Carbon Passports To Become ‘The New Normal,’ Report Predicts, as Climate Activists Back Imposing Personal Travel Limits

Travelers should also be ready for ‘virtual vacations’ and ‘armchair travel’ to become mainstream, a report says.

AP/Rafiq Maqbool
Members of Greenpeace gather for a photo at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Wednesday. AP/Rafiq Maqbool

Travelers should expect to add another item to their packing lists by 2040 — carbon passports. That’s the latest from a growing push by environmental activists for the idea of limiting a person’s ability to travel in an effort to combat climate change.

“A personal carbon emissions limit will become the new normal as policy and people’s values drive an era of great change,” a 2023 report from an Australia-based travel company, Intrepid Travel, predicts, noting that the tourism and travel industry is unsustainable and that “travel as we know it hovers on the brink of extinction.” The travel limitations, it says, could be part of major industry-backed changes aimed at reducing carbon emissions and lowering travelers’ “overall footprint.” 

The report  is from the company’s “Future Laboratory,” which it says is one of the “world’s foremost strategic foresight consultancies” covering the “mindsets defining tomorrow,” and it garnered global attention from climate experts and academics. The report is gaining traction at the same time as a global climate summit at Dubai, COP28, closed Tuesday with an agreement it says is the “‘beginning of the end’ of the fossil fuel era.” 

Personal carbon allowances, the Intrepid report says, “will manifest as passports that force people to ration their carbon in line with the global carbon budget, which is 750bn tonnes until 2050,” the report notes. “By 2040, we can expect to see limitations imposed on the amount of travel that is permitted each year.”

The limitations, climate experts suggest, would be for individuals to cap their “carbon emissions to 2.3 tonnes each year — the equivalent of taking a round-trip from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.”

And that’s not all that will change by 2040, it says, adding that travelers should expect “virtual vacations” to become mainstream if there isn’t climate action, a style of “armchair travel” that it says some people turned to during the pandemic. 

“Tuvalu, a small Pacific nation in Oceania, has become the first country to create a digital version of itself, prompted by rising sea levels,” it says. “Major cities like Seoul are also exploring digital twins, creating virtual parallels to the physical world. Using a combination of virtual reality and augmented reality, virtual vacations will do their best to bring global destinations to life in a simulated environment.”

Although personal carbon limits “may be somewhat helpful” since frequent fliers contribute to most aviation emissions, “the emission reductions would be modest,” a Yale University professor of environmental and energy economics, Kenneth Gillingham, tells the Sun. 

“I have a little trouble seeing them as a politically viable approach in the United States,” he says of the carbon passports. “There would also be downsides of curtailing travel since travel is what knits our country together and also connects us to the rest of the world. One interesting aspect is that international travel and business class travel are really the big emitters (per person), so those would be the types of aircraft travel that would be hardest hit.”

Although aviation is a “tough sector to decarbonize,” he says, existing efforts to decarbonize include “improved plane efficiency and using electric taxiing equipment rather than carbon offsets, carbon capture, biomass-based jet fuels, and electric planes,” which may be more cost-effective than personal carbon limits. 

Limiting tourism and travel — major economic drivers — would “inadvertently kneecap our economy,” the chief executive of the American Conservation Coalition, Danielle Butcher Franz, tells the Sun. 

“The key to reducing emissions isn’t top-down regulation and restrictions on personal freedom,” she says. “We will solve climate change through innovation, not regulation,” adding that recent developments in high-speed rails and carbon offset programs are better solutions than limiting the ability to travel. 

Addressing the environment and climate change should not “come at the expense of quality of life” or only in “the context of ‘giving up’ something,” she says, adding that the focus should instead be on innovative solutions. “Imposing strict limitations on mobility not only falls short as a serious climate solution, but also encroaches on individual freedoms.”

The New York Sun

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