Travel industry takes crucial first step towards combating climate change

Germany railway company Deutsche Bahn was among the companies that signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism.
Germany railway company Deutsche Bahn was among the companies that signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The travel industry has reached a turning point.

As thousands of scientists, government officials and business leaders met in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month for the pivotal United Nations climate conference, hundreds of members of the trillion-dollar tourism industry came together and made the first commitment towards a shared road map to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 and reach "net zero" by 2050.

More than 300 global travel stakeholders, including tour operators, tourism boards and hotel chains, have signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, requiring them to submit a concrete and transparent plan within 12 months.

While the details have yet to be put forward, the companies and countries that signed on, from Germany railway company Deutsche Bahn to Panama, will be expected to disclose their carbon emissions and offer clear strategies for how to reduce them.

The process is being spearheaded by the UN World Tourism Organisation and the World Travel and Tourism Council, two industry bodies that have previously sparred on climate matters.

"This is undoubtedly the biggest climate commitment our industry has come together for," said Mr Jeremy Smith, co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports climate action and provided the framework for the Glasgow Declaration.

The travel industry is a large contributor to global carbon emissions, with a footprint estimated between 8 per cent and 11 per cent of total greenhouse gases, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Aviation alone represents around 17 per cent of total travel carbon emissions.

Each year, a growing number of destinations and communities heavily dependent on tourism - countries such as Thailand, India and Madagascar - are hit hard by the effects of climate change, in the form of rising sea levels, drought, wildfires, deforestation and biodiversity loss.

The coronavirus pandemic spotlighted the adverse effect of industry growth and over-tourism on Venice, Italy; Bali, Indonesia; and other popular destinations, forcing some places to take stock and pivot towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly business models.

Yet with most operators and destinations reeling from the industry shutdown last year, it is unclear how many of those plans will be prioritised over the need for a fast recovery.

"We need a cultural change, and we need to move beyond the traditional growth-oriented mindsets to see a more sustainable, responsible and climate-neutral tourism ecosystem," said Mr Patrick Child, deputy director-general of environment at the European Commission.

The declaration has four main targets: measurement, requiring companies to disclose all travel- and tourism-related emissions; decarbonisation, by setting targets aligned with climate science; regeneration, to restore and protect natural ecosystems; and collaboration, to ensure that best practices are shared and financing is available to follow through.

A recent analysis by the World Travel and Tourism Council of 250 travel businesses found that only 42 per cent had publicly announced climate targets, and many of them were not based on the latest science.

In early November, the council published a road map for different industries within travel, providing concrete guidance on how to reach "net zero" targets by 2050.

"There has been a lot of apathy, with some people not quite sure about what they need to do and how to do it, or some thinking they are not significant enough, and that's why it's really important for larger organisations to show the way," said Mr Darrell Wade, co-founder and chairman of Intrepid Travel, the only global tour company with a climate target verified by the Science Based Targets initiative, which promotes best practices in emissions reductions in line with climate science.

Joining Deutsche Bahn and Panama in signing the Glasgow Declaration are big companies such as Accor, Skyscanner, the Travel Corp and Iberostar Group, as well as countries that are already affected by climate change, including Norway and Barbados. Signatories hope that more destinations will participate in the coming weeks.

Panama, one of only three carbon-negative countries in the world (meaning it absorbs more carbon emissions than it emits), has taken a lead role in establishing initiatives for economic growth in tourism, which also benefit and preserve local communities and resources.

"Our main plan for our sustainable tourism market is to empower local communities, particularly indigenous people, so that they can generate an income through tourism that allows them to preserve their ancestral way of life, allowing them to sustainably manage their natural resources like forests and coral reefs," said Mr Ivan Eskildsen, Panama's tourism minister.

Visit Scotland, that country's national tourism organisation, which helped draft the declaration, has also taken a lead role. The organisation has reduced its own carbon emission by 74 per cent since 2008, and more than 850 local businesses have been given green tourism awards for their sustainability efforts.

While the Glasgow Declaration has garnered great momentum and established common objectives, challenges lie ahead, especially when it comes to setting a global standard for reporting emissions figures for such a wide range of sectors within the industry, from tour operators to destinations, and airlines to cruise ships.

Signatories are expected to hold each other accountable and set common standards throughout international supply chains. Once action plans have been submitted within the next year, a reporting framework will be necessary. Anyone who fails to submit a road map within that time frame will be removed from the declaration.

Visibly absent from the list of signatories were members of the cruise industry. The sector made a separate pledge to pursue carbon-neutral cruising by 2050 and reduce emissions 40 per cent by 2030 in an annual environmental report published recently by the Cruise Line International Association, an industry trade group.

While the report makes detailed commitments to reducing the cruise industry's carbon footprint using new technology and alternative fuels, it does not address other environmental issues such as discharge of waste.

"Despite technical advances and some surveillance programmes, cruising remains a major source of air, water (fresh and marine) and land pollution affecting fragile habitats, areas and species, and a potential source of physical and mental human health risks," according to a recent report by the Marine Pollution Bulletin Journal.