Changing climate could destroy industry, travel CEOs warned

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World Travel & Tourism Council CEO Gloria Guevara said that while many travel companies are on the forefront of sustainability, others need to catch up.
World Travel & Tourism Council CEO Gloria Guevara said that while many travel companies are on the forefront of sustainability, others need to catch up. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

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 Action Forum. 

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 very existence.

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," he said. 

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 have."

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 available technologically." 

Sachs said that in terms of air, the solutions are likely electric propulsion for short-haul flights and synthetic fuels for long-haul flights. 

"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 price-conscious." 

"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 sentiment. 

"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.'"

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