How can destinations manage carbon risk from aviation emissions?

Dr. Susanne Becken

Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University, Australia

Have you ever wondered about carbon risk for destinations? Probably not. But we all know that flying is – what might increasingly be classed as – a carbon intensive activity. The aviation industry is putting considerable effort into becoming more carbon efficient. Typically, technological and operational improvements have led to an increase in efficiency of 1-2% per annum.

We set out to look at how destinations can manage the risks associated with aviation carbon emissions. The research, A framework to help destinations manage carbon risk from aviation emissions, takes a demand-focused approach and proposes ten carbon risk indicators that help destinations assess their absolute and relative risk to the economic, financial, social and environmental costs of carbon.

The carbon discussion has now firmly moved into the boardroom, and directors are increasingly seeking to address the implications of carbon risks for their companies. Carbon reporting and disclosure have become common practice amongst leading companies, and investors are divesting from what they perceive to be carbon heavy industries.

Just like managers of investment funds, countries or destinations might also begin to weigh up which development paths would generate the greatest returns at minimal risk. For many countries, tourism features prominently in the mix and the extension of air networks is a priority. With air travel comes carbon emissions, and these pose a direct (future taxes, increase in cost) and indirect risk (social movement against air travel). Global air travel data from Amadeus can help to assess these risks and put them into perspective in comparison with competitor destinations.

Consider the case of small island destinations, for example Mauritius and Samoa. Using data for January 2017 shows that the average travel distance for passengers leaving Mauritius is 5,766 km (one of the highest globally), associated with an average carbon footprint of 422 kg of CO2 per person. For Samoa, the average distance is 3,804 km (254 kg CO2 per person), slightly less exposed due to the key markets, Australia and New Zealand, being geographically relatively close.

Amadeus data can be used for a range of useful indicators to assess the network and associated carbon risk. The detour factor, for example, provides a comparison of the distance between origin and destination (as the crow flies) and the actually flown route. The highest detour distance across all airports is to Nop Goliat Dekai Airport in Papua, Indonesia. To get to Papua, travellers have to fly on average 2,824 km more than the great circle distance.

Understanding a destination’s share of passengers who travel on itineraries less than 400 km might also become increasingly useful to understand future prospects for electric planes. Cuzco in Peru, for example, served close to 120,000 departing passengers in January 2017, of which 9.9% travelled on short itineraries. This indicates relatively high substitution potential.

What the above examples illustrate is the power of data and the opportunity to manage a challenge by understanding it. Amadeus is already working with destinations on providing intelligence, for example in the form of forward bookings or travel lead time. The future might see increasing interest in carbon related metrics, especially for destinations that seek to go all green (e.g. think Costa Rica) or those who wish to future proof their investments.

The research can be read in full in a paper, A framework to help destinations manage carbon risk from aviation emissions, published in Tourism Management.