We Don’t Have to Travel Less to Save the Planet

We just have to travel smarter. The travel industry needs to unite for a greener future.

Basalt, USA - July 14, 2019: Electric vehicle charging station at parking lot space near farmers market with nobody during summer

Increasing electric vehicle infrastructure across the U.S. will help carve a sustainable path forward.

krblokhin/Getty Images

As the world fully emerges from the shadow of COVID-19 and global travel resumes, a defining moment is in hand for the U.S. travel industry to reinvent itself and create a more sustainable future. The less-congested highways and smog-free skies we saw in the early days of the pandemic don’t have to be a moment in time. We can build a greener travel industry that doesn’t force us to choose between reducing travel and meeting sustainability goals.

In 2021, transportation accounted for 31 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—the largest share of any sector—with auto travel making up most of transportation’s GHG emissions. This underscores the huge challenges the U.S. travel industry faces in promoting decarbonization holistically. A whole-of-industry approach is needed to create solutions and demonstrate how the traveler can continue to explore the United States—and the world—while still being conscious of a potential carbon footprint.

This is precisely why the U.S. Travel Association, the trade association that represents all sectors of the U.S. travel industry, launched its Sustainable Travel Coalition this summer. Comprised of 60 U.S. Travel member organizations and counting, the Sustainable Travel Coalition serves as an advisory body to inform the greater travel industry on sustainability issues, opportunities, and concerns. The coalition brings together stakeholders from related industries as we search for and implement policies and programs that will transform travel, transportation, and technology for decades to come. As a first step, the coalition and other organizations around the industry sent a letter to Congress urging support on key policies to reduce travel’s impact on the environment.

We can build a greener travel industry that doesn’t force us to choose between reducing travel and meeting sustainability goals.

As climate change accelerates, it threatens to have a profound impact on travel and tourism, posing a looming risk to the industry’s future and an existential threat to many destinations. In short, travel must continue to adapt to become more sustainable—the industry’s existence depends on it. As travel leaders advance these efforts, the need for new strategies and practices will also be driven by consumer expectations, corporate initiatives, and government policies.

This is a key area in which the Sustainable Travel Coalition can align with the larger business community. More and more businesses are setting aggressive goals to reduce their carbon footprint. Business travel is the largest component of emissions for many companies, so their ability to achieve net zero emissions will include either reducing travel or increasing sustainable travel. Challenges such as expanding electric vehicle infrastructure and the supply and use of sustainable aviation fuel must be solved to allow business travel to evolve.

Business travelers and the travel industry must get in lockstep as we look ahead. Ensuring that people are able to hit the road to conduct business with clients face to face while adhering to corporate requirements for carbon reduction is a necessity. Notable travel brands have taken serious strides to make their operations more sustainable, which in turn helps business travelers meet similar objectives. Marriott International has initiatives focused on significantly reducing water and carbon intensity and waste by 2025. Delta Air Lines is aiming to replace 10 percent of its jet fuel refined from fossil fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by the end of 2030.

Challenges such as expanding electric vehicle infrastructure and the supply and use of sustainable aviation fuel must be solved...

Consumers, too, care about these issues. A 2021 Ipsos poll found that, over the next two to five years, one in four Americans plans to take fewer leisure trips than prepandemic. Further, demand for travel would increase if Americans had access to more sustainable, seamless, secure, and modern travel options.

The Sustainable Travel Coalition is focusing on several near-term policy priorities and long-term goals to make travel more sustainable for businesses and leisure travelers alike. Many of the coalition’s initial policy objectives—such as tax credits for the production and use of sustainable aviation fuels and federal investments to protect and restore natural attractions—were recently passed in the Inflation Reduction Act.

To accelerate the coalition’s vision of a more sustainable future, the U.S. Travel Association recently convened global business leaders in travel, transportation, and technology; elected and appointed government officials; and policymakers and policy influencers for its annual Future of Travel Mobility event. Leaders discussed policy priorities, innovations, and emerging trends; technology that can make travel more secure; and how travel sectors and related industries can work together to increase sustainability goals.

There is much critical work ahead. As the climate crisis unfolds, the only option is to commit to a future that’s greener and more sustainable than the modern era has known. Together, we can ensure that we never have to choose between seeing the planet and saving the planet.

Tori Emerson Barnes is Executive Vice President, Public Affairs and Policy, at the U.S. Travel Association, the leading voice for all segments of the U.S. travel and tourism industry. Barnes directs the association’s government and political affairs, external and industry communications, marketing and research teams.
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