Who are the real climate change innovators in tourism?

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When ResponsibleTravel.com announced the call for entries for the annual World Responsible Tourism Awards a few days ago, there was one new category I was particularly pleased to see introduced. According to the blurb on responsibletravel’s website, the new “Award for Innovation for Carbon Reduction” will recognise “an innovative and transparent approach to reducing carbon

I like the way this award has been framed. First, that key word “transparent”. Over the years there has been too much smoke and mirrors in the name of addressing climate change – from dubious carbon offset schemes to branding exercises in declaring destinations carbon neutral – where some juggling of numbers and careful use of words suggested a project was doing far more than it really was. It’s going to take more than clever language to avert climate disaster.

I was also pleased to see that this award celebrates innovation. With the total global numbers of tourists now tipping over 1 billion a year, it is clear that rising awareness of climate change’s risks is not scaring the global population into taking a mass staycation.

Thankfully opportunities still remain to excite people that there are ways forward, chances for a more innovative, better world through taking progressive actions to reduce climate change. Last weekend the Guardian published an extract from Naomi Klein’s new book on climate change and capitalism – This Changes Everything. Once the lens shifted from one of crisis to possibility, I discovered that I no longer feared immersing myself in the scientific reality of the climate threat,” writes Klein. “And like many others, I have begun to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalysing force for positive change.”

What pleased me most about this award, however, is that the words chosen to frame what is meant by innovation are not specifically looking for new forms of technology, but rather a different “approach”. At last year’s World Responsible Tourism Day, Rebecca Hawkins, managing director of the Responsible Hospitality Partnership, spoke about how companies in tourism can address climate change. She put up a slide titled ‘Delivering savings via some great stuff’, with images of a wide range of technological innovations employed by accommodation providers to reduce energy demand. They ranged from voltage optimisation devices to low flow shower heads and aerators, and many of them, she explained, deliver impressive savings in themselves.

However, she added, the fact remains that in the twenty two years since the first Rio climate conference in 1992, and despite numerous energy savings technologies being adopted by companies across the industry, total emissions of climate related gases from the accommodation sector have risen at 3.2% a year. What this means, said Hawkins, is that if the industry carries on growing at the same rate, then by 2035 total emissions from the accommodation sector will increase by 156%. A line from This Changes Everything echoes her comments: “In 2013,” writes Klein, “global carbon dioxide emissions were 61% higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest.”

Stuff is not the solution,” said Hawkins at the end of her talk. What is needed instead, she said, are “new business models” – in other words, a new approach. I’m looking forward to discovering what the best of tourism’s new “approaches to reducing carbon” might be.

You can nominate people or organisations you believe should win this award and any of the other 12 categories by clicking here. Nominations are open until Monday 6th April.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of Travindy.com, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


  1. alinedobbie says:

    Enjoyed reading and thought provoking; returned from India last week. Delhi is in a terrible state with the smog of so many vehicles. They had got on top of the problem by 2002 but then the general level of progress and purchases of aspirational cars by the middle classes have taken it to horrendous levels. I recall the blue skies of Delhi of my childhood….but then 50 years ago most of the world was still OK!

  2. Tom O'Hara says:

    Interesting article, and my copy of ‘This Changes Everything’ has actually just arrived today in the post, looking forward to reading it!

    I think the biggest challenge for tourism has to be aviation – as you’ve noted, tourists are growing in number, and that’s unlikely to slow down any time soon, the world’s population is still growing and the emerging middle classes in places like China and India are taking more and more holidays.

    It’s hard to see behavioural changes significantly reducing emissions from flights, as most people are going to be reluctant to give up their holidays voluntarily (I admit I would probably include myself in this), and if we rely on legislation and taxation I think it will end up making travel cripplingly expensive for anyone but the super-rich.

    I think the innovation has to come from things like cleaner fuels, superconductor technology, more high speed rail links where they’re viable – but my worry is that we won’t have enough time to develop these things before that kind of legislation become inevitable. I’d like to see governments taking a much more pro-active role in researching and developing these kinds of solutions, to almost treat it like a war effort where the economy is focused on creating the technologies to combat what is arguably an existential threat – but instead they seem obsessed with squeezing every last drop of oil and gas out of the ground with things like fracking and tar sands…

  3. I think the key thing to remember about Responsible Travel is that by practising it we take responsibility for our personal travel decisions. It is one thing noting that carbon emissions are a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ and that coordinated action at a high level is the full solution, but can inaction on a personal level be considered responsible?
    Behavioural change is a solution as expressed by Hawkins et al. This requires leadership, but we all need to remember that Meaningful Action starts with ‘Me’.

  4. We furnished an entire 100 sq.m. mock hotel with only energy efficient and water conserving and waste management solutions and products, including sustainable and ethical furnishings, decor, chemicals, toiletries, food and beverages. 120 companies were involved. But we were the first to address sustainability and going green for hospitality in SA and it was ahead of its time and was, sadly, not a permanent structure. I wish more events like WTM would allow us to give presentations on our successes and awards, but it seems you need to be from overseas or connected in some way.

  5. Bill Dehal says:

    In Canada we know temperatures are rising, as our current heatwave demonstrates, but still we choose to ignore taking strong action to change our behavior to reduce CO2 pollution and have no low carbon innovative policy. The consequence is that our children and children will have to contend with increasing threats from bushfires.

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