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The Travel Sector’s Widening Carbon Footprint Calls for Sustainable Travel Solutions

Posted March 13, 2017


The Doomsday Clock is now the closest to midnight since the 1950s, at just 2½ minutes away. And climate change is one of the reasons. That’s scary stuff for everyone, including travel industry professionals who want to help address environmental issues in their business practices and operations.

With fortuitous timing, the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) heralds 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. It’s a time to “support a change in policies, business practices and consumer behavior” so that the industry can begin making a more positive impact on the environment. UNWTO outlines three guiding principles for hotels, tour operators, airlines, cruises, destinations, and tourists:

  1. Environmentally friendly practices (e.g. minimizing the use of plastic)
  2. Protecting natural and cultural heritage (e.g. rain forests and historic sites)
  3. Supporting local communities by employing local staff, buying local products and engaging in charity work.

Let’s focus in on environmentally friendly practices—and explore what airlines and hotels can do to join the movement.

Air Travel: A Few Facts to Consider

Greenhouse gas emissions (carbon outputs) are a significant driver of global warming. Over one-quarter (26%) of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and that includes airplanes. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:

  • US carbon dioxide emissions from domestic commercial flights grew 4% from 1990 to 2013
  • The global aviation sector makes up about 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions and US aircraft emissions are 29% of all global aircraft emissions
  • Global aircraft carbon dioxide emissions grew about 40% from 1990 to 2010

It all adds up to a worsening problem that requires a concerted effort to regulate and control emissions and devise more sustainable travel solutions. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions calculates that “if global aviation were a country, it would rank as the seventh largest carbon dioxide emitter, and absent new policies, global aircraft emissions are projected to triple by 2050.”

Some airlines are already taking action. reports that four UK airlines have set targets for meeting demand for air travel while limiting its effects on the environment. Their initiatives include:

  1. Introducing new aircraft that offer at least a 13% improvement in fuel efficiency
  2. Creating fuel efficiency through making aircraft fly more direct routes, having planes taxi without all engines running, and optimizing aircraft passenger capacity
  3. Using sustainable aviation fuels, developed from waste produced from domestic, commercial, and industrial processes
  4. Develop some form of carbon offsetting scheme once all of their (above noted) initiatives to cut CO2 emissions have been exhausted


Many hotels have been ramping-up sustainability efforts through greater energy-efficiency, water conservation, and greener waste management practices. They’re finding that they’re doing more than making the world a better place. “Going green” often results in lower operating costs along with a smaller environmental impact—and their customers and even employees appreciate their efforts, boosting both brand and employer value.

In the bigger picture of climate control, however, the biggest strides can be made with changes to construction and building management. The International Tourism Partnership article Climate Change and the Hotel Industry offers suggestions for hotel companies who want to combat global warming and other environmental hazards related to development and operations:

  • New hotels should be built using passive house designs
  • Existing hotels should implement massive retrofitting programs to bring properties to standard
  • All hotels should have on-site generation (a.k.a. distributed generation) and utilize building energy management programs that work hand in hand with 100% penetration of low-carbon energy supplies by 2050

The Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative offers a methodology for hotels regardless of size or location to measure and report their carbon emissions. Properties can also benchmark their performance on carbon emissions against others’ and business travelers can generate reports on the carbon footprint of a meeting or stay. Suppliers can also access resources from Sustainable Travel International, including tools for self-assessment, project management, benchmarking and monitoring, and reporting.

Tick, Tick, Tick…

Will these efforts by airlines and hotels help turn back the hands of the Doomsday Clock? They’re addressing critical environmental issues, so they’re (at least) a step in the right direction. They’re also reaching the end-consumer and promoting more eco-friendly travel planning and behavior—and that puts the issue of climate control into the hands of individual people. Stay tuned for further coverage exploring travelers’ increasing options for sustainable travel.


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