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 may be a sign of what’s to come, if emissions are not adequately reduced and global temperatures continue to rise. While many scientists, writers and activists argue that there’s a widespread tendency to consider climate change a distant concern, what we have seen during the pandemic is how societal change can be embraced and how governmental intervention can be wide-ranging, when considered necessary.
Over the past year, the priority for all of us has been simply keeping afloat, but times of crisis can also lead to reflection. “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 protects our destinations and supply chains against the effects of climate change, but also helps proactively support recovery and regeneration in the face of these effects.”
Charlotte Wiebe, TUI Group sustainability director, agrees: “The pandemic has been a powerful accelerator – many changes and transformations are being implemented faster now. The growth in tourism numbers will be better managed, and reducing and managing the impact on the environment will be viewed as ever more important. This can only be positive, and was very much the thinking of forward-looking destinations anyway.”
“Our lives have been turned upside down by Covid-19, but sadly, as terrible as the health and economic effects 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 (IPCC) is seen as offering the gold standard assessment of the global situation; as David Wallace-Wells, author of Uninhabitable 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 degrees, preferably to 1.5 degrees, above pre-industrial levels. This may help to avoid the worst of the increased droughts and heat waves in the Mediterranean, more frequent and stronger hurricanes in Caribbean and around the world, and collapse of coral reefs. Wallace-Wells, meanwhile, describes a two-degree rise as “the tipping point for collapse”.
How the travel industry accelerates decarbonisation, then, is a matter of pressing concern. Aviation is thought to be 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, accounting for seven per cent of the UK’s total CO2 emissions. 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 can be even greater than those of the transport and accommodation elements.
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 about 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 four 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 programme 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 high-speed 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.
Wherever you look, change is afoot: from the Republic of Palau, an archipelago of 500 islands in the western Pacific, which plans to become the world’s first carbon-neutral tourism destination; to Argentina, where rewilding efforts have successfully seen jaguars return to the wetlands after 70 years; to Mälmo in Sweden, which is now (almost) carbon neutral and, by 2030, will be provided with 100 per cent renewable energy. In fact, so impressive is its project, it is said to have inspired mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Plan, which is set to implement greening space practices.
Sky’s the limit?
Carbon reduction must take place in cruise, accommodation, excursions and ground transport, and 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 sustainable aviation fuels, which could save 23.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually; aircraft and engine efficiency improvements, such as hybrid electric, fully electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, which should save up to 23.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually; and more efficient operations and airspace modernisation, which it is estimated could deliver an annual saving of 3.1 million tonnes of CO2 and a ten 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). As ABTA’s Tourism for Good report notes: taking action to reduce carbon emissions frequently boosts efficiency and creates cost savings, which will be particularly important for companies as they recover from the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. 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 to reduce the negative effects that can be associated with tourism – rather, 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 food and accommodation with less of an environmental impact.”
Covid has accelerated a move towards domestic or closer-to-home travel, Dr Etti notes 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. Travelife for Accommodation-certified hotel group Valamar Riviera reduced its carbon emissions per overnight stay by more than 70 per cent between 2015 and 2016, and has continued to achieve further reductions. Initiatives include all electrical energy from renewables, replacement of heating oil boilers with heat pumps and investment in electric vehicles, scooters and carts.
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 its 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 per cent on board 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 enables a ship to plug into the national grid immediately upon docking. This 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 grid’s electricity, meaning shore power eliminates emissions throughout the supply chain.”
The line has also looked at ways to reduce emissions beyond just electricity, including introducing biodiesel as a fuel alternative across a number of its ships. According to the line, biodiesel reduces C02 emissions by up to 80 per cent and its environmentally certified biodiesel is produced out of waste from the fisheries and agriculture industries.
“The global CO2 footprint can only be reduced through innovation and alternative energy sources such as hydrogen for ships or synthetic fuels for aircraft – and global alignment of politics and the industry,” says Wiebe at TUI Group. “These technologies are already available but need to be produced at a reasonable price. The scaling up of biofuels and the promising trials of hydrogen as a fuel will lead us to much lower-emission flying, and eventually net-zero flying on some short-haul routes by around 2035. So there will be lots of progress over the next decade as part of this transformation. In the meantime, the aviation industry must address over-capacity to push up load factors and make flying more carbon efficient on a per-passenger basis.”
“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 effects of climate change going forward.”