Environment

Tourism must reinvent itself to fight climate change and reach net zero. Here's how

Instead of winding down operation, tourism companies can front solutions to climate change. We heard from the experts

Cottages made with rammed earth, Ranthambore, Rajasthan

Cottages made with rammed earth, Ranthambore, Rajasthan Image: Supplied

Over the summer, many of the UK’s favourite holiday destinations were affected by extreme heat,
with climate change fuelling heatwaves and wildfires in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain and Portugal. 

After the hottest summer on record, the tourism industry is under pressure. Yet it is, in part, a victim of its own excesses. The sector is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change but contributes between 8-11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Tourism must reinvent itself if net zero is to be a possibility by 2050.  

The SUNx Program, an EU NGO supported by Malta’s Ministry of Tourism, is helping travel and tourism companies to become more sustainable in line with the target of the Paris Agreement, keeping global warming below 1.5°C.  

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The project was inspired by Maurice Strong, the founding executive director of the UN environment programme, who died aged 85 in 2015. Strong saw the potential for tourism as a force for positive change. 

Geoffrey Lipman, founder of the SUNx Program, knew Strong well. “It was a 25-year friendship and mentorship,” he tells The Big Issue. “SUNx is Maurice Strong’s legacy. It is the Strong Universal Network, and we added the X because climate change is existential. If it is not addressed now, it threatens humanity. 

“You only have to look at the extreme temperatures in southern Europe and the terrible flooding in Libya, which scientists are telling us is a direct result of the warming of the oceans and the volatility that’s been introduced into our weather. It’s going to hit us more and more every year with extreme weather.” 

SUNx puts tourism at the forefront of the response to the climate crisis by working towards sustainable development goals while advancing a Climate Friendly Travel (CFT) culture. Their registry promotes companies and communities committed to CFT, whose management supports low-carbon tourism that is nature friendly. So far, 300 have signed up. 

Recently, they received over 50 registrations of eco-hotels from Ecoplore, a company in India that only promotes hotels made of mud, wood, bamboo and stone. These eco-hotels use sustainable measures like rainwater harvesting, solar panels, composting, plastic-free zones and organic farming. 

Lipman notes: “They are a perfect example of the type of tourism businesses that we are supporting and promoting on the registry.”

When a company joins the registry, SUNx helps them create climate action plans with a digital toolbox providing information on a range of topics, from waste management to energy conservation. Last month they launched 50 CFT Chapters to support tourism enterprises in the world’s least developed countries build resilience while reducing their carbon emissions.

By 2030 they aim to support 100,000 climate champions worldwide, the next generation of climate leaders, through their CFT Diploma. The “world’s first course dedicated to tourism and climate resilience” was designed to create a global community who can take travel and tourism stakeholders down greener pathways in the future.

The SUNx Group is also launching two social enterprises, one for destinations and the other for travellers. Climate Friendly Travel Services helps countries and communities develop a plan B for the future by taking account of changing weather scenarios to address the challenges of any destination. The Climate Friendly Travel Club links climate-conscious travellers with committed tourism companies while advocating for clean aviation as an essential element of climate friendly travel.

Aviation accounts for almost a third of tourism’s impact, contributing between 2-3% of carbon emissions. The industry needs to be quickly weaned off its reliance on fossil fuel propulsion. 

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) has been heralded as the elixir that will help the industry to reach carbon neutrality but there is limited supply.

Lipman argues that to halve emissions by 2030 and balance them out by 2050 “we need much faster development and deployment of SAF and new propulsion technology (electric and hydrogen) in the next decade”.

However, governments have little incentive to address the aviation problem because emissions from international flights generally don’t count towards their country’s emissions, only those from domestic flights do. 

Lipman advocates for a creative solution to achieve clean aviation by 2050. This would see big governments, manufacturers, airlines, finance and fuel companies working together to drastically improve the production of SAF. “Aviation is too important to leave to airlines and fuel providers. The cost will be borne by the consumers – it always is.”

To offset that cost, individuals have the power to effect change with positive choices. As Strong says: “What we do as individuals matters. It adds up.”

Adil Hassan is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme

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