NEW YORK -- The World Travel and Tourism Council laid out a
plan for the industry to be climate neutral by 2050, signed onto by dozens of
major travel companies here this week at WTTC's first Climate & Environment
During the event, purposefully timed to coincide with the
U.N. Climate Action Summit taking place here this week, the CEOs of some of the
world's largest travel companies got an earful about how the industry must take
steps to reduce its global carbon footprint before climate change threatens its
Quoting former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, Patricia
Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on
Climate Change, told an audience that included the heads of Hilton Hotels,
Carnival Corp., InterContinental Hotels Group and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.,
"Change, before you have to."
The WTTC said travel and tourism are responsible for 5% of
global emissions, and the U.N. estimated that airlines alone are responsible
for 2.5% of the total.
"It's clear that society must change, and businesses
must change, and the travel and tourism sector needs to change, too,"
Espinosa said. "Business as usual is not good enough anymore."
Espinosa was among many speakers who said the issue was
existential, calling climate change "the single biggest threat" to
travel and tourism.
"It's more than a question of morality, it's a question
of survival," she said. "If you don't change your business, climate
change will change it for you. How many businesses in your sector are selling
tickets to the Bahamas this year? My point is, the places I'm talking about are
the very destinations upon which many in your sector depend. And yet the
actions of many businesses in the travel and tourism sector, despite progress
made, are inconsistent with this reality."
Espinosa was among myriad people who recognized the
difficulty of telling the travel and tourism sector -- "a global economic
force" representing 10.4% of the world's GDP -- to slow its growth.
Former Mexico president Felipe Calderon stood before photos
of the hurricane-damaged Bahamas; a beach covered in sargassum in Tulum,
Mexico; and a flooded Paris to make the point that we all are risking greater
economic impact by doing nothing.
"There is a general perception that taking action
implies huge economic costs, implies destroying jobs and huge losses for
companies," Calderon said. "That is not exactly true. It is possible
to have economic growth and to have a better climate at the same time if we are
able to change some basic systems."
Travel executives here agreed.
Hilton Hotels CEO Chris Nassetta said that when it comes to
hotels, what's good for the planet is also good for business, citing $1 billion
of savings in the Hilton system as a result of its reduction of water, waste
and other green initiatives.
"My job is not to be a crusader in my beliefs, my job
is to give stakeholders no way out because it's just good for business,"
Darrell Wade, chairman of the Intrepid Group, said the same.
Intrepid set out to be carbon-neutral more than a decade ago.
"The story that has perhaps not come out is that there
can be a real vested interest in investing in your clients and the environment,"
he said. "It's cost us a lot, but our profitability is higher than ever."
Wade thinks that misunderstanding is part of why "our
industry hasn't really stepped up to the plate as much as we thought they would
WTTC CEO Gloria Guevara said in an interview that while many travel
companies are on the forefront of sustainability, others need to catch up.
"We know in travel and tourism that If we don't have
natural resources, we don't have travel," she said. "We are part of
the solution. Climate and environmental action is a priority. We believe that
we need to be more aggressive towards these goals and together make progress
faster. That's why we are calling an action to our members."
Industry executives onstage at the WTTC said that working
together is pivotal, particularly when it comes to best practices.
"I'm happy to share anything we have with anyone in the
industry," said Nassetta. "There are ways we will compete over time:
This should not be one of them."
The aviation elephant in the room
Aviation was frequently identified as a main emissions
culprit. However, Guevara said that while air travel accounts for 40% of travel
emissions, the other 60% in accommodations, transportation and other
conveyances need to be mitigated, as well.
Yet while aviation was, in the words of Ola Elvestuen,
Norway's minister of climate and environment, "the elephant in the room,"
no airline was represented on the stage. The cruise industry was also
noticeably absent among the presenters.
Speaking via live stream, professor Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia
University economist, said, "We face two huge unsolved problems in
decarbonization: aviation and ocean shipping. There are no easy answers
Sachs said that in terms of air, the solutions are likely
electric propulsion for short-haul flights and synthetic fuels for long-haul
"There is already a backlash against airline travel,"
Sachs said. "I think the answer in general for most of these issues is not
less airline travel but rather airline technology that is zero emission. And,
similarly, with ocean shipping."
At issue, many in attendance said, is the huge cost of both
synthetic and biofuel alternatives, which panelist Christoph Wolff of the World
Economic Forum said would increase airfares by 30% to 40%.
Following the event, Gary Chapman, president of group
services for the Emirates Group, said that in order for airlines to invest in
biofuels, there needs to be legislation and regulation demanding it, because
air travel is so price-sensitive that every airline would have to be subject to
the same price increases.
"Price is so important. Talk is cheap," Chapman
said. "When it comes down to it, the majority of people are still very
"Legislation will have to drive the change," he
said. "If a government was economically important enough that they said, 'You
have to do this to land here,' that could affect the world. There are two
places that could decide that: the U.S. and Europe."
However, Chapman lamented any real leadership on a macro
global level. Absent that, he argued, changes will be pushed by public
"Pressure from the people will drive that," he
said. "That's what [governments] respond to ultimately."
Sachs said the travel industry was almost uniquely
positioned to create such pressure because everyone loves to travel, and travel
is under threat.
"Billions of people are in contact with your industry,
and they depend on you for health, well-being, relaxation," Sachs said. "And
you depend on a healthy environment and locations that are robust and resilient
to climate disasters."
He urged the industry not only to decarbonize but to become
advocates for sustainable travel.
"We need voices and leadership to overcome inertia and
neglect and vested interests," Sachs said. "The world loves your
industry and lives for it and needs to hear the voice of the industry saying, 'We're
all in trouble. We need to stop.'"