In my last post (Read: Slow Life in the Maldives), I talked about Six Senses Resorts, where “Intelligent Luxury” is a core mission and sustainable tourism best practices are put into action. Six Senses is hosting the three-day SLOWLIFE Symposium— a small gathering of sustainability leaders and visionaries on the tiny island of Soneva Fushi in the Maldives to discuss sustainable business practices in the tourism industry. One of the more challenging issues discussed during the symposium has been the topic of air travel– a source of CO2 emissions, which have been linked to climate change. The question raised: Can the travel industry really transition to more environmentally-friendly flying? It appears it can.
First, some background: Despite widely held public perceptions that plane travel is a major source of the release of damaging carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the reality is that all air travel combined accounts for less than 3 percent of worldwide carbon emissions. This is tiny when compared to deforestation, which contributes nearly a quarter of all CO2 emissions on the planet. Clearly, if we can halt the rampant deforestation happening around the world, it would have a major impact on problems associated with global warming.
Not to say that CO2 emissions from air travel is a problem to be ignored. With tourism predicted to double in the next 15 years, from some 900 million international tourist arrivals in 2010 to 1.8 billion by 2025, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, we need to get air travel to go green in a big way– and fast. Spearheading much of airline industry efforts to find alternative jet fuels is Sir Richard Branson, who is in attendance at the symposium here in the Maldives. Yesterday Branson announced that Virgin Atlantic has achieved a dramatic breakthrough in flying green class– the development of the world’s first low carbon aviation fuel, with half the carbon footprint of standard jet fuel. This is a major step towards radically reducing carbon emissions from air travel. Sitting together under a large banyan tree at Soneva Fushi, Branson put it this way: “Martin Luther King, Jr did not get his message across by declaring in his famous speech ‘I have a nightmare.’ It is important for all of us to stay positive, while understanding that if we do not develop alternative energy, it will be the mother of all recessions.”
Branson, of course, is not alone. A British Airways official told me last year that they will begin developing biofuel from biodegradable trash collected in London and processed at an alternative fuel plant they are constructing. The CEO of Boeing told me that 90 percent of their research and development is now going into finding alternative jet fuels, and predicted that by 2016 almost every commercial jet will be flying with some combination of biofuel.
But Virgin Atlantic’s announcement this week that they have found the technology to start flying their jets within the next 2 to 3 years using this alternative fuel is a game changer. Can travel and tourism, often cited as the world’s largest industry, lead the world to a more sustainable future while giving governments a strong economic incentive to protect places like the Maldives? The SLOW LIFE Symposium is trying to make sure that is exactly what happens.
Costas Christ is an Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler magazine.
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