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Understanding carbon footprints in the tourism industry

Published 1 September 2022

Hospitality and tourism have a big impact on the world’s economy – in addition to creating millions of jobs and generating more than 10 per cent of global GDP, the sector also has a substantial carbon footprint. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council’s 2021 Net Zero Roadmap for Travel & Tourism, the industry might be responsible for anywhere from 8 per cent to 11 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That impact isn’t spread equally, though, because the industry is so diverse and produces carbon emissions through so many different activities. For example, carbon intensities vary by type of travel: short-haul flights, long-haul flights, cruises, road travel and so on. The same is true depending on the type of accommodations, food services, shopping activities and other services used during trips. And efforts to reduce carbon emissions can vary just as widely.

The hotel industry needs to cut carbon emissions by 66% per room by 2030

With more than 18 million hotel rooms around the world today, the accommodation sector’s contribution is significant. It produces about 1 per cent of all of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2008 study by the World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme.


The challenge set by the 2015 Paris agreement

Considering the sector’s projected ongoing growth – it expanded by 17.7 per cent between 2008 and 2018 and currently has more than 2.4 million new hotel rooms under contract around the world – that means the hotel industry overall needs to reduce its emissions dramatically over the next several decades. To meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, per room, those reductions must reach 66% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Transport accounts for the largest part of the tourism industry’s carbon footprint, and so is a big challenge in the efforts to meet these goals.

Encouragingly, the sector has somewhat lowered its carbon footprint in recent years. Between 2015 and 2018, the average hotel stay footprint declined by 10 per cent, according to the 2021 Cornell Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking Index. That footprint shrank by another 3 per cent in 2019.

Hotels need real qualifications to support claims they are sustainable

Eco-conscious travellers

Travellers are increasingly interested in low-carbon and sustainable travel options: 71 per cent of those surveyed by in 2022 said they want to travel more sustainably in the year ahead, compared with 61 per cent who said so in 2021. And they’re looking for information to help them choose accommodations with lower carbon emissions and other environmental impacts: found that 54 per cent of respondents want to be able to search for properties based on sustainable certification, and 38 per cent actively seek out such information about hotels.


Cleanwash the greenwash

At the same time, customers are wary of sustainability claims that might turn out to be greenwashing. With so many different green standards and ratings systems around the world, it’s hard for people to determine just how meaningful a hotel’s sustainability efforts might be. Corporate reports often provide more insights compared to what a guest will find on a hotel website or on site, but not every traveller is prepared to do such in-depth research on their own.

Nor do claims of being net zero or carbon neutral necessarily indicate that a property is truly green. There can be a big difference between a hotel that produces its own electricity using on-site solar PV systems and one that doesn’t but uses carbon offsetting to compensate for its greenhouse gas emissions. Although carbon offsetting can be a way to address emissions, reducing green-house gases at source is the preferable approach, with offsetting applied to remaining emissions that may not have technically feasible solutions as yet, (for example flight emissions).

Carbon offsetting is not enough – Aiming for net zero

Meeting climate goals that keep global warming below 1.5°C will take more than carbon offsetting – it will require big changes to how we use buildings, travel from one place to another, grow food and much more. That means making the shift wherever possible to net zero: balancing outgoing greenhouse gas emissions with strategies that remove an equal amount from the atmosphere. The difficulty of achieving this varies considerably across different sectors of hospitality and tourism.

Hotels, for example, can adopt many different technologies – from low-energy lighting to building retrofits to on-site renewable energy generation – to shrink their carbon footprints.


Carbon offsetting and the shortfalls

Large hotels in particular have the scale that enables them to make significant contributions through carbon offsetting. For example, the Radisson Hotel Group offers automatic carbon footprint calculations and offsets across its seven global brands through Radisson Meetings. Even so, the United Nations Environment Programme notes that “carbon offsets should be used only to complement, but not replace, hotels’ other efforts to reduce emissions. Carbon offsets should be used by hotels only when required carbon emission reductions cannot be done internally.”

Achieving net zero will be much harder for sectors like cruises and airlines that are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Carbon offsetting alone won’t help these sectors become sustainable – green fuels and other technology breakthroughs will be needed.


The WTTC challenge

A study by the World Travel and Tourism Council found that 42% of the businesses in travel and tourism that they surveyed have disclosed climate targets, although there’s no common standard on which these are based. The World Travel and Tourism Council has recommended that the sector should strive to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, participate in industry climate initiatives and aim to achieve net zero by 2050.

How can we walk the talk on climate and become more sustainable?

While many businesses have begun acting to reduce their carbon emissions and other environmental impacts, the industry needs to go much further… and soon. Every organisation’s starting point is unique, so the path to a sustainable future will look different for each one. Whatever their current position, though, they face similar challenges: uncertain regulations, limited budgets, the need to update infrastructure and the need to improve emissions measurement and reporting. Overcoming these challenges will require greater collaboration, investment, awareness and capacity building, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses.


Net-zero ambitions

On an individual level, hotels and other travel-related businesses must commit to emissions reductions with a goal of reaching net zero. This requires them to set science-based targets, monitor and measure progress and build accountability for sustainable practices into their business models.

How can Weeva help the tourism industry reduce its carbon footprint?

Weeva’s Climate Action parameter guides you through ways to measure and reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. It’s one of 18 parameters that must be managed holistically to help you become more resilient and sustainable – all of these are designed by business experts, sustainability scientists and specialist partners.

We provide a carbon calculator that enables you to monitor and measure your organisation’s direct greenhouse gas emissions (Scope 1) as well as indirect emissions related to your procured electricity use (Scope 2) and in 2023 we will introduce indirect emissions from upstream/downstream activities along your value chain (Scope 3).

Weeva also helps you capture data for carbon offsetting and carbon credit projects. Together, these tools help you manage and reduce the carbon impacts of your business. Everything is action-oriented and designed to help you gradually build your positive impacts and become more sustainable and resilient – something that travellers around the world are increasingly looking for these days.

Why not get started today and be more Weeva?

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