The Travel Industry Has Ambitious Climate Goals. How Will It Meet Them?

The travel industry has a long way to go to reach its climate ambitions of net-zero by 2050, but these companies and destinations are stepping up to the challenge.

Nations like Tuvalu are disproportionately threatened by climate change—and asking developed nations to do more.

Nations like Tuvalu are disproportionately threatened by climate change.

Photo by Romaine W / Shutterstock

An entire country in the Pacific is uploading itself to the metaverse. Tuvalu, a low-lying South Pacific island nation midway between Hawaii and Australia, could be the world’s first digital country—the first to move its land, landmarks, and culture to the cloud while some 12,000 of its people are forced elsewhere.

The whole nation could go underwater by the end of the century due to climate change. Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe made the chilling announcement in a video for the annual COP27 United Nations’ climate summit that took place in Egypt this month. “Without a global conscience and a global commitment to our shared wellbeing, we may soon find the rest of the world joining us online as their lands disappear,” he warned.

The revelation begs the question: What other destinations that we love—and places we call home—will be destroyed or uninhabitable due to climate-driven floods, storms, droughts, and forest fires in the coming decades?

COP27 negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, ended earlier this month with a promise for climate justice: a landmark deal to establish a “loss and damage” fund to help developing countries cope with climate disasters that are made worse by historic emissions from wealthier nations. It aims to address a situation where a country like Tuvalu, whose carbon emissions combined with the entirety of the Pacific Islands amount to less than 0.03 percent of the world’s total, is facing the greatest of climate disasters: ceasing to exist. Or Pakistan, which is responsible for only 1 percent of global emissions, yet suffered devastating and climate-intensified floods in 2022 that killed more than 1,700 people and displaced 33 million.

The Reckoning: Tourism’s Climate Emergency

Is there an alternative reality where we can mitigate climate disasters? The travel industry is on the hook to take a lead—it is, after all, responsible for 8 percent of carbon emissions (with around three-quarters of that coming from transportation alone). The industry has actually been working on it for some time, thanks in part to the efforts of Jeremy Smith, a champion for climate action. He’s co-founder of the global initiative Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, which urges those who work in travel to wake up to their role in the climate crisis and work together on scalable solutions.

Smith, who writes and speaks about sustainable travel, led Tourism Declares’ grassroots initiative along with co-founder Alex Narracott, the CEO of Much Better Adventures. Then in 2021, Smith co-authored the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)’s Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, which built on Tourism Declares’ framework. Now, he’s working with the UNWTO, and also as the resident climate specialist for the Travel Foundation (a global nonprofit for sustainable tourism) to help implement the tourism industry’s declarations on its climate-action commitments.

Since the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism was launched last year at COP26, more than 700 travel companies, destinations, and organizations from 130 countries have signed the pledge. They’re committing to an industry-wide effort to contribute meaningfully towards the goals of the Paris Agreement: to halve their carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 at the latest.

When I look at how much progress has been made, that’s when I feel positive. When I look at how much further we have to go that’s where I get concerned.
Jeremy Smith

How the travel industry will scale its climate ambitions remains the big question. Putting tangible action into motion was one of the key discussions for leading tourism stakeholders at CO27: unlocking finance; developing measurement frameworks; moving toward more low-carbon, sustainable, and resilient tourism models.

“When I look at how much progress has been made, that’s when I feel positive. When I look at how much further we have to go that’s where I get concerned,” says Smith.

The Travel Foundation’s Greener Hotels project helps accommodation providers reduce waste and improve energy efficiency.

The Travel Foundation’s Greener Hotels project helps accommodation providers reduce waste and improve energy efficiency.

Photo by Christopher Willan/Travel Foundation

Tourism’s Net-Zero Ambition: Is It Possible?

The travel industry is taking steps to curb its emissions, but will it be enough? To come even close to halving emissions by the end of this decade, tourism needs to adapt and innovate—and step it up, immediately with urgent action, according to an Envisioning Tourism in 2030 report published by the Travel Foundation.

Key findings of the study, released to coincide with COP27, stated there is only one scenario for tourism that meets its climate net-zero goal given the industry’s current trajectory—and its current strategies are “woefully inadequate.” This one scenario would only work with trillion-dollar investments in all available decarbonization measures and with travelers prioritizing trips that reduce emissions, such as those by rail and road.

“Adapt or die” is a common refrain that Jeremy Sampson, the Travel Foundation’s chief executive officer, used during COVID but it applies to the climate crisis as well, he says. Sampson hopes the study ignites collective action. “We need to try to throw everything we have at [the climate crisis] and that will require a globally coordinated effort,” he says. “Imagine if you knew COVID was coming, but it was five years from now and you could come up with innovations to plan for it?”

Travel Titans Unite to Fight Climate Change

A globally coordinated effort is also the ethos of nonprofit Travalyst, an AFAR 2022 Vanguard honoree that is a coalition of some of the biggest names in travel, including, Expedia Group, Tripadvisor, Google, Skyscanner, Visa, and more. It provides travelers with clear, consistent information to help them make sustainable choices when booking a trip. Travalyst’s CEO Sally Davey joined Google and other coalition partners on the sustainable travel panel at COP27 to talk about how technology and collaboration are the keys to addressing the scale of what lies ahead.

Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, founded the coalition in 2019 and is still deeply involved. Collecting and sharing verified sustainability data on a global, transparent scale—and to make it open-access in the next stage—is the mission of Travalyst.

“We are both the catalyst and the convener enabling key players in the travel industry to work together in a non-competitive way, towards a common goal that will change the impact of travel, for good,” says Tess Longfield, Travalyst’s chief marketing officer.

Taking the competitive edge out of climate action is also championed by another AFAR Vanguard honoree: Intrepid. In 2010, it became the world’s largest carbon-neutral travel company, and in 2020, it was one of the founding signatories of Tourism Declares. With in-house climate scientist Dr. Susanne Etti, Intrepid was the first global tour operator with verified science-based targets and it shares a roadmap for decarbonizing on its website for other travel businesses. Intrepid has replaced internal flights with rail and driving on some of its tours, added “closer-to-home” walking and cycling trips, and now includes at least one plant-based experience on all of its food-based tours.

Climate-Friendly Accommodations

During COP27, hotel group Iberostar made the accommodation sector’s most ambitious pledge to date, committing to becoming net zero across all of its 100-plus (mostly) beachfront properties, from the Dominican Republic to Mallorca, by 2030—20 years ahead of the industry’s commitment.

Iberostar also aims to have zero waste by 2025, and recently launched a program with Winnow technology, allowing it to more accurately track how it’s using food in the kitchen, with a goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent in its first year alone. This technology will prevent the waste of 5 million meals and stop nearly 8,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year.

Climate action isn’t all being led by royalty-founded coalitions and travel titans. Tourism Declares began with just a Twitter account, shares Smith. And small companies such as Regenerative Travel, a collective of hotels committed to environmental and social impact, are examples of grassroots efforts to unite the industry. Regenerative Travel focuses on practical solutions, education, and tools to move the industry forward and empower travelers to make the right choices.

Regenerative Travel gathered the next generation of climate leaders at its Climate Retreat post-COP27, including Sophia Li, journalist, UN Human Rights Champion and “climate optimist,” with a mission to make climate change issues more accessible to all. “While the industry needs to focus on reduction, travelers also need to demand change by asking essential questions about the hotels they are booking and the operators that are providing experiences,” says Amanda Ho, the group’s co-founder.

In Ayia Napa, Cyprus, a group of organizations including the Travel Foundation have been campaigning for a reduction in single-use plastic.

In Ayia Napa, Cyprus, a group of organizations including the Travel Foundation have been campaigning for a reduction in single-use plastic.

Photo by Christopher Willan/Travel Foundation

The Era of Climate-Conscious Travel

Travelers often see firsthand what’s at stake in the climate crisis—and also what’s possible when we step out of our own lives. Shivya Nath, a travel writer and sustainable tourism consultant, created the social-impact consultancy Climate Conscious Travel after visiting Chile’s Queulat Glacier this spring and learning that Patagonia’s glaciers are receding at some of the fastest rates on the planet due to global warming.

When Nath was on a tour of the glacier, she realized it was a lost opportunity: Here was a captive audience getting a front-row seat to climate change and it wasn’t even mentioned. A large chunk of the glacier collapsed due to a heat wave months after she visited.

Studies have shown that when people are exposed to [climate change impacts] they can personally relate to it and then they are more likely to take action,” says Nath, who advises travel companies (such as Vegan Travel Asia, which will have its first carbon-neutral trip in Cambodia in December) on how to create climate awareness and education in all the touch points on their trips.

Travel Companies Leading in Climate Action

Nath, who grew up at the base of the Indian Himalayas and is now based in Goa, advocates for community-based offsets (projects that benefit local communities) to combat tourism’s carbon problem. A great example is tour operator Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), which has been bringing solar energy to remote villages in India on climate-positive trips since 2014. Their expeditions aren’t about scaling mountains like Everest, but are focused on providing clean energy access to isolated communities of the Himalayas. GHE won the UN’s 2020 Climate Action Award at COP26, the first tour operator to be recognized.

GHE’s impact is staggering: to date, they have solar powered more than 205 villages and also set up 34 of the world’s first carbon-neutral homestays in Ladakh. In 2022, they hosted 1,400 travelers and offset 102 tons of CO2 from these homestays, and employed more than 30,000 clean cookstoves in communities. For 2023, they are launching six Climate Action expeditions that will electrify six remote villages in the Himalayas while remaining carbon-negative in operations.

There are a host of other tour operators helping travelers make more climate-conscious decisions. The Wilderness Group, which aims to be net zero by the end of 2030, carbon labels all its trips, indicating the amount of kilograms of carbon attributed to each. Wilderness Scotland recently launched its first low-carbon offering, featuring electric-powered transport (cars and ebikes) and one of the lowest-carbon accommodations in Scotland, the Lovat.

Say Hueque, the first tour operator in Argentina to offset 100 percent of its emissions, announced a new “Plan to Plant”: it’s committing to planting 20,000 trees, the equivalent of 70 soccer fields, in Patagonia by August 1, 2023, Pachamama Day or “Mother Earth Day.” The adventure travel company has planted 5,194 trees to date in fire-damaged forests in Patagonia.

Byway is a pioneering travel company that offers 100 percent flight-free multi-stop trips in Europe. Their personalized itineraries are powered by train, boat, and bus—such as a sleeper train holiday through the Swiss Alps.

Destinations Are Playing a Part Too

The world’s first climate-negative country might surprise you—it’s not in the sustainability-focused Nordics. Bhutan, a small land-locked country in the Himalayas, was the first country to absorb more carbon that it produces. The world’s last remaining Buddhist kingdom in the world uses free hydroelectric power instead of fossil fuels, and its constitution mandates that at least 60 percent of the country remains under forest cover. In September, Bhutan reopened its borders with the new Trans Bhutan Trail, a restored 250-mile historic pilgrimage route that takes travelers far off the typical tourist path, distributing tourism income to isolated rural communities on trips such as G Adventures’ Trans Bhutan Trek. Bhutan’s “high value, low impact” tourism model now includes a new $200 USD “sustainable development fee” to help offset tourists’ carbon impact as well.

Norway, meanwhile, is striving to bring sustainability to the seas. By 2026, western Norway’s fjords will only allow zero-emission electric ferries, cruise ships, and tourist boats. Hurtigruten, the Norwegian cruise company that launched the world’s first battery-hybrid powered expedition ship in 2019, plans to sail its first zero-emission ship on Norwegian coast by 2030.

Panama is one of the other three countries to first join the carbon-negative club (the third is Suriname); 68 percent of the country is under forest cover, with approximately 35 percent of its forest in indigenous territory. Panama is also developing Central America’s first “green” bus route, which will take travelers and residents on electric public transport in Casco Viejo, Panama City’s UNESCO World Heritage-historic district.

Cleaning Up Carbon—And Making Your Travel Count

The tourism industry has a long road ahead to reach its climate ambitions of net-zero by 2050. Christina Beckmann, co-founder of Tomorrow’s Air, a travel collective for climate education and carbon removal, emphasizes that it’s vital to support carbon removal technologies now, as reductions won’t be enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“Even if all emissions halted today, clean up of legacy C02 is necessary,” says Beckmann. “The travel industry is rightfully focused on emissions reduction. However, the industry should also acknowledge that reductions alone will not restore our climate; removals are required.” Tomorrow’s Air allows travelers to take immediate tangible action—by funding carbon removal via a one-time purchase or a monthly plan.

The notion that the further I go, the better the holiday, the better the travel experience I get, is a myth.
Jeremy Smith

It’s about making your travels count, Sampson says. “How do I use my carbon budget more wisely? Making your trips count is a great place for travelers, businesses and destinations all to meet in the middle.”

And another reason to toss the bucket list mentality? It’s hugely problematic, not only for meaningful experiences, but for climate change. Instead of racking up miles, Smith suggests travelers stay longer and go deeper. It’s not only better for the climate, but it’s better for us to make connections and to enrich the world in which we live.

And as Smith says, “The notion that the further I go, the better the holiday, the better the travel experience I get, is a myth.”

Kathleen Rellihan is a travel journalist and editor covering adventure, culture, climate, and sustainability. Formerly Newsweek‘s travel editor, she contributes to outlets such as Afar, Outside, Time, CNN Travel, and more.
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