When we look up into the night sky or out across the sea, our planet looks infinite. It isn’t. Growth at 3% per annum results in a doubling in 23 years. In a finite world, this is not sustainable. We see this in the problems of overtourism and in aviation, so important to tourism in small island developing states and in so many countries reliant on long haul consumers.
The Earthrise photographs taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24, 1968, enabled us to see our planet isolated in space and clearly finite. One of the most iconic photographs of the twentieth century led to a brief peak in environmental activism. In 1970, the organisers of the first Earth Day claimed that 20 million Americans, 10% of the total US population, participated in demonstrations and rallies. Greenpeace was founded the following year.
Following the Earthrise photographs, there was a strong focus on the idea of “Spaceship Earth”. In 1969, Buckminster Fuller, American architect, systems theorist and futurist, published his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. In 2018, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet pointed out that “Earth is just a big spaceship with a crew. It needs looking after”. He described our Earth as a “tiny, fragile planet, this delicate band of atmosphere that holds all of life, with nothing else all around it for billions of light years”. Pesquet, who was in space orbit for six months, pointed out that from orbit, 250 miles up, “There are no borders. Even your own country – it’s impossible to make out where France ends, and Germany begins. You just realise, very strongly, how much we all share the same problems, how much we are, all of us, almost identical.” He recounts how, throughout his entire half-year stay, he had been unable to take a clear picture of Beijing. “You see the air pollution: it’s right there,” Pesquet said. “You see the river and sea pollution. You see the clear-cutting in the Amazon. You see how much smaller South America’s glaciers are than they were a few years ago.”
Talk of spaceship Earth has receded with talk of colonising space. Our reality is that the troposphere traps greenhouse gases which warm our Earth, they are essential to life on Earth, if there were none in the troposphere, Earth would have an average temperature of -20°C. We cannot see the edge of the troposphere because neither the Earth’s curvature nor higher land provides a horizon. “The troposphere begins at the Earth’s surface, but the height of the troposphere varies. It is 11-12 miles (18-20 km) high at the equator, 5½ miles (9 km) at 50°N and 50°S, and just under four miles (6 km) high at the poles.”
The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has increased since the Industrial Revolution. Human activities have raised atmospheric CO2 by 50% – meaning the amount of CO2 is now 150% of its value in 1750 and it continues to grow by more than 2 ppm.
The fundamental problem is that we cannot see the CO2 that we pump as waste into our atmosphere. July, August and September have all been the hottest months ever recorded and September was about 1.8 °C warmer than pre-industrial levels, so much for the 1.5 °C safe target agreed in Paris.
This affects tourism in two ways. First, through extreme weather tourism resources, both built and the natural environment which attract tourists, are damaged and often destroyed. Think snow-free mountains in winter and floods and droughts with extensive wildfires in the summer. Tourists holiday elsewhere. Second, as long as aviation relies on dirty fossil fuels countries relying on airlines to bring them tourists are vulnerable.
In March 2020, the consultancy Roland Berger forecast that if other industries decarbonise in line with current projections, aviation could account for up to 24% of global emissions by 2050 unless there is a significant technological shift. It is implausible that this would be acceptable with the world experiencing the increasingly catastrophic impacts of climate change. Leisure travel and most business travel would be hard to define as essential.
Remember, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”, Robert Swan said.