It’s easy to imagine Covid-19 as a dress rehearsal for climate change. The ways in which the pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives will echo in the impacts of climate breakdown, if emissions are not adequately reduced and global temperatures continue to rise. While many scientists, writers and activists argue that there remains a widespread tendency to consider climate change a distant concern – putting it as odds with broad support for lockdowns and other measures to tackle Covid – what we have seen is how societal change can be embraced and how governmental intervention can be wide-ranging, when considered necessary.
Over the last year, the priority of all of us has been simply keeping afloat, but this unexpected ‘down time’ has undoubtedly given us time to reflect. “The devastating impact of the pandemic, both on our sector and for destination communities across the world, has prompted us to further prioritise the development of sustainability and long-term resilience strategies,” says Kasia Morgan, head of sustainability and community at Exodus Travels. “This inevitably leads many of us to think even more seriously about how we play our part in building a sector that both protects our destinations and supply chains against the impacts of climate change, but also helps proactively support recovery and regeneration in the face of these impacts.”
“Our lives have been turned upside down by Covid-19, but sadly, as terrible as the health and economic impacts of the pandemic are, the long-term effects of climate change will prove to be far worse for the travel industry,” says Dr Susanne Etti, Intrepid’s environmental impact specialist. “The good news is that we already have the knowledge, tools and skills required to limit climate change and avert another global disaster – we just need the will to act – and we must do it quickly. There is no vaccine for climate change – we must act now.”
It’s always worth repeating the facts and figures. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) is seen as offering the gold standard assessment on climate change; as David Wallace-Wells, author of Inhabitable Earth, writes, this is in part because it is cautious, only using new data that passes the “threshold of unarguability.” Its current advice is that global carbon emissions must be cut by 55 per cent to below 2017 levels by 2030 to keep the planet within 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. Similarly, the Paris Agreement, which was adopted by 196 countries in December 2015, aims to limit global warming to well below two, preferably to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. Wallace-Wells describes a two-degree rise as “the tipping point for collapse” – noting that the melting of the planet’s ice sheets would “eventually flood not just Miami and Dhaka but Shanghai and Hong Kong and a hundred other cities around the world”.
How the travel industry accelerates decarbonisation, then, is a matter of pressing concern. As ABTA’s Tourism for Good report notes, aviation is responsible for approximately 40 per cent of global tourism’s CO2 emissions, while more than 80 per cent of British holidaymakers depart the UK by plane; 7 per cent of the UK’s total CO2 emissions. The report also notes that accommodation emissions make up a further 21 per cent of tourism’s greenhouse gas emissions, while a holidaymaker’s ‘foodprint’ can be significant: “In some cases the carbon emissions of food consumed on holiday – taking into account those produced by agriculture, packaging, transport, food miles and wastage – can be even greater than those of the transport and accommodation elements,” it states.
The Swedish phrase “flygskam” – meaning “flight shame”– was coined in 2018 and is used to describe the conflict environmentally conscious travellers feel about air travel. There does appear to be some data, anecdotal and otherwise, to suggest consumers are more likely to think twice before flying than before. After surveying more than 6,000 people in the US, Germany, France and the UK, UBS found that 21 per cent had reduced the number of flights they took over the last year – although, in reality, air traffic has been growing by about 4 per cent a year. However, various studies demonstrate that consumers – particularly millennials and Generation Z – want brands, in all sectors, to be more sustainable, while GlobalWebindex has reported that, post-Covid, more than half of European travellers believe it’s now more important for them to reduce their own carbon footprint when travelling. “This presents us with both a greater mandate and opportunity to engage travellers through offering them sustainable travel opportunities,” says Morgan, adding that “consumers’ ‘carbon literacy’ and understanding of the carbon footprint of their holidays will grow over the coming decade.” ABTA’s 2020 Holiday Habits research also revealed that half of customers consider sustainability credentials to be important or essential when choosing a company to book their holiday with, which has risen from only a fifth back in 2011. Concerns include animal welfare, waste and plastic reduction and protection of culture and heritage, as well as climate change.
“Individuals are also starting to personally feel the effects of global warming, through extreme weather events, and they can see the impact of climate change on popular tourism destinations, such the recent devastating wildfires in the US and Australia,” says Dr Etti. “Consumers will increasingly expect their travel company to have a carbon management program and to take action on decarbonising their business. The industry will have to respond.”
What is being done
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of operators adopt targets to reduce carbon footprints, as well as the emergence of organisations such as Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency and Future Tourism. Last year, Intrepid became the first to adopt science-based targets, which, as Dr Etti explains, will see emissions reduced across Intrepid operations and supply chains, including moving to lower carbon alternatives on trips and adopting renewable energy in global offices by 2025. “Intrepid’s approach has an impact on every aspect of our business, including our trips, offices, and supply chain. In our offices, it impacts on how we recycle waste to which energy providers we use. Our office in Toronto has already achieved 100 per cent renewable energy,” she says. “On our trips, we minimise our impact by using public transport where possible, switching internal flights to highspeed trains where possible, staying in locally owned accommodation and eating where food has been locally sourced. We also stay in accommodation that uses 100 per cent renewable energy where possible.”
For destinations, plans to reduce emissions are usually tied to wider government pledges. As well as its pioneering Certification for Sustainable Tourism plan, Costa Rica aims to achieve zero emissions by 2050 under The National Decarbonisation Plan, which breaks the process down into four key sectors: transport and sustainable mobility, energy, green building and industry. Closer to home, Visit Scotland recently became the first national tourism organisation in the world to sign up to the Tourism Declares initiative, in line with the Scottish Government’s targets to become net-zero by 2045. In Scotland, there’s plenty to admire, from the Isle of Eigg, which is self-sufficient for its energy needs – relying almost entirely on renewable sources – to Glasgow, where its Avenues programme, the biggest project of its type in the UK, will aim to increase active travel, reduce congestion and improve air quality, greening open spaces through features such as trees and rain gardens, and introduce intelligent street lighting to reduce energy consumption. Indeed, it is no longer about simply visiting green destinations, but taking inspiration from the pioneers leading the way.
Sky’s the limit?
Of course, the greatest challenge in reducing emissions is for aviation, which must innovate greatly to meet the challenges outlined above. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set a target for the international aviation sector to cap its net aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth) and to reduce net aviation CO2 emissions by 50 per cent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. Meanwhile, Sustainable Aviation, an alliance of UK airlines, airports, manufacturers and air navigation service providers, is working to achieve a sustainable future for the sector: its Decarbonisation Roadmap sets out actions in five areas, including aircraft and engine efficiency improvements, such as more efficient gas-turbine engines, hybrid electric and fully electric aircraft, which should save up to 23.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually, as well as more efficient operations and airspace modernisation, which it is estimated could deliver an annual saving of 3.1 million tonnes of CO2 and a 10 per cent carbon saving by 2050. In the short to medium term is the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Aside from the good that carbon-reduction does for the planet, in 2018, TUI Group identified some €6 million of cost savings as a result of carbon-related efficiencies across its business, including in its airlines and cruise operations.
So does all this mean we will travel less in the future? Morgan says we don’t necessarily need to reduce the amount we travel in order to reduce the negative impacts that can be associated with tourism, rather that we need to change the way we travel. “We’ll see more consumers choosing to fly less by opting for other modes of transport, travelling more locally, taking longer holidays or making flight choices based on the increasingly visible carbon efficiency of different airlines,” she says. “We’ll see a trend among tour operators and OTAs for ‘carbon labelling’ of holidays, and a trend towards itineraries and trips with a major focus on local – versus imported – food and accommodation with less of an environmental impact.”
Covid has accelerated a move towards domestic or closer to home travel, Dr Etti says, noting that “consumers will be looking to switch to lower-carbon alternatives – such as travelling by train within Europe.” It’s true that many of the societal changes that we will see – such as the move towards electrification of transport – will as be part of the wider picture.
Hurtigruten, the Norwegian shipping company, has spent several years investing in various technologies to help lower emissions and was among the first to ban single-use plastic on board ships. The line also recently launched MS Roald Amundsen, the world’s first hybrid cruise ship. “Emissions are cut by sailing with electrical propulsion and our innovative sustainable technology has reduced fuel consumption and CO2-emissions by 20 percent onboard our hybrid ships,” says Anthony Daniels, general manager UK & Ireland. “Electricity is a key way for our industry to create change for good and move away from harmful fuels that are damaging the natural world. We are also pioneers in shore power usage within the cruise industry, which allows a ship to plug into the national grid immediately upon docking which eliminates the emissions from its engines while also recharging the batteries for hybrid batteries. In Norway, wind and hydropower are the primary generators of its national grids’ electricity meaning shore power eliminates emissions throughout the supply chain.”
The line has also looked at ways to reduce emission beyond just electricity including introducing biodiesel as fuel alternative across a number of its ships. According to the line, biodiesel reduces C02 emissions by up to 80 per cent – with its environmentally certified biodiesel is produced from waste from the fisheries and agriculture industries.
We’ll start to see the increasing integration of electric vehicles into itineraries and trips, as infrastructure increasingly allows,” Morgan agrees. “In addition, we’ll hopefully see more of the travel sector proactively engaged in building a more regenerative sector, looking at ways to help their destinations adapt, flourish and become more resilient to the impacts of climate change going forward.”