Tourism and climate justice: When are we going to take the Paris Agreement seriously?

Blog Dmat 2024

At the end of last year, I was interviewed by the Finnish national broadcasting company YLE. They were interested in the carbon footprint of leisure flights to Finnish Lapland of 800,000 tourists per year. YLE reported a carbon footprint of approximately 600,000 tCO2e for these flights, after having consulted several research and environmental organisations.

The journalist also asked what a carbon footprint of 600,000 tonnes actually means.

It corresponds to the annual lifestyle carbon footprint of about 65,000 Finns (roughly the population of the Finnish city of Seinäjoki). And it is equal to the carbon budget for the lifestyle of about 250,000 people (the population of the city of Tampere) in 2030.

The term Carbon budget refers to the total amount of emissions we can still release into the atmosphere in one year while keeping within the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement, divided by the global population. We thus could also say that (under these assumptions) these leisure flights to Lapland would use up the prerequisites of life of 250,000 people in the world in 2030.

250,000 people is 40% more than the whole population of Finnish Lapland.

When the article was published, a bold headline stated that according to a climate researcher, the leisure flights to Lapland destroy the prerequisites of life of 250,000 people. The article’s contents also detailed my other comparisons. It included a response by the Finnish Minister of Transport, Lulu Ranne, who stated that these flights help strengthen the economy and hence Finns shouldn’t worry about their climate implications.

The piece prompted a somewhat polarized response on social media. Quite some people appreciated the kind of new viewpoint I brought into the discussion by expressing so clearly the implication of those leisure flights. The opposite view expressed by the Minister was also well represented by echoing opposition or at least questioning my statement, or even the necessity of worrying about the climate in general. Some also questioned the credibility of a researcher stating such a substantial fact.

The case emphasized well the controversy of the climate discussion, and climate action, in our society. While we as people are aware of the problem, and somehow even of its urgency, we still haven’t really understood on a collective level that planetary boundaries are not something we can just cross without severe consequences. Either we continue business as usual – leading to acute crises sooner rather than later – or we take the Paris Agreement seriously and avert catastrophes. We cannot do both.

If we exceed our carbon budget by flying, we have to be aware that we take away someone else’s carbon budget for even such basic things as food and housing. There is no carbon budget for everything. And if a region’s tourism takes 1.5 times the carbon budget that inhabitants somewhere else would require for their basic needs, we cannot call that sustainable.

Is there a way out? Could Lapland support less carbon-intensive forms of tourism although it’s so far away from the tourists’ home? I would say yes. I would like to recommend the decision- and strategy-makers of Lapland to first compare different forms of travelling and tourism in terms of their carbon footprint per Euro spent by tourists. I assume there are huge differences in the carbon footprint per Euro spent between different cases.  An example could be represented by someone coming to Lapland from Helsinki by train for a week and someone flying in from the UK for just 6 hours of winter fun and then immediately returning. This could help revise strategies and activities towards a low-carbon tourism that still improves the life of both tourists and locals.

So, let’s take the Paris Agreement as seriously as it deserves to. Let’s actively change our businesses and politics, and our lifestyles to radically lower carbon footprints of everything.

Michael Lettenmeier, D-mat ltd.