Travel and tourism industry chart new, greener course at COP 26

As the world continues its recovery from COVID-19, tourism, one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, has the opportunity to set itself on a greener, more sustainable path. It is a question of revival, but also survival:  the industry’s continued viability as borders re-open depends on it becoming more green.

Earlier this month, UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2021 warned that, despite renewed climate pledges from countries, the world may still see a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. 

The tourism industry has already been feeling the impact of global warming.

Rising temperatures increase the risk of natural disasters, putting tourist sites in danger. More frequent forest fires, floods, rising sea levels, food insecurity, coastal erosion, loss of ecosystems such as coral reefs and disruption to cultural and natural heritage sites all impact the long-term sustainability of the tourism industry.

On 9 November 2021, at the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow (COP26),  the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) launched ‘A Net Zero Roadmap for Travel and Tourism’ – an ambitious plan for the tourism industry to reach net zero by 2050.

“Climate action needs a dramatic step-up if we are to have a shot at limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP. “The travel and tourism sector has a big stake in decarbonization because a destroyed planet serves no one’s purpose.” 

High-impact solutions

The tourism sector has widespread economic impact. In 2019 it was estimated it accounted for 10.4 per cent of global GDP and one in 10 jobs. Its revival and longevity will be critical to ensure its continued contribution to livelihoods and economies – but only if it can be made sustainable.

The new roadmap sets targets and benchmarks for the travel industry and offers practical recommendations for businesses on how they can achieve their net-zero targets.

For instance, moving away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources could greatly reduce tourism-related emissions. Hotels could bring in measures to improve energy efficiency, while new ones can be built using sustainable design practices. Airlines can improve existing aircraft technology by retrofitting and reducing weight, which increases fuel efficiency and lowers emissions. The cruise industry can reduce emissions by upgrading existing ships (through HVAC and lighting upgrades) and designing new ships to maximise energy efficiency.

Global momentum

The Roadmap follows the November 4 launch of The Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism,  which aims to rebalance the relationship between nature and tourism. The Declaration was developed through the collaboration of UNEP, The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, The Travel Foundation and VisitScotland.

Less than one week after the declaration’s launch, more than 300 signatories committed to sharing their action plans within 12 months of signing up and releasing reports publicly tracking progress. Signatories include Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, Skyscanner, Accor, Iberostar Group, European Tourism Association, among others. They represent different stages of the tourism value chain, reflecting how environmental concerns are a priority for the sector. Euronews news agency has also pledged to prioritise editorial coverage of organisations that have signed the declaration across all its TV and digital platforms until the end of 2021.

Actions have been suggested to signatories to decarbonise the sector as part of a broader climate action plan.

“The tourism sector has less than 10 years to accelerate the transition to low-carbon and circular business solutions,” said Andersen, “to create new opportunities in energy generation and halve transport emissions by 2030, and to integrate nature-based solutions into their operations.” 

Transitioning from the current pathway to net-zero emissions will require significant investment and innovation by tourism stakeholders. To support that transition, UNEP has also launched the Making the Business Case for Climate Smart Investments: Guidelines for the Tourism Sector,  which address challenges the private sector faces in financing climate mitigation actions in the tourism sector. The guidelines recommend adopting low-emissions technologies and tourist behaviour change to allow companies to optimize their resource use, reduce their operation costs, and increase their efficiency while improving their environmental performance and tackling climate change.

As part of the global drive towards sustainable tourism, in 2020, UNEP, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative released Recommendations for the Tourism Sector to Continue Taking Action on Plastic Pollution During COVID-19 Recovery. The landmark effort unites the tourism sector behind a common vision to address the root causes of plastic pollution.