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Column: Air travel by visitors to Hawaii major factor in global warming – Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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Hawaii must balance the global warming emissions created by encouragement of tourism against the reliance of our economy on tourism. The re-expressed need to shift some of Hawaii’s workforce from tourism to agriculture informs this picture — and this balance must include the consideration of “climate justice.”

In 2020, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated that each planetary citizen has a yearly carbon budget of 2.7 tons CO2(e) — carbon dioxide equivalent — emissions if we are to keep global warming below 1.75 degrees Celsius by reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Nature Conservancy posts that the average world citizen now emits 4 tons annually and each U.S. citizen emits 16 tons. The average visitor to Hawaii is responsible for the equivalent of 1.8 tons of CO2(e) global warming emissions in air travel to Hawaii. (Details are in my “white paper” presented to the Hawaii State Climate Commission in April 2021; see 808ne.ws/3wZbKXQ.) At 1.8 tons emissions, the average Hawaii visitor has spent two-thirds of his yearly equitable carbon budget in these few hours of travel.

The average distance traveled round trip by a visitor to Hawaii is 7,000 miles. With 10 million total visitors in 2019, this represents 70 billion passenger miles traveled visiting here.

With 1.8 tons emissions per traveller, those 10 million visitors determine 18 million tons of emissions. In contrast, the emissions from all of Hawaii’s stationary combustion (electricity power plants, petroleum refineries, etc.) was 7.8 million tons and all ground transportation CO2(e) was 4 million tons.

Air travel of visitors dwarfs all other factors of Hawaii’s contribution to global warming. It is little matter whether our electricity grid or vehicles transition to zero-emission if we continue to encourage visitors, as currently.

The state supports the promotion of Hawaii as “destination” through public funding of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA). In the name of climate justice, we must weigh the benefit to Hawaii’s 1.4 million citizens against the 18 million tons CO2(e) released by visitors.

Ideally, advertisement of Hawaii as visitor destination must be abandoned. However, even if HTA’s budget were eliminated, the multibillion-dollar visitor industry itself would quickly step in with funding for advertising Hawaii as destination. The visitors would keep coming.

Another approach, hinted at by a modest proposal recently before the Legislature of a $20 “green fee” applied to the transient accommodations tax (TAT) for each Hawaii visitor, might be the following: The $20 TAT green fee would become a per-night fee. This nightly fee would be raised by $5 to $10 each year until the number of visitors in the preceding year had fallen to the “desirable” level, which would reflect respect for the notion of climate justice.

In my opinion, the ideal body to make a judgment of the desirable number of visitors is the 20-member State Climate Commission. This top-level, cross-governmental body would have the authority and access to accept testimony from a diverse range of sources. Of course, the governor and Legislature have ultimate responsibility and authority.

The HTA reports that the Hawaii average visitor spends $1,800 on his/her visit. Is that visitor going to be dissuaded from a 10-day trip by an extra $200 spent as green fee? A few, but not most. The HTA notes that perhaps 2019’s numbers reached “too many,” and that Hawaii may want to reduce the number of budget or economy travelers, but continue to encourage the more high-end or extravagant visitors. These travelers will not even notice the extra $20 per day spent.

Our world is on fire. Twice in the past year, temperatures have been recorded above the arctic circle at 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. These times are unprecedented. This is the beginning. The scientists are saying that global warming is coming faster than they had imagined possible. It is time for commitment.


Tawn Keeney, M.D., is retired after 36 years of practicing primary-care medicine in Honokaa; he is active with climate change organizations.


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