Comment: Travel’s route to net zero

We have a roadmap to decarbonising the sector, say WTTC chief Julia Simpson and Jesko Neuenburg of Accenture

We know travel and tourism needs to decarbonise. We also know it won’t be easy.

Before we look at our impact on the environment it is worth considering the value of travel and tourism to the global economy and jobs. The sector is a major contributor to global GDP. In 2019, one in every 10 jobs globally were in tourism, contributing more than $9.2 trillion to the global economy.

Like all human activity, travel and tourism has a carbon footprint. It is responsible for around one in every 10 tons of carbon emitted.

Equally, tourism is impacted by climate change. From rising coastal sea levels and receding snow lines to deforestation and extreme temperatures, many of the world’s most desirable destinations are on the frontline of the climate emergency.

So, the sector has both a moral and a commercial imperative to reach net zero.

The big question is how. To help clarify the way forward, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), which represents the global travel and tourism private sector, in collaboration with Accenture and UNEP, recently published a joint Net Zero Roadmap for Travel and Tourism.

In it, we examined five key sectors: accommodation, tour operators, aviation, cruise and intermediaries such as travel agencies. We found there is still some way to go in target setting. For example, just two in five of the companies analysed had publicised climate targets.

Our report also set out a new net zero framework that shows how the decarbonisation pathways could look like for different businesses if higher ambitions are set. This includes three distinct ‘target corridors’ for different parts of the sector.

For example, we define an ‘easy-to-abate’ corridor for businesses with a relatively low carbon footprint. An online travel agency is a good example. These companies should be targeting net zero by 2030.

At the other end of the scale, we have a ‘hard-to-abate’ corridor for businesses with a large carbon footprint and a challenging path to net zero. For them, a 2050 deadline is more realistic.

Airlines and cruise operators fall within this group. Both are challenged by a lack of low-emission technology at present – electric and/or hydrogen powered aircraft and ships are many years from viability at scale. But both sectors are making major investments in sustainable fuels and new, lighter, more efficient craft.

Between those two we have hotels, providers of in-destination activities and similar businesses. Their sustainability strategies are complicated by relatively large carbon footprints. But they don’t have the critical reliance on fossil fuels which hinders the hard-to-abate group.

As such, we say these mid-range businesses should reach net zero by no later than 2040.

We believe these three corridors provide a clearer way for the travel and tourism to think about its path to net zero. They reflect the diversity of decarbonisation challenges across the sector and the varying reliance on fossil fuels of different businesses within it, highlighting the importance of differentiated approaches.

In order to support businesses to move from commitments to actions, our report also provides pragmatic advice on how to get started.

For each industry examined, we set out a detailed decarbonisation toolkit which includes specific levers individual businesses can pull to improve their sustainability.

So, for example, hotels can begin by accelerating the switch to renewable energy sources while also improving the thermal performance of their existing real estate. At the same time, they can look to embed sustainability principles into the design of new properties from the outset.

Many of these levers make use of digital technology. Smart analytics can be invaluable in increasing energy efficiency, for example.

Similarly, much of the tracking and reporting of carbon emissions relies on new digital platforms – especially for the challenging Scope 3 emissions across the whole value chain.

In fact, understanding the carbon baseline is one of the key initial barriers for travel to resolve and one of the priority actions we recommend in our report. Many businesses in this sector just don’t have the visibility and data they need.

Funding is another priority. There is no escaping the fact that net zero needs a lot of investment.

Collaboration across the industry and with government will be key to finding solutions that work for all parties. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen that the world can come together and make enormous, joint commitments to fighting this crisis. We need the same for the climate crisis.

Similarly, there is scope for better alignment in the regulatory environment.

Global travel companies often have to manage a confusing array of different rules and regulations across the world. Greater coherence would enable the sector to move forward faster and with more confidence.

As travel recovers from the pandemic, we believe this is an ideal opportunity to reset the approach to sustainability. Our report provides a clear roadmap to guide that process which we hope will accelerate efforts.

Net zero is the destination. The journey has begun.

Julie Simpson is president and chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council. Jesko Neuenburg is managing director and global travel sustainability lead for Accenture

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