic, but the carbon from air travel
Thomas Cook declared all-out war on plastic last week. An estimated 8m items of single-use plastic enter the ocean every day and, as public concern mounts, the holiday giant has promised to find sustainable alternatives.
“Our commitment is to remove 70m single-use plastics — equivalent to 3,500 suitcases full — within the next 12 months,” its director of group corporate affairs said.
Thomas Cook is just the latest company to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. Seemingly every other day, a cruise line, tour operator or hotel group announces a ban on straws and plastic bottles: Hyatt, Disney, Cunard, Mandarin Oriental and Marriott are among them.
They’re all latecomers to the eco-party. The operators Exodus, G Adventures, KE Adventure and Wild Frontiers have all pledged to ban plastic bottles. Audley Travel’s brochures are sent in envelopes made from biodegradable potato starch, and in January Ryanair announced that it will remove single-use plastics from its flights by 2023. Passengers will be encouraged to bring their own cups on board — presumably at no extra cost.
Is this corporate responsibility or virtue-signalling? Plastic bags are illegal in many bucket-list destinations, including Kenya, Rwanda and the Galapagos Islands. India has outlawed plastic straws in most states and Delhi has banned single-use plastics. The EU aims to ban most single-use plastics by 2021 and the Balearic Islands will outlaw plastic cups, straws, disposable lighters and coffee-machine capsules by 2020. While any undertaking to reduce marine pollution is a good thing, companies could be said to be selling us a legal obligation repackaged as a green initiative.
“Customers expect holiday companies to demonstrate responsibility towards their destinations,” says Jane Ashton, head of sustainable development at Tui.
But by focusing on cocktail straws in the beach bar, aren’t we ignoring the huge environmental cost of getting to the beach in the first place?
“We understand the plastic problem because we can see it,” says Professor Harold Goodwin, of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism. “Dealing with it is a small step towards addressing the big issue of carbon emissions.”
A decade ago, you couldn’t go near a travel website without being invited to pay for some trees to be planted to offset your carbon footprint. The travel trade’s eagerness for this has noticeably waned, but the problem hasn’t gone away.
The annual carbon footprint of the average Briton is 6.5 tonnes. A return flight from Luton to Malaga produces 37 tonnes of CO2. The International Air Transport Association says the number of air journeys we take will double to 8.2bn a year by 2037. And while airlines are committed to reducing emissions, they’re not doing so fast enough to offset this increase in passenger numbers. “No other human activity pushes individual emission levels as fast and as high as air travel,” says Dr Roger Tyers, an environmental sociologist at Southampton University.
Airlines are at pains to prove their sustainability. Last month, a Virgin Atlantic 747 flew from Orlando to Gatwick, powered by a waste-based biofuel with emissions 65% lower than for conventional jet fuel. EasyJet announced it would have all-electric planes serving European routes by 2030, and a company in Singapore revealed plans for a zero-emission, long-range aircraft powered by hydrogen-electric propulsion.
Could these green machines clear our consciences? “Technological breakthroughs that are always ‘just around the corner’ serve to reassure the public that we can continue down the path of aviation expansion,” Tyers warns. “They tell us that engineers and inventors will come to the rescue, that politicians and passengers need do nothing. Climate change will be a real problem unless we do something about our addiction to cheap and plentiful flying.”
Yes, says Jarrod Kyte, of Steppes Travel, but stopping flying is not the answer. “Travel is hugely important, but we need to start acknowledging that it also incurs an environmental debt. I think all tour operators should be offering to offset the environmental cost of travel.”
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