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Our government tells us that we need a new airport terminal to cater for the targeted 2 million tourist arrivals per year by 2015, with the expectation that this will be sustained and even increased in the longer term. While it may well be possible to achieve the target (although at what risk to the environment and social cohesion?) is it really sustainable?

Imagine the world in 2030 :

Scenario 1: We continue to use fossil fuels at an increasing rate, more are discovered and greenhouse gas emissions accelerate. It is still possible to fly to Mauritius but nobody does because sea level rise and reef degradation have led to the beaches being washed away during increasingly powerful cyclones. In any case, people are more worried about growing conflict over dwindling resources and a worsening global economy.

Scenario 2: We massively reduce fossil fuel consumption in order to limit climate change. Most energy is now created using renewable sources. Energy consumption per person in India and China is now approaching the levels in developed countries. Fossil fuels and bio-fuels permit air travel but they are now taxed and strictly rationed. Few travellers from distant markets are prepared to use years worth of their entitlement and pay the high prices necessary to fly to Mauritius.

Scenario 3: Mauritius has fulfilled the vision of MID and become truly sustainable. All of its energy needs are met by renewable resources and its planes fly using locally produced bio-fuels. Tourists flock to Mauritius with a clear conscience to enjoy our well-managed lagoon and beaches.

We are still on the path to fulfil the first scenario. Only by concerted global action NOW will we shift our path towards the second. But even that does not bode well for long-term tourism in Mauritius. The only scenario that provides any hope is the third. So let us evaluate if it is possible. Surely technology will enable us to develop fuels that allow us to continue to travel sustainably ? Well, let us perform a rough calculation:

  • Current aircraft consume about 0.03 litres of fuel per passenger kilometre, when fully loaded.
  • The most efficient way to produce bio-fuels is using algae. Current production rates are around 3000 litres of fuel per hectare per year.
  • Assuming a return flight is on average 15,000 km, what area must be devoted to bio-fuel production for 2 million passengers per year ?
  • The answer is : 300,000 hectares.

This is the equivalent of 4 times the amount of land that we currently use to grow sugar. And remember that algae needs to grow in water. Using the most efficient agricultural crops would require significantly more land. Even if algal productivity can be increased five-fold and the efficiency of aircraft can be doubled, we would still require a massive industry to fuel them.

So whichever scenario we take, two million tourists does not look very sustainable in the longer term. So why is our government borrowing almost Rs. 10,000 for every man, woman and child on this island in order to build a new airport terminal that is designed to accommodate even more? With tourist arrivals dropping due to the global recession and the above modelling of the future, our current airport certainly seems adequate for more realistic tourist numbers. Unless we impose even more taxes on travellers, the new terminal is not going to increase tourist income. So we Mauritians will end up footing the bill. How many of us will actually use the airport? Surely this amount of money could be more wisely spent on projects that have sustainable benefit for everyone?

Our island is incredibly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its long term prosperity critically necessitates that we STOP GLOBAL WARMING. How can our government campaign with other vulnerable nations to reduce CO2 emissions after it has invested so heavily to grow an industry that already consumes massive amounts of fossil fuel? Tourism is a goose that lays golden eggs for Mauritius but who will have egg on his face when the goose is cooked?

Proclaiming that the new terminal is compatible with Maurice Ile Durable because of a few solar panels is about as superficial as putting a windmill on an oil rig. Our leaders make decisions on behalf of us all, but only their memory will be tarnished by their blunders. It is our children who will suffer the consequences. So where are their advocates? When will our experts cease being political cheerleaders and provide deeply reasoned, critical feedback to convince our leaders to make the right choices before it is too late ? Will they speak out TODAY about real world issues or will their expertise remain purely academic?