The implications of the Copenhagen climate anti-climax on tourism

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For many months the expectations of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference were immense.

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For many months the expectations of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference were immense. This conference was expected to lead us into a brave new world in which the world would be united in global commitment to reduce emissions and significantly reduce the human contribution to climate change.

The reality was that 192 countries demonstrated a clear inability to arrive at a legally binding agreement on emission reduction targets. Perhaps it was over-optimistic to expect so many nations to arrive at an accord that would satisfy the environmental imperatives for the entire planet and would be politically palatable to all parties. Despite the commitment of the UN towards reaching a resolution, the gap between the expectations of the developing world and the developed world were far too wide to breach in 15 days. Observers with far greater wisdom than this writer will argue about who was at fault.

However, the end result has been an accord agreed to by 27 of the 192 countries, rejected by many more, which calls on actions to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century. There is little in the way of specific emission reduction targets, nothing about verification and no legally binding imperatives to actually oblige signatories to any specific course of action. The accord, at best, is a statement of honorable intent and little more.

For the nearly 100 heads of government Copenhagen was ultimately little more than a photo op. US President Barack Obama may on reflection, consider that spending less than 24 hours at the conference was insufficient to achieve a charisma led, superman style diplomatic breakthrough. There is not much to celebrate about a pocket full of mumbles (apologies to Simon and Garfunkle) although the spin doctors of the 27 governments including the USA, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Australia who signed the accord will be spinning on overdrive to try and convince their own people and the world that this accord was a great achievement. Many of the leaders and their delegations worked hard to overcome the intense differences that arose at the conference. The delegations of Bangladesh, Tuvalu, Maldives and other countries whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels pricked the conscience of the world but not enough to arrive at a program of action that would save these countries or large parts of them from inundation.

Tourism is very much at the frontline of the climate change and emissions reduction issue. Popular coastal destinations ranging from Tahiti, Miami, Cancun, the Caribbean islands, the SW Pacific island states, the Gold Coast and the Barrier Reef in Australia, the Maldives, parts of SE Asia and parts of East Africa face very serious threats from sea surges, rising sea levels and tsunamis. Desertification and drought impact on the viability of many tourism destinations around the world due to lack of water but in changing the environmental aesthetics which made some of these destinations attractive tourism destinations in the first place. A reduction of snowfalls in marginal ski resorts have the potential to heavily impact on the ski sector of the markets in a number of destinations around the world.

The travel and tourism industry is very conscious about its responsibility to reduce emissions. Airlines, hotels and resorts have been rapidly introducing measures which are environmentally friendly and which target emission reductions. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which is expected to reduce fuel consumption by an estimated 25 percent, is a significant advance despite the fact that its production is now two years behind schedule. The resurgence of rail (despite the recent problems experienced by Eurostar) and the rise of cruise tourism both contribute to mass tourism’s reduced impact on the environment. Having said that, the tourism industry will need to do a great deal more to achieve significant emission reduction targets.

Perhaps it may have been more productive for the thousands of delegates and the 100 world leaders at Copenhagen to have dealt with reducing emissions in bite sized chunks such as tourism, energy generation, mining, heavy industry, agriculture water pollution rather than make the attempt they did to seek a macro solution. In 2010, the conference slated for Mexico City may achieve more by tackling the issue economic sector by sector which will cumulatively achieve a macro result.

The tourism industry with the cooperation of both the private and the government sector is making real progress in addressing emissions and climate change partially because as an industry there is a great deal at stake. United Nations World Tourism Organization assistant secretary-general Geoffrey Lipman made this very clear in his recent interview with ETN. There is a high level of awareness that climate change is the creeping crisis for tourism but as an industry we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of creeping towards a response.

The author is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism at the University of Technology-Sydney

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.