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Cutting tourism-related carbon emissions in half is very ambitious, but travel can't go small in combating climate change. However, the fight to cut emissions will face an enormous challenge when airline passenger numbers return to pre-Covid levels.

Tourism already represents one of the most significant contributors to global greenhouses gas emissions, and transport-related emissions from tourism are set to rise exponentially in future — in fact, by 25 percent by 2030.

So one would think the travel industry would take a front-and-center role in combating global warming. Unfortunately, that really hasn’t been the case as the industry hasn’t developed any standards for reporting greenhouse gas emissions.

But one group is leading the charge for the travel industry to commit to cutting their carbon emissions in half by 2030. Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, a coalition of individuals, companies and organizations that works to lead tourism entities to declare a climate emergency, is calling on the industry to seek solutions for more sustainable travel. Those who have declared are expected to publish their action plans for reaching the target within 12 months.

Roughly 290 declarations have been made thus far, according to Tourism Declare’s website. Those declaring include not only numerous tour operators and destination marketing organizations, but also professors, accommodation providers and even restaurants. So how did the idea for the coalition come about? Alex Narracott, the co-founder of Tourism Declares, said he took inspiration from the climate emergency movement he witnessed in other industries.

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“It’s never been more clear that we’re in the midst of a climate and biodiversity emergency, and it is also undeniable that any travel company, whatever their ethos, is heavily implicated,” Narracott said.

His colleague Sam Bruce believes, with whom he founded the travel company Much Better Adventures, as disastrous as Covid-forced lockdowns and restrictions have been for tourism worldwide, the travel industry has a golden opportunity to remake itself and help improve conditions for travelers and local communities. However, Narracott believes the travel industry is largely unaware of the role it can play in the fight against climate change. So how can tourism entities be made aware of issues regarding climate change?

Actually, Narracott opines that awareness isn’t the problem. “I think the problem is a general lack of knowledge of the simple steps that can be taken to reduce emissions — which in turn, manifests itself in a fear of doing the wrong thing or getting accused of greenwashing, which stops people even starting to take action, and burying heads in the sand instead.”

“We felt that as an industry too little was being done. We needed a bold, unified and immediate response, we needed to build momentum around action, and we needed that action to be aligned and co-ordinated around clear common goals.”

the challenges of hitting the target

Of course, the biggest goal is to decrease carbon emissions in half. Is it realistic for the tourism industry to accomplish that feat?

“Many in our industry will tell you it is not, especially in the most carbon intensive sectors. The science is clea, however. We don’t have a choice,” Narracott said.

“In most areas of the tourism supply chain — accommodation, land transports, food supply, etc. — there are very significant carbon contributions. But we also have the technology and solutions already to more than halve emissions — they just need implementing.”

Nevertheless, Narracott admits a challenging sector to hit the target is aviation, which is responsible for 3.5 percent of emissions contributions to climate change in addition to being unlikely to play a major role in slowing climate change. The United Nations expects airplane emissions of carbon dioxide to increase threefold by 2050 while Lauren Riley, the managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability for United Airlines, admits that airlines lack a readily available solution.

British Airways is one example of a carrier with a long way to go to make flying more sustainable. Its owner, the International Airlines Group, had announced the carrier would offset all domestic flight emissions from 2020 while IAG would commit to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The parent company will certainly be busy with British Airways — a study named it Europe’s second biggest airline polluter in 2019 in addition to accounting for as much carbon dioxide as all roads in the United Kingdom.

But “the bottom line is we certainly won’t succeed if we don’t have (cutting emissions in half) as a minimum aim,” Narracott said.

So has any progress been made in cutting emissions? Narracott is unable to provide any clear figures that would state one way or the other largely because of the aforementioned lack of a global standard in reporting emissions figures. “We are otherwise guided by the voluntary reporting of declarees, which would expect to show significant emissions cuts in time,” he said.

“However, it is too early to say. We launched in January 2020, and Covid has of course heavily impacted results since. Reports from declarees will also not necessarily be comparable with each other due to differences in method, hence the need for a global standard.”

Although it’s uncertain how many members of the coalition have officially cut emissions, Narracott believes their declaration is an important step in the fight to ensure a more sustainable tourism emergency. “The declaration is not just another pledge,” he said.

“It is a statement of what a company is doing to tackle the climate emergency, ground in alignment with the latest science, and in a commitment to action. Within one year of a declaration, companies are expected to have a written actionable plan of how they will reduce their emissions, and then to transparently report on progress annually.”

The contents of the climate plans

The lion’s share of declarees haven’t submitted their climate actions plans —  links to a little more than 60 appear on the Tourism Declares site. So what have parties that have declared put in their plans?

“Every action plan is unique and specific to the circumstances of the entity that has developed it,” Narracott said. But as more plans have been submitted,  “we are in a position to start to now gather commonalities, case studies, ideas and learnings from them to put into climate plan blueprints, which are in the works to support others in developing their future plans.”

Will those future plans be actually useful? That remains to be seen. While entities that have developed a plan are listed on the Tourism Declares website, some of the plans — such as the one developed by travel agency Earth Changers and — are lacking in quantitative targets and include vague statements like “we commit to raising awareness of the climate crisis” and “we commit to highlight our involvement in Tourism Declares to to all our partners.”

On the other hand, U.K.-based tour operator Exodus Travels lists in detail the goals it’s set out in its climate plan, such as working to ensure that 90 percent of food served on its trips is locally sourced as well as other train trips to most European destinations by the end of this year.

Objectives like that surely give Narracott optimism that tourism entities will lead the fight to cut carbon emissions.

“We shouldn’t we?” he said. “Tourism has the power to be an incredible force for good in this world. It is time we as an industry started to play a global leadership role again in defining our future as a society — one where travel and tourism is an undeniable net positive, not the damaging indulgence we’re in danger of becoming.”

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Tags: carbon emissions, climate change, sustainability

Photo credit: The population Thai tourist desination Ko Phi Phi has experienced the effects of climate change. Juan_Luis / Pixabay

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