In a year where the accelerating breakdown of the world’s climate got yet more headlines (if not yet enough action), the travel industry also discovered that it was responsible for more of the damage than it hoped. A study published in May in Nature Climate Change found that tourism’s carbon footprint is about four times larger than previously thought, at around 8% of global carbon emissions.
This rising awareness of our impacts has seen the emergence of a shift in how the necessary response is framed. Reduction is out. Regeneration is in. Advertising agency JWT released a report looking at what leading companies across the world were doing about climate change, which it summarised by saying ‘Sustainability as we know it is dead. Doing less harm is no longer enough’. The opportunities for tourism companies and destinations who look after their natural habitats was made clear by research from Restore the Earth Foundation and Social Value International, which found that landscape-scale restoration has the power to create a 36:1 social return on investment.
Snohetta announced that it will construct a carbon positive hotel called Svart on a glacier in northern Norway. IHG opened the QO hotel in Amsterdam, a ‘living building’ with a closed loop greenhouse and aquaponics system on the 22nd floor. PATA launched the ‘BUFFET’ hotel food waste campaign. Thomas Cook pledged to remove 70 million single-use plastics within the next 12 months. And Hilton announced commitments to double its social impact and halve its environmental impact.
As more in tourism began to focus on how the industry could create positive impact, so more companies looked to use certification and measurements that quantify this. Both Intrepid and Better Places became registered as B Corps, while G Adventures (which also worked with international NGOs to launch guidelines on how the industry could do more for child welfare) announced the launch of its own ‘Ripple Score’, measuring the local impact of its tours.
The real challenge for tourism remains how to address the carbon impacts of aviation, responsible for around 40% of the sector’s total emissions. Sweden announced a carbon tax on aviation in April, and the year also saw two Swedish women launch a campaign – No-fly 2019 (Flygfritt 2019), aiming for 100,000 pledges to not take to the skies for a year. Over 10,000 Swedes had signed up by the end of 2018. Considering that 2018 also saw the launch of climate direct action through the Extinction Rebellion, as well as legal challenges to Easyjet over its climate reporting, the industry can expect that the pressure to deliver is only going to grow in the years to come. The beginning of CORSIA in 2019 is unlikely to be considered a sufficient response by many.
It’s not going to be easy to deliver an answer that does suffice. This year the scale of the technical challenge was exemplified by Norway announcing its ambition for all-electric short-haul flights of up to 1.5hrs to and from the country by 2040, and its intention to develop a 19-seater electric plane flying a commercial route by 2025. On the other hand, a report later in the year from Transport & Environment said that technology exists now in the form of near-zero-carbon electrofuels, produced by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide. The issue is not tech, said T&E, but the fact “running aircraft entirely on synthetic fuels would increase the cost of a plane ticket by 58% assuming kerosene remains untaxed, or 23% if a proper carbon price would be levied on kerosene.”
For me, the most remarkable moment of the year was when the South African Tourism Minister gave his keynote speech to World Responsible Tourism Day this November. “Without massively changed behaviour the world stands to destroy itself,” said Derek Hanekom. “Long before then the growth in tourism stands to come to an end. We are perilously close to the point where carbon emissions will irreversibly change the symbiotic life systems that sustain life. If we don’t do this we will remain on the tragic path of being the architects of our own destruction.” Will 2019 see more tourism ministers follow Hanekom’s lead?
I don’t wish to end the year without a message of hope. In my equivalent blog a year ago looking back on 2017, I mentioned the launch late that year of the Palau Pledge. This year that pledge has won just about every global advertising award possible, from Cannes Lions to the Black Pencil. In so doing it has proved one thing – that it really is possible to tell sustainable and responsible tourism stories that inspire people to love and care for the world.
Here’s hoping for much more of these in 2019.