Travel industry warned ‘tackle climate disaster before it’s too late’

‘We won’t have a world to show our customers if we don’t act soon,’ delegates are told at tourism conference

The travel industry has been urged to prove its commitment to sustainability with “rapid decarbonisation” to avoid a climate disaster.

James Thornton, chief executive of Intrepid Travel, one of the first carbon-neutral tour operators, warned delegates at the Abta travel convention in Morocco that urgent change was required.

“The travel and tourism industry is at the front seat of the climate disaster,” he said. “Change is required as soon as possible. The reality is, there is no vaccine for climate change. We won’t have a world to show our customers if we don’t tackle climate change.”

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the travel industry generates between 8% and 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the majority from transportation.

However, Thornton claimed that of the 3,547 private companies that have so far committed to reducing carbon emissions through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), only 74 were tourism and hospitality businesses and, of those, only 29 have had their targets approved.

“The problem is, Intrepid, along with a handful of other travel and tourism businesses, are starting to feel quite lonely in the Science Based Targets community … it begs the question, where is everyone else?” he said.

“Travel cannot meaningfully address climate change by talking about how important it is and how committed we all are. We really need concrete actions. And we need them now. Otherwise, it’s just greenwashing – and we see that in travel all the time,” he added.

Plane and greenhouse gas emissions
The travel industry generates 8-11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Intrepid, the largest travel B Corp company, took the lead on being carbon-neutral in 2010, and has removed short-haul flights from its 50 top itineraries replacing them with alternatives such as bus and train travel.

“Beyond flying, there are over 30 forms of transportation that Intrepid travellers use on their trips,” said Thornton. “This includes all sorts of things, like buses, taxis, rickshaws, snow mobiles and even camels. Operating more than 2,000 trips in more than 100 countries, we rely on plenty of ways to get around.”

“In a growing number of cases, that getting around is increasingly human-powered – on foot or bicycle. But realistically, one of the biggest carbon outputs on our tours is transport. With this in mind, we’re continuously looking at ways to innovate,” he added.

Meanwhile, trade body Airlines UK urged the UK government to offer increased financial support for the production of greener aviation fuel.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said manufacturing sites for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) would not be set up unless incentives were offered. He urged ministers to consider introducing a pricing mechanism for SAF as it was currently several times more expensive to produce than traditional jet fuel.

The UK has an ambition for at least five commercial-scale SAF plants to be under construction in the UK by 2025.

The government has invested money in the development of the sites, and proposed that airlines operating in the UK must ensure SAF makes up at least 10% of their jet fuel by 2030.

“Despite the planned mandate, despite the money they’ve already announced, we don’t have SAF in this country,” Alderslade told the convention.

A tourist takes a rickshaw in Bangkok.
A tourist taking a rickshaw outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

“Everything that the investment community and the producers are saying to us is, without that certainty on price, we’re not going to get those five plants up and running. They want to make sure they’re going to get a return on the money they’re investing. That comes from the price. Ultimately, they want to make sure that the price they will get from the airlines for a nascent product is going to provide a solid return,” he added.

SAF is produced from sustainable sources such as agricultural waste and used cooking oil, and reduces carbon emissions by 80% compared with kerosene.

Alderslade said he feared that ministers would be satisfied with importing SAF rather than creating it domestically.

He said: “The worry is, they will coalesce around this idea that we can’t win at everything, the US is surging ahead, there are other parts of Europe that are looking into doing SAF, and we’ll just import everything.”

Importing SAF would mean UK airlines “giving up” on jobs and investment, and be “risky” in terms of price fluctuations and supplies, Alderslade warned.

He added that producing SAF was critical for greener flying. “For long-haul flying, it is the only game in town currently,” he insisted. “You can’t decarbonise long-haul flying without SAF as things stand.”

Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer added to the call for the government to “incentivise the development of low-carbon fuels”.

He said: “The government’s growth agenda demands this, and the alternative of simply taxing emissions will thwart their own ambition.”


Nazia Parveen, from Marrakech

The GuardianTramp

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