Winners and Losers: Climate Mitigation May Cripple South Africa’s Tourism Industry

28 November 2022

A new paper by European academics on the environmental impact of long-haul flying has highlighted an overlooked dilemma: Meaningful efforts to mitigate climate change may very well cripple South Africa’s tourism industry. Nevertheless, South Africa desperately needs these sorts of mitigation policies.

The gist of the paper’s findings is this: If European policymakers are serious about reducing the aviation industry’s contribution to climate change, a drastic reduction in the number of long-haul flights is required. While conventional wisdom has often emphasised discouraging short-haul flights as the best method of reducing the environmental impact of flying, due in part to their inefficient use of fuel and easy replacement with rail, the authors argue that this would actually do little to curb the total emissions produced by the aviation industry.

From their analysis of commercial flights in 31 European countries, the authors found that “flights longer than 4000 km account for 6.2% of departures but 47.0% of aviation fuel burnt [while] flights shorter than 500 km account for 27.9% of departures but 5.9% of aviation fuel burnt”. Thus, while short-haul flights may indeed be less fuel efficient than long-haul flights, they nevertheless account for a small fraction of the total fuel burnt. And when we think of the total fuel burnt as roughly equivalent to the total emissions produced (a rough but sound rule of thumb), the picture changes. This is due to the fact that, when it comes to climate change, it’s not the efficiency of our emissions that count but rather the absolute volume of greenhouse gases being emitted each year.

Based on this, discouraging short-haul flights would do little to mitigate the aviation industry’s contribution to climate change due to their relatively insignificant fuel burn. Rather, policymakers should focus on reducing the number of long-haul flights, a strategy which promises a significant reduction in the quantity of fuel burnt and, consequently, in absolute emissions produced. Such a planned reduction would help keep the industry in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5°C, a goal many airlines have themselves endorsed through a series of greenwashed climate commitments.

But when we consider the consequences that would result from this "degrowth" of European aviation, the implications for South Africa’s tourism industry start to become apparent. Should European policymakers seriously pursue this kind of mitigation strategy, as they are arguably obligated to do, this would result in a significant decrease in the number of long-haul flights between Europe and far flung regions. Unfortunately for our geographically-distant country, travel from Europe accounts for a significant portion of our international tourism. Of the top ten countries which are the largest sources of South Africa's overseas tourism, five are European. And it’s no great leap to speculate that many of the tourists hailing from the remaining five countries - such as the US - would take a connecting flight through Europe despite not being European.

Naturally, there’s an economic dimension to all of this. To a great extent, South Africa’s national economy is materially dependent on tourists being able to travel to and from our country. According to pre-COVID data, tourism accounts for roughly 6.4% of South African GDP and over 1.5 million jobs. For the non-economically minded in the room, those are huge numbers. What’s more, tourism is also one of the few sectors which, now that the chaos of the pandemic seems to be behind us, promises to help fuel large growth in national revenues and employment - both of which are desperately needed in a country with an unemployment rate of 45.5%. From a South African perspective, then, European efforts to meaningfully mitigate climate change could seem mightily unfair.

This is where our dilemma comes in. Yes, climate mitigation efforts undertaken in far away places - of which restrictions on long-haul flying are only one among dozens of potential policies - will likely seriously hamper South Africa’s economic welfare. But at the same time, South Africa is existentially dependent on mitigation policies like this. Without immediate and steep reductions in emissions - that is to say, if our planetary society maintains its current business-as-usual policies - South Africa is likely to experience “[enormously] negative physical, socio-economic and ecological impacts” due to catastrophic climate change. It’s safe to say that these cumulative impacts are likely to be far more disastrous than a decline in tourist visits.

Where does this leave us, then? Despite this entire scenario of flight restrictions being largely a hypothetical (for now), it nevertheless illustrates three important points.

First, addressing the climate crisis involves complex interactions at every level of our planetary society. These interactions can often produce unexpected and counterintuitive consequences. Second, policymakers in South Africa and on the continent at large need to urgently update their thinking to this new planetary reality. Regardless of what happens in the future - deep mitigation or catastrophic warming - our current approaches are increasingly out of touch and woefully inadequate. Third, social justice needs to take centre stage in addressing the crisis. As this scenario has illustrated, climate mitigation policies will inevitably create winners and losers. How we deal with this fact will in large measure shape the kind of world we leave behind.