Nature and Biodiversity

How travel and tourism can reach net zero

From overtourism to electric planes, the travel and tourism sector must confront challenges and drive innovation.

From overtourism to electric planes, the travel and tourism sector must confront challenges and drive innovation. Image: REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

Stuart Greif
Chief Strategy, Innovation and Operating Officer, Forbes Travel Guide
Herve Houdre
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, H2 Sustainability Consulting
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The travel and tourism industry accounts for 10% of global GDP and employs 320 million people.
  • The industry must do much more to meaningfully mitigate and reverse climate collapse.
  • Here's how the industry and the many sectors it touches are facing their climate responsibilities.

Extreme weather events are affecting the entire world at an increasing and alarming pace. Human activity is driving climate change. Given the urgency and severity of the crisis, we should adopt the term “climate collapse” to more properly convey the emergency to industry and the public.


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The travel and tourism industry, which accounts for 10% of global GDP, employs 320 million people and creates 1 in 5 new jobs, is at risk owing to increasing numbers and severity of fires, floods, drought and super storms, as well as high heat and sea level rise. The industry must mitigate its impact on the climate to reduce its emissions and support its economic survival.

Some major industry actors are rising to the challenge by committing to science-based targets initiatives (SBTi) – an initiative that validates companies’ carbon emissions reduction plan. While these steps are encouraging, only 75 travel and 27 hospitality companies have committed to SBTi (1.6% and 0.6% respectively of all 4,644 SBTi client companies around the world).

The industry must do much more to meaningfully mitigate and reverse climate collapse.

The travel and tourism industry creates 1 in 5 new jobs
The travel and tourism industry creates 1 in 5 new jobs Image: World Travel & Tourism Council

The travel and tourism industry has roared back from Covid-19 and is projected to grow significantly over the next decade and beyond. Combatting overtourism is critical as part of an overall more sustainable and responsible tourism ethos and model, and to reaching net zero goals.

When responsible tourism was defined in 2002, right before the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, there was no specific mention of the impact of the industry on climate change. In just 20 years it has become evident that this is now the industry’s top priority.

There are a variety of estimates as to travel and tourism’s impact on carbon emissions, but a recent study puts the industry's impact at 8% of global carbon emissions. The figure depends on what is included in the definition and the measurement methodology employed, in part because the industry touches so many others.

Hospitality sector

All major hospitality players have embraced the environmental, social and governance (ESG) model and are committed to reducing their carbon footprint. They are working toward reducing the impact of their buildings by retrofitting old ones and imposing stricter environmental rules on developers, architects, designers and engineers, using certifications such as LEED or BREEAM.

For almost 20 years, these companies have given guidance and regulations to their assets to develop a more sustainable approach to their operations, from renewable energy, energy efficiency and water conservation, to local employment and supporting cultural heritage. They have developed their own corporate responsibility measurement platforms and most hotel management companies have set up science-based targets (SBTi) for 2030.

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But they will not succeed without buy-in from REITS (real estate investment trusts) and smaller owners or franchisees who are the true decision-makers when it comes to necessary investments for technical adjustments to their buildings and operations.

Like many other industries the hospitality industry relies on many important stakeholders in supply chains who will all need to be aligned to the same goals.

Only 25 years ago almost no one in the sector was focused on responsible tourism, so there are reasons for hope that by 2030, more actors will be thoroughly involved thanks to the attention that client corporations and individual customers are giving to a more responsible approach.

Aviation industry

There is much talk about the impact of aviation on global greenhouse gas emissions. It accounts for 1.9% – far less than livestock and manure for instance (5.8%) and textile industry (10%). That being said, it is important to work on reducing the industry’s emissions as they will keep growing in years to come.

Aviation accounts for 1.9% of GHG emissions, but the volume is likely to grow
Aviation accounts for 1.9% of GHG emissions, but the volume is likely to grow Image: Our World in Data

There are two main opportunities offering signs of hope: sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and electric planes:

  • SAF, produced from food, oil waste and biomass, should become more efficient by 2035. These fuels are currently used as support to kerosene during many flights.
  • Electric and hybrid planes will become a reality by the end of this decade, even if just for short haul. They will meet the requirements of regional flights, private jets and some charter flights.

Becoming a net-zero industry will be a long journey for aviation but its main actors are committed to fulfill that objective by 2050.

Cruise lines

The cruise line sector has come under a lot of scrutiny and major operators have now committed to running more responsible operations and using more sustainable fuels. Its net-zero commitments usually target 2050 – and hopefully research and development will help them reach these goals earlier.

Tour operators, travel advisors, distribution channels

These important actors all include sustainability criteria in their programmes and platforms and deliver badges to hotels. They usually rely on accredited or recognized standards from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).

Trade organizations, such as SHA, WTTC and Travalyst, have created minimum standards and best practices for the industry and recently partnered with GSTC.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)

After a first decade of operations during which the GSTC became the common denominator for all sustainable hospitality and destination certifications, the criteria is now recognized by all tourism stakeholders and is the best reference for all actors of the industry.

Another evolution that offers great optimism is the fact that countries like Turkey, Greece and Singapore have adopted the GSTC criteria and are using it to support the industry’s adaptation to Responsible Tourism.

Whilst there is still much to do before responsible tourism becomes a common journey for all industry stakeholders, a lot has been accomplished in the past 20 years.

The long journey to net zero will reach a checkpoint in 2030, following the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development, and a formal date of 2050 to be fully realized and achieved. Measurement, ongoing reporting and transparency are critical to ensure meaningful progress continues, rather than waiting until 2030 to understand if strategies are working and taking corrective actions if needed.

It is reasonable to say that those engaging their company in 2050 goals today will no longer be at the helm when 2050 arrives. Their legacy will depend upon the seriousness of their current engagement and the strategies to support it.

Failure is not an option: future generations rely on the accountability of those who have the power today to make a major difference to reversing the climate collapse.

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