What if All That Flying Is Good for the Planet?

A growing movement known as “flight shame” and popularized by well-meaning climate activists is gaining momentum around the world. Its premise: Flying is bad for the climate, so if you care about life on Earth, don’t fly. The movement, which began in Scandinavia, has ballooned into protests to disrupt flights at London’s Heathrow Airport and social media campaigns outing celebrities and others for planning long-haul trips.

With the holiday season fast approaching, many climate-conscious people may be wondering: Is my planned vacation for the other side of the world ethically indefensible? But let’s try another question: If we really did all stop flying, would that save the planet?

The counterintuitive answer is that it might actually do the opposite.

The tourism industry depends on air travel, and increasingly, saving nature is directly linked to tourism’s economic clout. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, one in 10 people are employed in the travel and tourism industry, representing more than 10 percent of the global economy. In many countries, nature-based tourism is a top foreign exchange earner.

At the same time, aviation accounts for approximately 2.5 percent of human-induced C0₂ emissions. By contrast, deforestation, according to some estimates, contributes nearly 20 percent, about as much as all forms of transportation combined. If we want to truly take a clean sweep at reducing global greenhouse gases, then we must stop clear-cutting the world’s forests.

Don’t get me wrong. As a conservationist and sustainable tourism expert, I am an advocate for a more responsible approach to tourism. Although I began my career as a wildlife ecologist, my work in the tourism industry is focused on transforming travel to be more environmentally friendly. While I recognize that flying is harmful to the climate, I also know what will happen if, in their understandable concern for climate change, travelers stop booking trips to go on a wildlife safari to Africa or decide to forgo that bucket list vacation to South America. Conservation and poverty alleviation will suffer twin blows.

By 2030, tourism to Africa is projected to generate more than $260 billion annually. Subtract that from Africa’s economy and not only will it plunge an entire continent into more poverty (millions of Africans rely on tourism as their economic lifeline), but it will also undermine hard-won efforts to protect some of the world’s most endangered species. Save the elephants? Forget about it. Rhinos, ditto.

Some tour operators are directly protecting millions of acres of endangered species habitat, among the last strongholds for rhinos and elephants. Others are helping to fund conservation work to save lions, leopards and cheetahs. There is also a strong argument to be made that a key reason the mountain gorilla is not yet extinct is because tourists are willing to fly to Africa and pay handsomely for the chance to see one in the wild, proving to governments and local communities the importance of protecting them.

If it were not for tourism, we could also say goodbye to the wildebeest migration — among the last great land migrations on Earth, with over a million animals moving across the Serengeti. Last year, some 1.5 million tourists visited Tanzania, the majority headed to the Serengeti, where they paid a minimum of $60 dollars per day in entrance fees. Take that income away, and the vast plains would most likely be transformed into cattle ranches — raising beef is already among the most significant contributors to carbon emissions.

Colombia, where I have also been working the past few years, is one of 36 global biodiversity hot spots, Earth’s most biologically rich terrestrial regions. Tourism could be what saves this unique biodiversity from damaging industries like mining, which is already active there. President Iván Duque has set a goal for his country to become a world-class nature travel destination to help provide jobs and better protection for the country’s 59 national parks and reserves — home to the most bird species on Earth.

Among the most important conservation lessons to emerge in the past 25 years is this: When local communities benefit from tourism, they become partners and allies in saving nature. Without that support, conservation will forever be an uphill battle. If the job that feeds your family and sends your kids to school depends on international visitors paying to see a wild elephant or to experience a coral reef teeming with marine life, that builds a global constituency for saving biodiversity right now.

Does this mean that all tourism is good tourism? Of course not. Businesses, governments and travelers need to work harder to advance sustainable tourism practices that are focused on reducing travel’s carbon footprint, saving nature, protecting cultural heritage and creating jobs.

There is no question that the world faces a global climate crisis and we need to demand action, but shaming people to stop them from flying could very well have the immediate reverse effect of accelerating extinctions and ushering in the rapid loss of many of the world’s last remaining wild areas. And while carbon offsets can help reduce air travel’s negative impact, that is not enough to address the scale of the problem. If we are going to do some shaming, let’s focus on the government leaders and greedy corporations that put profit above protecting the environment.

Just as we have the tools today for building a renewable energy future, we also have the tools to start flying green class — like developing synthetic jet fuels and designing electric planes. Pressuring the aviation industry and politicians to prioritize scientific research and funding needed to fast-track green technology innovation will help deliver a sustainable travel future for people and the planet.

Costas Christ is the founder of Beyond Green Travel and a former senior director at Conservation International.

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