To fly or not to fly? Can air travel ever be good for the environment?

Nov 28, 2019 | Commentary

By John E. Scanlon AO – Special Envoy at African Parks Network

Flight shaming has caught the attention of climate activists and concerned citizens searching for ways and means to urgently tackle climate change. Are there considerations that go beyond the carbon emissions of the flight itself? Could stopping flying ever result in an unforeseen net negative impact on our climate, our wildlife and local communities?

Well-managed protected areas offer a climate solution with many co-benefits

Nature-based climate solutions, like restoring and protecting forests, may offer over a third of the cost-effective carbon dioxide mitigation needed between now and 2030; with well-managed protected areas offering a climate solution that delivers many other global and local benefits

If we lose protected areas, we lose the carbon they store and wildlife they protect

Developing countries are struggling to finance and manage their protected areas, leaving us with many ‘paper parks.’ If this situation doesn’t change, over the next decade or two these places and the carbon they store could be lost, leaving rural communities more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Our wild places face multiple threats, including from poaching for illegal wildlife trade, bush-meat and firewood, pollution and loss of habitat through land-use change, largely driven by agricultural expansion. ‘Agriculture, forestry and other types of land-use’ account for 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions; protected areas absorb carbon dioxide.

All of these threats are happening against a backdrop of increasing human-wildlife conflict, with global population now close to eight billion and growing to nearly ten billion by 2050; most rapidly in Africa, where population is projected to grow from 1.2 billion to 2.5 billion.

Wildlife-based tourism helps make protected areas a viable land use option

When done well, wildlife-based tourism forms a critical part of the mix in securing the long-term future of protected areas; helping make them a viable land use option by generating decent local jobs and stimulating a conservation-led economy within and around the park.

Promoting sustainable tourism is included in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and experience gained in Africa shows how multiple benefits can flow from well-managed wildlife-based tourism. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) identifies tourism as a significant source of jobs and foreign exchange flows for African countries. In Kenya, it accounts for 9% of GDP, generating 1.1m jobs, and in Rwanda, it accounts for 15% of GDP, supporting 410,000 jobs.

In 2018 wildlife tourism sustained 21.8 million jobs and in Africa it generated 3.6 million jobs

Wildlife is the single biggest driver for Africa’s tourism growth and a recent survey by the UN World Tourism Organisation says that four of every five tourists buying holidays to Africa in 2015 came for wildlife watching. The WTTC estimates that in 2018 wildlife tourism sustained 21.8 million jobs globally and generated 3.6 million jobs in Africa. What happens to these jobs if we stop flying to wildlife destinations?

Akagera National Park, Rwanda

In 2018 the Akagera National Park in Rwanda attracted over 44,000 tourists, half local and half international. This tourism has generated local jobs, supported a local economy and has enabled the park to cover almost 80% of its running costs. As a result, the park enjoys strong national and local support, ensuring its long-term future, and the wildlife and the carbon it holds.

Air transport contributes about 2% of global carbon emissions and the global standard setter (ICAO) and the industry itself (IATA) have set carbon goals and targets to 2050. Each airline will need to respond to them, and we can choose which carrier to fly with based upon their climate performance; such as the efficiency of its fleet, its fuel, and its carbon offsets. 

We can choose which carrier to fly with based upon their climate performance

Video conferencing and catching the train can offer a viable alternative to flying. But nothing can replace the life-changing personal experiences that come from visiting local cultures and wildlife.

In striving to limit our own climate impact, there will be times when our choices are not straightforward. Deciding whether to fly or not can involve considerations that go beyond the carbon emissions of the flight itself, which can increasingly be limited and offset; if agreed targets are met.

Deciding whether to fly or not can involve considerations that go beyond the carbon emissions of the flight itself

Flying long distances to visit protected areas can be critically important to their survival, along with the carbon and wildlife they secure and the communities whose livelihoods are built around them. While not always immediately obvious, it may do some good.


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