The long journey to “sustainable travel”

tr-travel-smart-ff-miles-608Global 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.

Corporate America embraces gays. But what about gay marriage?

Gay rights hasn’t been an issue in the presidential campaign, and that’s good. “On gay issues, silence is golden,” says Jonathan Capehart, a Washington Post editorial writer. As recently as during the 2004 election, you may recall, Republicans put gay-rights measures on state ballots to draw out voters who would favor George W. Bush over  John Kerry. “We’re not the punching bags we were two elections ago,” Capehart says. The tide is turning.

Some credit for this belongs to corporate America, which has over the last two decades embraced the gay community.  Capehart made his remarks during a panel discussion at the 2012 Out & Equal Workplace Summit, a gathering of LGBT people in the business world. Out & Equal, an advocacy group, champions workplace equality, in part because changes in the workplace become a catalyst for broader cultural changes. [click to continue…]

Your parents were wrong

The Sierra Club and American Electric Power, the nation’s largest coal-burning utility, don’t agree on much, but there is this:

Money does grow on trees.

Along with other big environmental groups and such businesses as Duke Energy and El Paso Corp., they are part of a coalition that wants to use markets to protect the world’s forests and curb climate change.

Jeff Horowitz

Jeff Horowitz

The coalition—called Avoided Deforestation Partners, a name that will never win a branding contest—is the brainchild of Jeff Horowitz, a 58-year-old architect and newcomer to the environmental movement who has quietly become an influential player as climate change legislation inches its way through a divided Congress.

Protecting forests “is our single most important strategy, with respect to solving the climate crisis,” Horowitz says. “If we don’t tackle forestry immediately, we can’t buy enough time to get at the technological advances we need and scale them.”

I met Jeff in December at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, and visited him last week at his office in a lovely, hilly neighborhood of Berkeley. A mechanism to protect forests by steering millions of dollars from the developed world to poor countries, known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), was endorsed by governments in Copenhagen, so Horowitz felt good about the climate talks. “As far as we’re concerned, Copenhagen was a tremendous victory,” he told me.

Now he wants to make sure that forestry offsets are part of a U.S. climate bill. That will enable regulated polluters in the U.S. to offset their carbon emissions by paying to protect forests elsewhere. Protecting forests is a cheaper and quicker way to curb emissions than by switching from coal or natural gas to low-carbon energy sources like nuclear, wind or solar power. [click to continue…]

COP15: Marriott waves a REDD flag

8781676_290a2bf045In Amazonas, Brazil’s largest state, children and adults are going to school for the first time, families are paid $25 a month and startup businesses and community organizations are getting funded. The money comes from the state government and corporations including Marriott International, two Brazilian banks, Bradesco and Banco de Planeta,  and Coca-Cola’s bottler in Brazil.

In return, the Amazon dwellers simply agree not to cut down trees.

This deal—in which companies and governments pay people who pledge not to destroy rainforests—is the essence of a concept known as REDD, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.

REDD is an important element of the UN climate negotiations unfolding this week here in Copenhagen, as well as a vital – and potentially controversial – plank of the climate bills pending in Congress.

“We will only win this deforestation battle if we can find ways to make the forest worth more standing that they are when cut down,” says Virgilio Viana, direct of Fundacao Amazonas Sustentavel, which oversees the project in the Juma Preserve of the Amazon. Juma is a 1.8 million acre region—about the size of Delaware—which is 98% forested. [click to continue…]

Greening skiing

This may come under the category of Too Much Information, but I relieved myself the other day into a waterless urinal near the summit of the Park City Mountain Resort. A plaque informed me that each environmentally-friendly urinal at the ski resort saves about 40,000 gallons of fresh water a year.

This is part of what the Park City calls its “Environmental Commitment.” Right on every trail map, the resort says it “recognizes that the environment is one of our most valuable assets.” Now there’s a bold statement. It might be more attention-grabbing to say that  if we don’t do something about global warming soon, Park City will have the climate of, say, Phoenix, before too many decades go by.

But what does it mean for the ski industry to make an environmental commitment? Skiing requires chopping down big trees on beautiful mountains to make way for ski runs and slope-side second homes. It’s an utterly unnecessary pursuit that usually takes place far from population centers, requiring air travel or long car trips. It’s energy-intensive, too. Think of artificial snow-making, and all those steaming hot tubs.

Still, I love to ski. Just being in the mountains makes me happy. And skiing has been a great way for me to spend time over the years with my brothers and my daughters (that’s my older daughter, Sarah, who came with me this time.)

As a tree-hugging (not literally) skier hoping for insight into this conundrum, I have been reading an advance copy of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution, by Auden Schendler. Schendler is executive director of community and environmental responsibility at Aspen Skiing Company, a business known for its sustainability efforts.

I’m halfway through the book, and I’m enjoying it a great deal. Right up front, Schendler takes on those who tell him that the best thing that the Aspen ski resort and, for the matter, the entire town of Aspen could do for sustainability would be to shut down:

Certainly Aspen’s lifestyle is lavish. But then, so is the entire U.S. lifestyle. You’ve heard the stations before: we’re 5 percent of the world’s population, and we use 25 percent of the planet’s resources. Americans burn more fossil fuel per capita than any nation on earth…

So what do we do? Close down Aspen, then close down the United States? The U.S. is hugely wasteful compared to Europe…and actually, Europe is pretty bad compared to India…Do we shut down Paris?

In short there’s no way to draw the moral energy line in the sand showing which activities are OK and which are not.

Fair enough. So the more reasonable question for Aspen, Park City and every other business is: Are you doing as much as you can to be environmentally responsible?

Park City’s record is mixed in that regard. The resort says that it offsets 100% of its power consumption from renewable energy sources—a claim that is hard to verify, without knowing more detail, but let’s assume that it’s true. The resort’s fleet of snowcats is “powered entirely by biodiesel fuel.” One of the best things about staying in Park City area is the free, well-run public bus system which shuttles people around resorts, lodging and restaurants. Then there are those waterless urinals. You can read more at www.saveoursnow.net.

But much of this appears to be for show. On the mountain, you can eat chili in a paper bowl that is 100% compostable, but the bowls get thrown in with other trash, making the claim worthless. There’s lots of self-congratulation on the website, but no mention (that I could find) of the resort’s overall carbon footprint, or its goals.

And, as Schendler argues in his book, the most important measures of a company’s environmental commitment may be well its actions in the policy arena, because that’s where the climate change problem will be solved, or not. He writes:

Before businesses can effectively lobby for government action on climate, they need to have done something themselves or they lose their credibility and appear to be hypocrites. This may be the single most important reason businesses and individuals should implement policy reductions: so that their political case-making has more power and credibility.

This is a great point. Aspen measures up well in this regard—it filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit requiring EPA to regulate GHG emissions. It also joined a Greenpeace campaign against Kimberly Clark, the forest products firm. I’ve never heard of Park City doing anything like that.

More to the point, why don’t we hear more from the entire ski industry on the climate-change issue? They have databases of skiers—why not enlist their customers to support federal action? The same could be said for the travel industry. It’s not just ski areas, but beaches that are threatened by climate disruptions. Where are Marriott, Hilton, Starwood and the airlines when it comes to global warming policy? Actually, I know where the airlines are—they don’t want their emissions to be regulated. Marriott, by contrast, is taking steps to help preserve rainforests.

Unfortunately, only a handful of progressive companies, including Nike and Starbucks, have taken bold positions on the climate change issue. They’re part of a coalition called Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP.) Only when a lot more companies join them will the odds get better than we can truly save our snow.