Analysis: The WTTC’s environmental impact report is a significant step

Ian Taylor assesses the first detailed assessment of travel’s global footprint

The first detailed assessment of travel’s global environmental footprint in a report last week by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and Saudi-based Sustainable Tourism Global Centre (STGC) marks a significant step.

The Environmental Impact of Global Tourism report notes: “Meaningful change will only happen with the right measurement.”

But it comes with a warning, noting “the current climate and biodiversity crises” mean: “Continuing business as usual risks breaching environmental tipping points . . . [when] the sector is more dependent than most on the natural world.”

The key data point – that travel’s greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 8.1% of the world total in 2019 – was announced a year ago. But the report presents whole new areas of measurement for the first time, calculating the sector accounted for 10.6% of global energy consumption, 0.9% of water consumption and 5%‑8% of material extraction in 2019.

While the assessment provides good news – the sector’s emissions increased annually at 2.5% between 2010 and 2019 while travel GDP rose at 4.3% per year – emissions still rose 25% in the period and those from international transport grew 5.9% per year. In Europe, travel accounted for 10.9% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, an increase of two percentage points on 2010.

Energy use by the sector rose 24% worldwide in the period, with fossil fuels remaining the dominant energy source, comprising 85% to 98% depending on the region. The rise in energy from low-carbon sources in the sector was “marginal”, comprising just 6% of travel’s consumption in 2019.

The industry’s water use may be just under 1% of the world’s total, but its water footprint increased by 21% between 2010 and 2019 and the report notes: “Travel and tourism’s share of national water use and water intensity tends to be higher in more highly stressed regions.”

So, in 2019, 34% of the sector’s water footprint was in countries suffering ‘high’ or ‘extremely high’ water stress, and 64% in countries of ‘medium to high’ stress.

The report also models the sector’s footprint for six types of air pollutant: the inhalable particulate matter categorised as PM2.5 and PM10, carbon monoxide, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), ammonia and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

It notes the sector’s air pollution footprint “mostly increased” between 2010 and 2019 and found 62% of the industry’s NOx pollution “falls in very highly exposed countries”, with travel responsible for 17% of NOx pollution in Europe in 2019.

Finally, the report analyses the sector’s material extraction, which increased by 64% between 2010 and 2019 “driven predominantly by demand for construction materials”, and it notes “a clearly unsustainable dependence” on fossil fuels.

The authors note: “Continued monitoring can help us better understand the sector’s footprint and support efforts to reduce it.”

More: Access the report here

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