Why tourism mobility behaviours must change

S.A. Cohen, J.E.S. Higham, PM Peeters, S. Gössling

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15 Citations (Scopus)


There now exists a general scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is an inescapable reality (IPCC, 2007). The climate science has been subject to, and withstood, “withering scrutiny” (Garnaut, 2008). The consequences of climate change - social, economic, environmental - will be far reaching (Stern, 2007). The critical challenge that must be taken up without delay is to achieve “radical emission reductions” in all sectors of the economy, and across all aspects of society. The climate crisis, which demands the transformation of our lives and societies (Monbiot, 2007), raises difficult questions for consumer-based neoliberal western societies (Harvey, 2011; Stern, 2007). One important but problematic aspect of the required transformation relates to contemporary western mobility (Gössling et al., 2010). In singling out transport, Cuenot (2013, p. 22) of The International Energy Agency suggests that “Transport offers the easiest path for reducing oil dependency in theory: simple readily available solutions promise a 30% to 50% improvement in fuel economy, depending on the country, while reducing carbon emissions by several gigatonnes of CO2 each year”. Wheeller (2012, p. 39), however, focusing on tourist transport, unpacks a simple paradox: “All tourism involves travel: all travel involves transport: no form of transport is sustainable: so how on earth can we have sustainable tourism?” While some modes of transport (e.g. human, electrical, solar powered) are more sustainable than others, the sustainability of high volume, high velocity, long distance transportation is clearly coming under increasing scrutiny (Peeters and Dubois, 2010). The situation is particularly acute in the case of discretionary air travel (Cohen et al., 2011; Gössling et al., 2010). Monbiot (2007) highlights the considerable challenge associated with mitigating aviation greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, given high current and projected growth in demand for air travel, and the absence of significant scope for further technical gains in aircraft efficiency (Scott et al., 2010). In the absence of “game-changing” innovations in transport technology, it is clearly evident that the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Tourism Barometer 2012 forecast of 1.8 billion international travellers by 2030 is incompatible with carbon mitigation. Western governments and the industry have to date been unwilling - or unable - to make meaningful responses to the tourism transport emissions challenge. The continuing inability to bring aviation into emission trading schemes (ETS) is indicative of this impasse (Duval, 2013). As many other sectors actively respond to the call for radical emissions reduction (Scott, 2011; Scott et al., 2012), tourism could find itself generating up to 40 per cent of global carbon emissions by 2050 (Dubois and Ceron, 2006; Gössling and Peeters, 2007). This failure of response is producing an industry of environmental disregard and neglect, with contemporary tourism that may be considered profligate and dissolute. It is clearly evident that “technology and management will not be sufficient to achieve even modest absolute emission reductions” (Gössling et al., 2010, p. 119). This, according to Gössling et al. (2010), confirms that social and behavioural change is necessary to achieve climatically sustainable tourism. Indeed the UNWTO concedes that climatically sustainable tourism requires fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour (UNWTO-UNEP-WMO, 2008). However, reliance upon shifts in behaviour raises its own issues and challenges (Semenza et al., 2008). Despite evidence of growing public awareness of the impacts of air transport on climate change (Hares et al., 2010; Higham and Cohen, 2011) there remains an alarming disconnection between attitudes and (tourist) behaviour (Miller et al., 2010). Thus, an increasingly informed and concerned public, which is beginning to internalise the realities of the climate crisis (Cohen and Higham, 2011), displays few signs of behaviour change (Barr et al., 2010; Higham et al., 2014; McKercher et al., 2010). The efficacy of individual consumers bearing the costs (social, economic) and responsibilities (psychological, behavioural) of a profoundly (environmentally) unsustainable industry is clearly open to question. From this overall context, the Freiburg 2012 workshop, held in Freiburg im Breisgau in southern Germany (3-5 July, 2012) set out to explore the psychological and social factors that both contribute to and inhibit behaviour change vis-à-vis sustainable (tourist) mobility. The workshop provided an opportunity to advance a rigorous and theoretically informed knowledge base and research agenda for effective policy interventions to address tourism’s contribution to climate change. Such insights are of importance to policy makers, as policy interventions will be less effective if not based on a rigorous understanding of tourist behaviour and psychology. These understandings are needed to negotiate or remove barriers that policy makers may perceive in implementing stronger mitigation measures by signalling how such measures can be made palatable to the public. The psychological and behavioural insights achieved during the workshop informed discussion of government approaches and policy measures that are required to both (a) support the efforts of individuals/consumers to respond to the emission reduction challenge, and (b) conflate the onus of responsibility (and the anxieties of consumption fuelled climate change) from the level of the individual, to the collective levels of government, industry and economy.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUnderstanding and governing sustainable tourism mobility: psychological and behavioural approaches
EditorsS.A. Cohen, P. Peeters, S. Gössling, J.E.S. Higham
Place of PublicationAbingdon
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9780203771501
ISBN (Print)9780415839372
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Publication series

NameContemporary geographies of leisure, tourism and mobility

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