Five ways the travel & tourism sector can help avert climate disaster

COVID-19 has provided a key opportunity for Travel & Tourism to build resilience and decarbonize. But to do this, wide-scale transformation must happen at pace. By Climate Champions | September 27, 2021

The global pandemic has devastated Travel & Tourism (T&T). While pre-COVID times saw the sector contribute to over 10% of global GDP, today its economic contribution has been halved. Between 2014-2019 it was responsible for creating 25% of new jobs worldwide; now 120 million direct tourism jobs are at risk.

While the socio-economic ramifications are concerning, the consistently growing sector (1.5 billion international tourist arrivals were recorded in 2019) was on a trajectory that would have seen its CO2 emissions soar 25% by 2030. In 2019 it was responsible for roughly 11% of global emissions.

So how does a sector — defined by the movement of people and in the midst of a crisis — get to net zero by 2050 at the very latest?

Collaborate to establish emissions reduction targets

Tourism refers to the “movement of people to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal or business/professional purposes”. This overarching definition highlights the initial challenge in scoping tourism emissions. Determining which sub-sectors should be included (such as accommodation, aviation and destinations) is therefore critical in calculating T&T’s scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Without a clearly defined scope, it is difficult for key players to set emissions reduction goals.

Collaboration across key T&T organizations will help overcome this and establish homogeneity in emissions calculations for tourism. Once universally validated, sector-specific guidance can be created to reduce emissions. The Science-based Targets Initiative is a well-established partnership which supports private businesses in setting ambitious science-based targets. Intrepid, Meliá Hotels and Accor are among the leading T&T companies who have already set theirs, by committing to net zero targets in line with the Race to Zero.

Engage with sub-sectors to drive climate action

Aviation and maritime transport are hard-to-abate sub-sectors that contribute ~2.5% and ~2.2% to global CO2 emissions respectively. At current growth rates, aviation and shipping emissions could increase by 300-700% and 50-250% respectively by 2050. Cooling and heating is also a key sub-sector and can contribute up to 50% of hotel energy consumption, which accounts for ~1% of global CO2 emissions.

By engaging with T&T sub-sectors and encouraging their decarbonization, supply chain reductions will accelerate. The Hilton’s “Travel with Purpose 2030 Goals” include targets towards establishing a sustainable supply chain, such as partnering with suppliers to address social and environmental risks. To further drive companies into action, some countries have implemented incentive programmes, such as the Renewable Energies Act in Germany, which supports companies by paying the renewables surcharge on every kWh used.

Promote a sustainable recovery from COVID-19

T&T has been one of the sectors most affected by COVID-19, with international arrivals falling by 74% in 2020. Although growth in domestic tourism has provided some respite for countries such as China, it is not enough to compensate for international travel losses, and will decrease if more restrictions are introduced.

COVID-19 provides an opportunity to rebuild and achieve benefits for the planet, people and profit, aligned with the triple bottom line (TBL) principle. To foster a green economic recovery, T&T should adopt this TBL approach by regaining its position as, in the words of António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, “provider of decent jobs, stable incomes and the protection of our cultural and natural heritage”. Melia Hotels is leading the way with its Corporate Responsibility Model, which promotes ethics and human rights, environmental protection, and a responsible value chain.

Reshape the economic model of tourism

Although reducing T&T would decrease CO2 emissions to an extent, it would also negatively impact the economy, given the sector supported one in 10 jobs worldwide in 2019. This would also not work for certain developing countries and small island developing states, where tourism forms a substantial part of their economy. Notably, the sector represents over 90% of total GDP in Macau, 74% in Aruba and over 50% in the Maldives and the British and US Virgin Islands. Therefore, new solutions are needed to maintain T&T’s economic benefits whilst significantly reducing its environmental footprint.

To rebuild T&T’s economic prosperity whilst prioritising the people and planet, the sector’s economic model must transform. This does not mean we should stop travelling, but that we should do so differently. For example, through its “Eco-Skies Alliance Program”, United Airlines is collaborating with global corporate leaders to fund more sustainable aviation fuel.

Beyond transport, many key sector players are innovating to become more eco-friendly; 1,100 Hilton hotels around the world have completed LED re-lamping and many are using on-site solar panels. Increasing investment in innovative technology will support T&T’s net zero ambition whilst building back GDP.

Promote regulations for environmental preservation

Tourism can put huge pressure on natural resources, such as water, in areas where they are already scarce. Water consumption of tourists in the Mediterranean can amount to 440 litres/day, almost double the amount consumed by inhabitants of an average Spanish city.

The improper construction of infrastructure to accommodate tourists can have devastating impacts on ecosystems and indigenous communities. For example, ~67% of historical mangrove habitat has been lost or degraded worldwide as a result. Increased visitor pressure can also damage world heritage sites; the Galapagos Islands were added to the List of World Heritage in Danger due to consequences such as the introduction of invasive species, which threatened the local flora and fauna.

Environmental regulations, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, are key to protecting species from harmful anthropogenic activities. Although as of 2017, “176 countries have environmental framework laws”, the UNEP reported general “weak enforcement”. However, environmental laws must be actively implemented to help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Better governance and collaboration, for example across governments and industries, will help to drive transformation.

Businesses can also play their part, for instance through funding blue bonds, which finance ocean conservation projects. Beyond investments, T&T businesses should actively support indigenous communities impacted by the trade. Accor hotels, for example, are all engaged in a citizen or solidarity project. Commitments such as these are essential because “local people make travel meaningful”.

Road to COP26

Looking ahead to the UN COP26 in Glasgow this November, we recognise organizations working to make tourism more sustainable, and encourage remaining key players to join them on this journey. This includes Tourism Declares (TD), who will be launching their  Glasgow Declaration in collaboration with UNWTO, UNEP, the Travel Foundation and VisitScotland. Alongside their 300+ members, the organization will be calling on the sector to cut its overall emissions by at least half by 2030 and become net zero by 2050.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), in collaboration with UNEP and Accenture, will be launching their decarbonization roadmap, which summarises the current actions across T&T to decarbonize, and identifies white spaces to focus on for greater impact.

T&T has an opportunity to build back better now. To stay within the Paris Agreement, we all need to play our part: consumers, businesses and governments.