The carbon footprint of Nepal’s tourism

Even the most optimistic scenario is that it will take at least five years for Nepal’s travel industry to recover from the pandemic impact. 

However, the country has an opportunity for a ‘better normal’ and to evolve a tourism model that does not damage nature and heritage, but rather enhance them-- a clean industry that is environmentally and socially sustainable.

The pandemic has shown that many journeys may actually not be necessary at all, and when they do travel, passengers are now more aware about their carbon footprint. 

“Low carbon footprint tourism that benefits the maximum number of local businesses is the only way forward,” maintains Shilshila Acharya of the Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI).

International aviation accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. At a first glance, this may look insignificant but its impact is disproportionate across the world and more acute in the Himalaya.

Moreover, the 2015 Paris Agreement does not include other greenhouse gases from aviation. International air travel is not counted within any country’s emission targets either. 

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) requiring member states to voluntarily offset carbon starting this year. This may mean individual passengers will not have to offset themselves, but the additional cost of carbon credits might trickle down to air fares. 

An average tourist flying to Lukla from London via the Gulf burns nearly 3 tonnes of carbon. On treks, LPG for cooking and fuel for jeep rides add up. 

While airlines wait to switch to biofuels, there are alternatives like carbon offsetting which allow passengers to compensate for the CO2 by paying for projects around the world that reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

Passengers calculate the carbon they burn on a trip, and buy equivalent credits from organisations working on projects such as biogas, reforestation, hydropower, water treatment or solar energy.

“It would be ideal if Nepal could offer a locally-based offset system, for example through community forestry or social impact projects so tourists could increase the benefits of their trip to Nepal,” says Robin Boustead, promoter of the Great Himalayan Trail, who is researching the effect of climate change in Sagarmatha National Park (read box, below).

“Such a program could become a significant point of difference for Nepal and put tourism and the climate agenda in the spotlight, especially as the Himalaya are suffering so much.”

Tourism, aviation and carbon, Sanghamitra Subba

At the moment the government’s Alternative Energy promotion Centre (AEPC) is the only Nepali entity that offers carbon credits, mostly in biogas, micro-hydro and wind energy, with buyers and rates already fixed.

Pre-Covid, voluntary offsetting internationally was at an all-time high with a 140-fold increase between 2008-2018 and 430 million tonnes of emission reductions generated worldwide. 

The demand for voluntary offsets has grown exponentially, often leading to oversupply of carbon credits in countries like India and China.

Companies claiming to be green often buy cheap credits, which is why is it crucial to check a project is certified. 

Some experts say offsetting does not tackle the root of the problem, which is wasteful consumption. They say the priority must be to reduce emissions at source, and not try to assuage one’s guilt by buying offsets. Buying carbon credits should go hand-in-hand with a domestic reduction strategy, they add.

“For a landlocked and tourism-dependent country like Nepal, carefully selected and accounted for carbon offsets in aviation in the absence of low carbon travel can be a good option, at least in the short-term,” says carbon finance expert Rastraraj Bhandari. “But air travel is only one aspect of green tourism. There is domestic transport that needs to transition away from fossil-fuel and the energy-intensive hotel industry that can make strides by reducing its carbon footprint.”

Even though Nepal boasts that it has maintained 40% of its area under forest cover, and has targets for switching to renewable energy, there are contradictory activities like haphazard road-building, sand mining on rivers, as well ecologically disastrous projects like Nijgad airport. 

“We might not be able to do much regarding international aviation, but we can improve and then electrify mass transport, build cycling lanes, push electric vehicles and save billions,” says energy expert Manjeet Dhakal. “This will help tourists and locals alike, and also reduce air pollution.” 

Green tourism is a holistic approach that takes into account all forms of transportation, fuel for cooking and heating, accommodation, and food sources. A packet of pasta flown from Europe has a much greater footprint than a plate of dal bhat.

Promoting community-based initiatives such as homestays in the plains, mid-hills and mountains that depend on locally grown products will also generate jobs at home for youth. 

Shilshila Acharya’s non-profit is preparing to clean up Lhotse, Pumori, Ama Dablam, Dhaulagiri and Makalu in a campaign led by the Nepal Army to bring down 35 tonnes of waste this spring.

She says, “What the pandemic has taught us is not to depend solely on international visitors. We have to promote domestic and land-based regional tourism for the sustainability of the industry itself.”

Nepal hopes for tourism rebound in 2021, Nepali Times


Calculate your foot size

A passenger on a London-Lukla roundtrip via Kathmandu burns 2.9 tonnes of CO2 on average. But that is just an estimate, it is not easy to calculate the exact footprint of one’s travels. 

There are multiple online tools developed by organisations like WWF,  The Nature Conservancy and the US EPA and companies that offer offsets also calculate footprint and suggest carbon credit projects best suited to buyers. But the figures are often not consistent. 

A report in 2019 by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) projected that transport-related emissions from tourism are expected to increase to 5.3% of all anthropogenic CO2 in the next 10 years.

But following the pandemic and increased awareness about low-carbon travel, emissions per passenger/km is expected to decline. In Nepal, for example, tourism post-pandemic is expected to be even more nature and adventure-based as companies here respond to international demand. 

In a report on the impact of climate change in the Sagarmatha National Park, Robin Boustead of Great Himalayan Trail counted  40-100 flights a day to Lukla during the peak climbing season. 

He then calculated that a Viking Air Twin Otter that carries up to 16 passengers and three crew had a fuel burn rate of 500kg/hour. This means every passenger is responsible for 135kg of fuel on a return flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. 

“Aviation fuel has a CO2 emission factor of 3.1, so this equates to 418.5kg of CO2 per passenger,” he says.

Over 95% of tourists who visit the Khumbu fly to and from Lukla from Kathmandu, so in 2019 tourists contributed at least 22,000 tonnes of CO2, the report estimated.

On top of that, there were 70-100 mostly Airbus HP350 helicopter flights to higher valleys every day carrying cargo or passengers (mountaineers, sightseers and medical evacuations). This translated into additional 4,000 tonnes of CO2 just in Khumbu alone.  

Says Boustead: “Without any monitoring or evaluation of CO2 emissions, nor offsetting programs within Nepal, these results suggest that tourism is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.”

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

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