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Climate agenda brings real challenges for international tourism

There is a limit to how green discretionary travel can ever be

"You should not feel ashamed for taking a flight," Willie Walsh said on Wednesday. The former Aer Lingus, British Airways and IAG chief executive, who is now the airline industry's top lobbyist globally, was speaking onstage in Croke Park's Hogan Suite at the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation's annual conference, where sustainability was the main theme.

Environmental concerns tend to dominate most discussions around sustainability, although economic and social sustainability ought to be part of the debate too. Regardless, the fight against climate change soon will be core to the functioning of every industry as Ireland strains to meet its daunting emissions targets in coming years. That also goes for tourism.

Walsh was hinting at a fundamental challenge that is quite specific to the tourism and travel sector. The industry may be essential to the economy of countries such as our own but the core consumer activity that the industry spends much of its efforts servicing – people’s desire to go off abroad on their holidays – is fundamentally discretionary.

Holidays

That is objective fact. Nobody really has to go away on holidays. We want to do it. We love to do it. But as the prospect of irreversible or catastrophic climate change edges nearer and the need to cut emissions grows more urgent, discretionary activities such as tourism inevitably will come under more pressure in public debate and policymaking. The sector should prepare to defend itself from attack.

Walsh's comments were a direct rebuff to the "flygskam" rallying cry that was popularised more than three years ago when Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was at the height of her influence. Flygskam is the Swedish word for flight shame – an environmentally-driven social movement that began in the Nordic country, where people are made to feel bad for choosing to fly when, it is argued, this causes environmental damage through the emissions from the kerosene burned by the jet's engines.

Flygskam morphed into one of those buzzy debates that dominated on social media for a while before its intensity fizzled out. But Walsh’s intervention highlights how the travel and, especially, the aviation sector has internalised the enduring economic threat that the notion of flygskam poses. It hasn’t gone away, you know. And as the planet warms up, that debate will come back.

Blacklist

A few minutes before Walsh's onstage interview, the AIB chief executive, Colin Hunt, spoke of the bank's growing "blacklist" of companies that don't take the need to cut carbon emissions seriously. He suggested that such companies either will not be able to raise debt capital, or they will find it prohibitively expensive for them to do so.

Hunt carefully and deliberately sent out the message that the bank intends to “turn away” business from companies that are not seen as being onboard with the green agenda.

If the head of a major bank is prepared to talk in such terms, all other businesses must pay attention because bankers only talk the language of business orthodoxy and the mainstream.

That’s not to say that banks never take a flier: property-addled financial institutions almost bankrupted the State barely a decade ago, after all. But that disaster may be part of the reason why they are so determined to be seen to be on the right side of history now on the issue of climate change. As an existential risk to society and the economy, it is the Everest to the Great Financial Crash’s molehill.

It is easy for banks such as AIB to produce glossy “exclusion lists” declaring their unwillingness to fund activities such as oil drilling. But what will banks do in a few years time if the planet is burning faster and the debate swings round on discretionary activity such as international tourism? Will banks feel pressure to baulk at funding the building of kerosene-burning aircraft and airport runways?

That seems fanciful. But a decade ago, so would the notion that the chief executive of a State-backed bank would run a blacklist that by design must include some of the biggest corporate organisations – oil companies – on the planet.

Most oil companies, and many in aviation, are true corporate giants. But as ITIC’s chief executive, Eoghan O’Mara Walsh, highlights in the lobby group’s new video on sustainability this week, tourism is made up mostly of SMEs. Many of them bring employment to corners of the country that don’t have much else to go on.

They are businesses that often operate on very tight margins. Most of them are down to the financial bare bones anyway after the pandemic. If the push for flygskam comes back with a bang, what will happen to such businesses?

The aviation industry, which is the feeding tube for all other parts of the tourism sector, has embraced the rather nebulous concept of net zero emissions by 2050. Sustainable aviation fuel – kerosene watered down with biofuels or old cooking fats – is the sector’s big hope. The tourism sector inevitably will run into trouble if sustainable aviation fuel can’t turn the tide on tourism’s emissions.

Under pressure

It is obviously vitally important that all elements of the tourism industry make every effort possible to reduce the sector’s carbon emissions. But there is one thing that businesses in the sector will never do, unless assertive governments step in to force them to do it – deliberately contract their activities to reduce emissions. There is a real risk that one day soon, that could become the aim of policymakers.

The tourism sector naturally wants to grow and grow and grow. Every industry, every business, is hard wired to do the same. Growth is the core aim of all economic activity. This is not a conspiracy or a secret, shady aim. It is the natural order of things when human beings are in charge. It is simply the way people’s brains function.

Apart from trying hard to cut emissions, the other thing the tourism industry should do is acknowledge a core truth, and perhaps even embrace it. There is a natural limit to how environmentally friendly you can make an activity such as international tourism. There isn’t really a truly green way to do it.

So perhaps the industry should also remind people that there are two sides to the ledger. Yes, international travel does generate a cost in terms of discretionary emissions. But it also creates value. It enriches cultural exchange. It expands minds. It spreads wealth from richer parts of the world to developing regions, bringing vital employment and sustenance. That deserves celebration too.

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