The Carbon-Neutral Myth

EQUATIONS strongly urges that the carbon neutral myth needs to be questioned as more and more destinations hop on to 'feel good' certification and offset schemes and call themselves earth lungs. There is enough research to show that these are false solutions and, worse still, are at the expense of examining the larger, systemic changes that we need to bring about in our industries and economies.
Express Hospitality
15 September 2008

Rosemary Viswanath
Global climate change is probably the most severe environmental threat in the 21st century and will affect basic elements of life for people around the world - access to water, food production, health and environment. Alarm bells have started to ring worldwide for many important aspects of life like food, water, ecosystems, extreme weather conditions and abrupt and irreversible environmental changes.

In 2003, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) held its first Summit on Climate Change and Tourism in Djerba, Tunisia, which set a proactive call for response from different sectors such as national governments, tourism companies, academic institutions, NGOs and private and public sectors in the form of the Djerba Declaration. It recognised the complex relationship between tourism and climate change, the existing and rapidly worsening impact of climate change on tourism development in sensitive ecosystems and also the contribution of the tourism industry to climate change.

Today climate change is a top issue for policymakers around the world and tourism is becoming an important element of the discussions. This is because climate represents a key resource for tourism and climate related risks in the form of changing weather patterns and extreme conditions can have a serious impact on travel patterns.

On the other hand the tourism industry itself is a contributor to climate change by generating greenhouse gas emissions through travellers' consumption of transport services, notably road and air transport, and high levels of energy consumption like air conditioning, heating and lighting in tourism establishments. The aviation industry is the biggest threat as it is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases, growing at a rate of five per cernt per year and contributing to three per cent of global emissions. Air travel, particularly long haul international flights emitting greenhouse gases at high cruising altitudes, adds substantially to climate change effects.

The earth's biodiversity has also not been spared. There is a two way relationship between biodiversity and climate: biodiversity is threatened by human-induced climate change and climate change is already forcing biodiversity to adapt either through shifting habitat or changing life cycles.

The relentless expansion of the tourism industry is a major cause for concern. Tourism continues to pervade sensitive and fragile ecosystems such as coasts and islands, especially in the developing nations, leading to undesirable impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. Even Multilateral Environmental Agreements like the Convention on Biological Diversity also continue to promote tourism as a market based conservation scheme in coastal and island ecosystems without application of the precautionary principle, as suggested by the Indigenous Peoples' Caucus in the Eight Conference of Parties to the Convention.


Communities that live on coastal areas and small island states face serious risks due to sea level rise. They face the brunt of displacement through expansion and establishment of tourism facilities on the one hand. On the other, their livelihoods such as fishing are affected due to the fact that ecosystems like coral reefs, habitat of a great variety of fish populations are dying as a result of climate change impacts.

  • In mountainous regions, the melting of glaciers poses the risk of floods and threatens the lives and livelihoods of communities, which are dependent on agriculture. Forest diversity is also threatened by climate change which in turn threatens the livelihood of forest dependent communities.
  • A significant stretch of the Mediterranean coast faces desertification due to decrease in rain and rise in temperatures over long periods of time, posing a threat to tourism and thus impacting local communities reliant on tourism.

Acknowledging the factors
EQUATIONS calls upon governments to take serious and urgent steps for the implementation of conventions, protocols and resolutions related to climate change. We urge them to take cognisance of tourism and its closely linked transportation and aviation industries as significant factors contributing to climate change, and therefore to formulate international and domestic environmental and tourism policies and regulatory mechanisms, to adapt and mitigate climate change impacts.

The tourism industry is notorious for high per capita consumption of water, poor energy efficiency, waste management issues and serious negative environmental impacts. We call upon the tourism industry to take on the challenge of an authentic response to the climate change crisis by implementing measures to reduce energy consumption in tourism establishments by employing energy-efficient and appropriate green technologies. We recognise that this will require a significant transformation of current forms of mass tourism and we urge a serious engagement on this issue to reduce tourism's climate change footprint.

We question corporations and international financial institutions like the World Bank who promote market based measures such as carbon trading, carbon offsetting and carbon sinks which are totally unsustainable.

Offset schemes are utilised by industries whose profit margins depend on delaying the transition to the low-carbon economy for as long as possible. These industries focus on the consumers' responsibility for climate change - at the expense of examining the larger, systemic changes that we need to bring about in our industries and economies.

For fossil fuel companies and airlines, offsets represent an opportunity to 'greenwash' their activities. Offset schemes tend to lull the customer into falsely believing that human activity that directly exacerbates climate change is effectively 'neutralised,' with no impact on the climate. So airline companies, which oppose aviation taxes and would never advocate that people simply choose not to fly unnecessarily. Instead, through carbon offset companies, they would rather present the section of climate-conscious passengers with the option of flying "free from concern" over the impact of their emissions. This shift to what is essentially an unregulated and disputed form of eco-taxation away from the company and onto the consumer has gained airline companies an enormous amount of favourable but farcical publicity.

The massive expansion and building of new airports, the launching and expansion of budget and short haul airlines and routes and infrastructure heavy tourism projects are celebrated as progress. The position for instance of the Ministry of Tourism, India at the 17th Session of the General Assembly of the UNWTO, that no obstacles should be created to the economic development in particular of those developing countries located at long distance from tourist generating markets, blocked any attempt to bring in climate change concerns into the discussions.

The prevailing message from the organisation: The idea of simply reducing air travel to limit emissions is not the way out. Solutions like emissions trading and next generation aircraft are more realistic in the mind of the UNWTO. Staying at home, heating an apartment or using a car also pollutes. Less travel is bad for economies and jobs of destination countries.

While the attention that the UNWTO is paying to the issue of climate change is welcome, its solutions unfortunately are in the nature of quick-fixes and business as usual - carbon offsetting and carbon neutral travel and green certifications.

EQUATIONS strongly urges that the carbon neutral myth needs to be questioned as more and more destinations hop on to 'feel good' certification and offset schemes and call themselves earth lungs. There is enough research to show that these are false solutions and, worse still, are at the expense of examining the larger, systemic changes that we need to bring about in our industries and economies. This implies also a more rigorous analysis of the complex situation involving North-South relations and the ecological debt, the global inequality of energy and resource distribution and the interdependence of neo-liberal economic expansion and fossil-fuel consumption. It would, for instance, involve a complete halt to financing fossil fuel exploration and, at the same time, serious investment in alternative sustainable energy options.

Along with peoples movements all over the world, we condemn the rush into agro-fuels and carbon sinks as these lead to destruction of forests, increase monoculture, promote large agribusiness and pose serious threats to subsistence agriculture and food security. We call for responsible and urgent measures to address and mitigate climate change and the need to recognise that the single minded pursuance of unsustainable growth strategies puts our common future at peril. The responsibility of seeking viable and sustainable solutions to avert the climate crisis must take into account particularly the plight of the most vulnerable communities around the world who end up paying for the irrevocable actions of those who wish to consume. In that sense we call for climate justice. The pseudo-solution of offsets only serves to delay the shift in popular consciousness that will recognise that social change and significant even dramatic changes in lifestyles is a necessary prerequisite to dealing effectively with climate change.

The writer is chief functionary, EQUATIONS, that was founded in 1985 to understand the impacts of development particularly in the context of liberalised trade regimes, the opening up of national economy, structural adjustments and neo-liberal policies.