The global tourism industry faces numerous challenges when it comes to decarbonisation, as highlighted by a November 2021 report from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme and multinational consulting firm Accenture. In the years prior to the pandemic the sector thrived, recording its 10th consecutive year of growth in 2019. Moreover, with 1.5bn international tourist arrivals worldwide, it contributed more than 10% to global GDP and accounted for around one in 10 jobs.
However, the industry was also responsible for approximately 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. For a range of countries – many of which are developing economies – tourism was a principal source of income prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. As such, the effects of border closures and lockdowns have been particularly severe, and many of these countries are looking to reboot tourism as soon as possible.
However, some industry players are arguing that a return to business as normal could ultimately prove damaging and unsustainable. Instead, they argue, the sector should commit to net-zero emissions and adopt more environmentally conscious practices. A leading voice in this debate is the Sustainable Tourism Global Centre, a multinational coalition launched in October 2021 that aims to accelerate the tourism sector’s transition to netzero emissions. Harvard University will support the initiative with research and capacity-building, while the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will help to accelerate industry action.
The coalition faces an uphill struggle. Of the 250 businesses analysed in the WTTC report, around 42% had defined a climate target, of which 20% were aligned with the Science-Based Target initiative (SBTi) guidance. The SBTi is a global body that provides companies with a defined framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. The significance of science-based targets is that they are universal, making it harder for companies to misjudge or misrepresent their sustainability performance. This is especially important, as the WTTC report found that the sector applied different approaches to target metrics, deadlines, baselines and emissions-reduction commitments, all of which makes comparability difficult.
When it comes to air travel – a major source of emissions – a range of initiatives are in place to help the industry transition to net zero. In 2016 the UN launched its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation ( CORSIA). The scheme is intended to empower carriers to purchase emissions-reduction offsets from other sectors, thereby compensating for any increase in their own emissions. CORSIA’s pilot phase launched on January 1, 2021, with 88 countries participating. Its voluntary first phase begins in 2024, followed in 2027 by a mandatory second phase.
The International Air Transport Association’s Aviation Carbon Exchange (ACE) was launched in November 2020 to support these efforts. ACE is a centralised marketplace for CORSIA-compliant emissions units, enabling airlines and other aviation stakeholders to trade carbon emissions reductions. At the end of 2021 Qatar Airlines became the first carrier in the world to make a transaction on the platform.
Various resorts and hotels have already taken significant steps towards decarbonisation. In 2018 the Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort in Aruba became the first resort in the Caribbean – and one of the first in the world – to go carbon neutral. Other resorts have followed suit. In Thailand the Santiburi resort in Koh Samui was certified as carbon neutral in 2019 by the Thailand Greenhouse Gas Management Organisation and VG reen. Going forwards, it is anticipated that a growing number of resorts will put carbon neutrality front and centre.