Global travel is a huge business. A billion tourists traveled the world during 2012, and the industry generated more than $2 trillion in direct global contribution to GDP from business and leisure trips, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).
So it’s unfortunate that the travel industry–which depends, more than others, on a healthy planet–is just beginning to get serious about measuring and reducing its environment impact. That, at least, is my conclusion after surveying leading US-based hotel, airline and rental car companies. What’s more, as I’ve thought about the travel business, it’s hard to envision what a truly sustainable travel industry would look like. To dramatically reduce the environmental impact of travel will require the widespread adoption of low carbon fuels, the decarbonization of the electricity sector and radically “greener” buildings, all of which appear to be many years away.
I wrote about the travel industry and sustainability for the current issue of a trade magazine called Global Business Travel Magazine. The industry is clearly moving in the right direction. The question is, at what pace and scale? In my story on hotels, I wrote:
Every major hotelier—Starwood Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHC, and the rest—has invested in energy and water efficiency, reported its carbon footprint online, reduced waste, organized “green teams” of engaged employees, and embraced social programs ranging from recycling soap and toiletries to teaching employees to recognize and report human sex trafficking. That’s all well and good, but these efforts are not yet comprehensive or comparable in a way that would allow corporate travel buyers and managers (or, for that matter, leisure travelers) to measure one hotel chain against another. Nor are there reliable, broad-based, third-party standards, ratings, or rankings that reward industry leaders and shame laggards, as there are in other business categories, ranging from seafood and forestry to cell phones and appliances.
Essentially, hotel owners and operators have focused on efficiency–a relatively easy win-win because it saves hotel operators money and earns them green credibility. But efficiency can take the industry only so far (pun intended).
My story identifies Marriott as the industry leader but goes on to say that
Marriott—like all of its rivals—is still struggling to balance the goal of sustainability with the need to grow its business. Despite putting a wide range of efficiency measures into place, the company has added rooms in recent years, and as a result its greenhouse gas emissions have grown from 3.19 million metric tons in 2007 to 3.55 million metric tons in 2012—an increase of 11 percent. Scientists say that businesses and individuals have to reduce their absolute carbon emissions dramatically to limit the risks of catastrophic climate impacts.
Can the hotel industry grow while reducing its environmental footprint in absolute terms? It’s hard to see how, at least in the short run. The environmentally responsible thing to do is to travel less. For business travelers, that means meeting via teleconferences and eliminating some trips; many companies are doing that, of course. As for leisure travel, staycations, reading National Geographic or watching the Travel Channel can’t substitute for the real things. And there’s an obvious downside to traveling less: About 101 million people around the world earn a living from the travel biz, according to the WCCT, and some of those jobs will disappear if the industry shrinks.
Airlines are, if anything, in even more of a pickle that hotels. Yes, newer planes are far more efficient than older ones, but the best way to sharply reduce carbon emissions from air travel is by substituting biofuels for petroleum-based fuels. The trouble is, biofuels today are very costly. A carbon tax would encourage airlines and airplane manufacturers to invest more in low-carbon fuels, but the US airline industry has lobbied hard against the EU’s attempts to impose a carbon tax on international air travel because it would raise the cost of plane tickets. Meantime, comfort and efficiency are often at odds. Planes configured to carry more people are good for the planet but not so good for the traveler in the middle seat of row 42.
All of this is a reminder that big environmental problems like climate change simple can’t be solved by individual companies or industries. They require radical system change. This is why it’s so important for responsible businesses to make themselves heard in the public policy arena. The travel industry ought to be a loud voice for a carbon tax and for government support of research into clean technology. That’s the best strategy to bring about a low-carbon economy, and to protect the beautiful places that people like to visit.
You can read my travel industry story here.