“We cannot solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them…” – Albert Einstein
When Heathrow Airport opened its new Terminal 5, well-meaning environmental protestors tried to shut it down by chaining themselves to the building and calling for an end to air travel to stop global warming before it is too late. I was with them in spirit—I also want to stop global warming—but not in practice. The issue at hand is counter-intuitive. If we could magically stop all air travel tomorrow, far from saving the Earth, we would unleash a global conservation crisis.
Without the foreign exchange generated by tourism for developing countries, places like the Serengeti, home of the last great migration of plains animals on Earth, would rapidly succumb to human settlements. The Pantanal in Brazil, the largest wetland in the world and already facing pressures from cattle ranches, would become one giant holding pen for the global beef industry, now kept at bay by a mosaic of private nature reserves and ecolodges serving Brazil’s tourism economy. Governments in the coral triangle of Southeast Asia, location of the planet’s highest concentration of marine biodiversity, would have little incentive to support the creation or protection of marine reserves that keep out shark-finning poachers and commercial boats that drag every fish they can net from the sea, no matter how small or large.
The challenge is not how to stop travel, but how to get it right. The movement in sustainable tourism is helping to make this happen, as more travelers demand environmental accountability from travel companies. During the last 12 months, we have seen the first test flights of commercial aircraft using partial biofuel, including Virgin, Continental, and Air New Zealand. British Airways has notched it up by officially stating that they will cut their net C02 emissions by 50 percent by 2050, a bold position for any major air carrier. The airline industry fear is that they could become the “new tobacco” in public minds ( ie "this product is dangerous to your health”) if they do not take action on sustainable solutions. While the airline industry is certainly not the largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change, the majority of scientists have now made it clear that we have a 20 year window, at most, before hitting a tipping point of irreversible global warming damage. We need all hands on deck now.
As I write this, the top 100 travel and tourism companies, with input from scientists and conservationists, are working on a joint report to lead the way forward to a low climate-risk travel industry, while maximizing the positive impact of sustainable tourism in protecting the natural and cultural heritage of our planet. It is not too late—yet. Which is why, when we take a trip, each of us can make a big difference by giving our hard earned dollars to those companies—on land, water and in the air—that are committed to sustainable tourism in action. (Check out the sustainability scores in our 2009 Adventure Ratings.)
Postscript to my July 4 blog Paving Paradise for a Better Future: Sadly, both of these mass tourism mega-development projects were granted permission to proceed.