By Javier Caletrío
Letter originally published in British Birds December 2019 Vol. 112, pp. 760-761.
I am writing to express my concern about the role of the British Birdwatching Fair in normalising high-carbon holidays.
Wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists have a moral duty to contribute their fair share to the commitment of the Paris agreement to keep global warming well below 2ºC (and aim towards 1.5ºC) but the growth of high-carbon holidays is mathematically and symbolically incompatible with this.
Aviation contributes around 5% of human-induced warming and since demand is expected to double within two decades, and given that there are no technologies in sight to make green flying a reality, it could consume up to 27% of the 1.5ºC carbon budget by 2050 (CarbonBrief; http://bit.ly/2m12EuA). This risks jeopardising the international commitment to stay within a safe temperature threshold since it requires a greater effort from various other sectors that will also struggle to decarbonise in line with 1.5ºC. The alarming detail here is that less than 5% of the world’s population fly in any given year and that most flying is done for holidays by an even smaller population segment. In England, the 10% most frequent flyers took more than half of all international flights in 2018 (The Guardian; http://bit.ly/2n9N1RD).
This inequality weakens people’s willingness to act decisively to curb emissions. A carbon budget is a pie that we all have to share under a principle of equity but at the moment this is far from the case. The richest 20% of the world’s population is responsible for 68% of global CO2 emissions (Oxfam; http://bit.ly/2LW8eIA) and the richest 1% produces as much carbon as the bottom 50% (Le Monde; http://bit.ly/2nA1cPX). Aviation tends to dominate the carbon footprint of frequent flyers and this is not likely to change in the coming decades. Considering planned fuel and operational efficiency gains, the climate impact of a return long-haul flight to South America, South Africa or Indonesia will still be in the range of 3–4 tonnes of CO2e by 2050. Yet globally emissions per capita for 1.5ºC need to go down to 2.5 tonnes in 2030, 1.4 in 2040 and 0.7 in 2050 (Institute for Global Environmental Strategies; http://bit.ly/2obg0oI). Emissions per capita in the EU are currently around seven tonnes; technology will deliver only part of these emission reductions and therefore lifestyle changes are inevitable. High-carbon holidays are a luxury that the planet simply cannot afford.
Tourism is an important source of income for many countries yet the climate crisis is increasing global inequality, since it is in poor countries where the impact is greater. According to research published in April this year, in most poor countries higher temperatures are more than 90% likely to have resulted in decreased economic output, compared with a world without global warming (Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA; http://bit.ly/2obA36r). The economic impact of tourism in certain localities pales in comparison with the growth of poverty in tropical regions associated with rising temperatures (https://go.nature.com/2lVpW4R). There are also good reasons to be agnostic about nature-based tourism as a conservation tool—locally it can have both positive and negative impacts. What is indisputable is that tourism is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions (https://go.nature.com/2IREpqa)—and this is without considering the non-CO2 warming effects from aviation which make it twice or three times as climate-relevant. Global warming is already having an impact on biodiversity. Without urgent and drastic emission cuts, a third of animal species could be lost by 2070 and around a quarter of all vertebrates, half of insects and 44% of plants could face severe range loss by 2100 (Proc. Roy. Soc. B; http://bit.ly/2msjUZX). Keeping warming at 1.5ºC instead of 2ºC could halve the number of vertebrate and plant species facing severe range loss by the end of the century (Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. A; http://bit.ly/2o4vVF9). For coral reefs and low-lying islands half a degree is the difference between survival and extinction. Yet carbon emissions have not even peaked—and we are currently on track for a 3–4ºC rise by 2100.
The climate crisis calls for a different approach to how we think about and enjoy our holidays. There is an unmissable opportunity here for Birdfair to further increase its global profile, by focussing on the climate crisis: make Rutland a focal point for birdwatchers and environmental organisations to act together to contribute their fair share to the commitment of the Paris agreement, and showcase efforts by the wildlife tourism industry to cut emissions in line with climate science and lessen its dependence on air travel. Other initiatives to make Birdfair a climate-friendly event could include the greater involvement of young people leading by example in designing the programme; inviting climate scientists as guest speakers; greater promotion of attendance by public transport; showcasing habitat management projects aimed at mitigation and adaptation (‘natural climate solutions’); and showing the visiting public ways to get involved.
A commitment to decarbonise will be the most genuine expression of the birding community’s concern for the climate emergency and the fate of future generations. There is no time to waste.
Javier Caletrío, Lancaster.
Response by Tim Appleton.