VOICES: Air travel, too many tourists is an environmental problem


Twenty years ago, the Hawaiian Chapter of the Sierra Club asked the much better-funded Los Angeles / Orange County Sierra Club Chapter to help fund a lawsuit against the Hawaiian Tourism Authority to prepare an environmental impact report on the impact of tourism in Hawaii. The lawsuit failed.

Over the years, efforts to create adequate visitor capacity for our islands and to limit the increasing number of visitors have repeatedly failed.

Now, decades later, the problems in Hawaii are much worse. We were aware of the global climate crisis at the time, but focused on other nature conservation and environmental issues. Today the overwhelming question of humanity is what will happen to our shared global climate and what kind of world our grandchildren will inherit.

Hawaii is a small state, but we have a very large carbon footprint per capita. People criticize China for having the largest greenhouse gas emissions, but per capita it ranks seventh in the world, while the United States ranks first! (twice as much.)

The largest consumer of fossil fuels in Hawaii is air travel. Greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft are increasing rapidly – between 2013 and 2018 they rose by 32%.

While improvements in fuel efficiency will gradually reduce emissions per passenger, it will not keep pace with the rapid increase in the total number of passengers, which is expected to double over the next 20 years. Look at the 3.8 million visitors in 2017 from the western United States alone; Hawaii’s largest tourist market. The carbon footprint of their return flights is roughly equivalent to driving around the equator – 225,000 times.

Airplane flights to and from Hawaii from the western United States produced 2.3 million tons of carbon in 2017. Flights to and from Hawaii from around the world produced approximately 6.3 million tons.

It would take 7.4 million hectares of forest to sequester that much carbon annually, much more than the 4.1 million hectares of land in the entire Hawaiian Islands.

It would help a lot if we increased the use of electric cars, got rid of our monster trucks and used public transport, but our biggest problem is tourism.

Tourism is the engine of our economy. It offers us the great consumer culture: big box stores, fancy restaurants, car dealerships, lots to buy, lots of jobs. But almost no one disagrees that tourism is out of control; disturb and overwhelm our island and the lives of our people. The biggest point of criticism is traffic, which of course also has a large carbon footprint. But how many people are aware that there is a big building boom on the South Shore?

More and more (legal) holiday apartments are being built, all of which are equipped with large air conditioning units and heated whirlpools. Maui County Council is debating a visitor accommodation moratorium to try to halt the explosive growth of tourism, but as long as the Federal Aeronautics Agency (FAA) approves more new flights to Kaua’i, we’ll get more tourists, more fossil fuel burning Fuels, more crowds, and more traffic.

Too much tourism is a real threat.

What can we do against it? Stop building more vacation homes, apartments and hotels? Use the FAA to stop them offering any more airlines to Hawaii? We have to do something. We owe it to our grandchildren and future generations.


Gordon LaBedz is a retired family doctor and former national director of the Sierra Club and founder of the National Surfrider Foundation. He is a member of the Kauai Climate Action Coalition, which meets every third Monday of the month at 5 p.m. via Zoom. Contact us at [email protected] for a link and more information. Be part of the conversation and the solution.

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