A time to pause for effect

IT’S almost blasphemous to ask but is there a silver lining to the pandemic for the travel sector? With the industry at a virtual standstill, the pause has given many businesses the opportunity to re-evaluate their ethical responsibilities, such as facing up to the challenge of climate change. ADAM BISHOP reports.

With the travel industry facing off against the existential threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, some might forgive companies in the sector for switching to short-term survival mode and allowing loftier moral aspirations to fade until reaching calmer waters. Before the ghastly plague swarmed across the globe in early 2020, sustainability was a hot button topic in travel.

Despite the industry’s commitment to the environment garnering fewer headlines over the last 18 months, for many brands the drive to make the sector cleaner and less environmentally damaging is still very much top-of-mind and gaining traction.

In fact, the shutdown of international travel has given many companies the time to hit the pause button and take stock of their position, an opportunity rarely afforded to those operating in this fast-paced industry always on the move.

The ongoing impacts of COVID have failed to stop many travel brands from launching new sustainability policies and objectives, industry bodies from committing to tougher group standards and governments from legislating changes geared towards lowering emissions. And while from a whole-of-industry perspective there are still many gains that need to be achieved in order to combat the global threat posed by climate change, the furious work going on underneath the fog of COVID should not be underestimated.

For The Travel Corporation’s (TTC) CEO Australia, David Hosking, the distressing COVID chapter has brought with it some very powerful lessons which he believes have the capacity to carry the travel industry forward in meaningful ways well after the virus subsides.

“If the pandemic has taught us one thing – not just in the travel sector, but for all industries across the world – it’s that everything we do can make a difference,” Hosking believes.

“For many of us that has meant taking time out to reflect on things and work out where we can reset and refresh our approach, spanning everything from our family lives to how we do business.”

During the shutdown, TTC’s commitment to the planet has “been kicked up a notch”, Hosking says, with the company supporting 55 sustainability projects across 26 countries over that time, focusing on its key pillars of ‘planet, people & wildlife’. The bulk of this activity has been driven by the company’s not-for-profit organisation, The TreadRight Foundation, a joint project between its family of brands to strive for a positive impact on destinations, people and the climate.

To ensure the initiative’s efficacy, back in September 2020 TTC introduced a new proprietary assessment tool called Make Travel Matter (MTM), measuring travel experiences against ethical criteria informed by the United Nations’ set of Sustainable Development Goals. The operator has committed to ensuring that 50% or more of its 1,500-plus itineraries will feature an MTM experience by 2025. “The shutdown has fortified our resolve to make a difference wherever we go, so we’ve continued to develop our Make Travel Matter experiences on all of our trips,” Hosking said.

Intrepid is another brand determined to lead the travel sector through the current health crisis and towards the sustainability enlightenment, using the period of hibernation “as a time to continue to take more action”.

The company’s Environmental Impact Specialist, Dr Susanne Etti, said Intrepid Travel had always placed an importance on operating responsibly and sustainably since 2005, and that COVID was not going to slow its mission of lighting the way for fellow travel brands.

“Over the past 18 months…we’ve released more than 100 new local trips, including many decarbonised itineraries, such as walking and cycling trips,” Etti said.

Intrepid Travel have released more than 100 new local trips since the beginning of COVID, many of which are decarbonised ©Intrepid Travel

“We also took a number of other actions on sustainability during 2020, firstly we declared a climate emergency as a founding member of Tourism Declares (an organisation supporting tourism businesses to lower emissions) and published our seven-point Climate Commitment Plan. Later in the year, we became the first and only global tour operator with verified, science-based emission targets by the Science Based Targets initiative. This means that we’ve set a carbon emissions reduction target at the pace and scale that science believes is necessary to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius,” she added.

Carbon-neutrality is at the core of sustainability efforts for both TTC and Intrepid, with the former recently unveiling a five-year sustainability plan to 11 of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, putting the business on track to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 for all its brands except for youth brand Contiki, which will be 100% carbon neutral even sooner by 2022 – a healthy commercial choice given the heightened sense of urgency among millennial travellers.

Meanwhile Intrepid continues to be the ultimate sustainability trendsetter in the travel space. Not content with attaining net zero emissions, the operator is now locking its sights on achieving carbon negativity status.

“Based on the facts we know today, we would be lying to ourselves if we were to continue as though being carbon-neutral is enough for the travel industry; not only is the climate crisis leading to extreme weather events that threaten people and wildlife the world over, but it is a significant threat to our business,” Intrepid’s Susanne Etti warned.

“Many of the destinations we love may be destroyed by drought, fire, or other weather events over the next decade.” Detailed in its seven-point climate plan, Intrepid has committed to transitioning to 100% renewable energy on its trips by 2030 and expanding its carbon offset program to include 125% of its emissions.

But while operators on the ground continue to forge ahead with sustainability plans, airlines have arguably come in for more criticism than any other travel vertical. According to The International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA), the aviation sector accounts for 4.9% of the total warming impact on the planet and is a top ten global emitter at around 2% of all human-induced CO2 output. The global NGO has been vocal in its stance that current policy measures and technologies in the industry are “inadequate” to fully decarbonise the sector by 2050, predicting a “dramatic rise” in emissions by the middle of the century at the current trajectory.

Only a few weeks ago, the European Commission announced a raft of policy proposals designed to achieve an EU goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, among them a polarising jet fuel tax plan to entice the sector toward quicker change. If approved, the measure would likely see the prices of air tickets pushed up, a business reality European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen believes is necessary if citizens want to “choose a better, healthier and more prosperous way for the future”.

But for the International Air Transport Association’s Director General Willie Walsh, the proposal is “counter-productive” to the goal of sustainable aviation. “Aviation is committed to decarbonisation as a global industry, we don’t need persuading, or punitive measures like taxes to motivate change,” he argues.

“In fact, taxes siphon money from the industry that could support emissions-reducing investments in fleet renewal and clean technologies. To reduce emissions, we need governments to implement a constructive policy framework that, most immediately, focuses on production incentives for sustainable aviation fuels,” Walsh added.

Carbon neutrality is an important part of sustainable initiatives, with companies such as Intrepid Travel seeking to be carbon negative, and airlines under pressure to introduce more sustainable alternatives as the sector is one of the top ten emitters in the world.

For its part, Qantas inked a wide-ranging strategic deal on sustainability with BP in January, an agreement it believes will enable the carrier to collaborate on projects including advanced sustainable fuels, decarbonisation advocacy, renewable power, carbon management and emerging technologies.

“While the COVID crisis has compelled us to make many changes across the business, one thing that hasn’t changed is our commitment to minimising the impact we have on the environment,” Qantas Group Executive Government, Industry and Sustainability Andrew Parker said.

“Even though we have been flying a lot less, we’ve actually seen the same proportion of customers choosing to offset their domestic travel during the pandemic – showing that this issue remains top-of-mind for people. The Qantas Group has set some ambitious targets to be net carbon neutral by 2050 and offsetting emissions is a big part of that in the next few years.”

Australia’s national carrier is by no means the only airline making this shift towards renewables, with Korean Air last month partnering with petroleum company Hyundai Oilbank to adopt the use of more sustainable aviation fuel, United Airlines recently making a large quantity purchase of biofuel and KLM committing to 75,000 tonnes of alternative fuel a year from a local plant in Amsterdam, to name just a few.

But persuading airlines to chase lower emissions targets is only part of the overall solution to lower travellers’ carbon footprint, a point the French Government made clear earlier this year when its legislators moved forward with plans to limit short-haul flights in exchange for high-speed rail on select routes. Part of a broader climate push by the country to reduce carbon emissions by 40% in 2030 from a 1990 baseline, the French Government opted to proceed with a ban on shorter flights from Orly Airport to Nantes and Bordeaux among others.

The decision is part of a wider trend in Europe which has already seen Austrian Airlines replace flights between Vienna and Salzburg with a rail alternative in a bid to meet its environmental obligations, and Lufthansa scrap its popular 138km Munich to Nuremberg route for a coach service instead.

This approach to air travel is starting to be pondered by operators as well, with Intrepid confirming to travelBulletin a review of its top 50 trips globally is currently underway with a view to replacing flights under 90 minutes with lower carbon alternatives such as fast trains for itineraries in China.

The battle to reduce emissions also rages out to sea, with many cruise lines using the COVID pause to reinforce their commitment to sustainable sailing. Leading from the front in this area is the Norway-based expedition line Hurtigruten, which has flagged the introduction of several green initiatives over the next four years despite the obvious challenges posed by COVID-19.

“COVID has challenged some of the progressive practices we have in place as we need to meet certain operational procedures – less shared items for example which can lead to more packaging on board.

“We don’t like it and we will continue to seek out solutions that are supported by our health professionals as we are determined safe operating practices cannot be an excuse for dropping the ball on sustainability commitments,” the company’s Managing Director, VP Sales & Marketing, Asia-Pacific Damian Perry said.

“Shutdowns, regulations and operating protocols may have taken the wind out of the sails, and it is understandable as many organisations face numerous challenges, but we are fortunate that it remains a key focus and remains resourced and supported. We are in fact seeing more positions come on board in our business to assist with our sustainability journey,” Perry added. Moving forward, Hurtigruten said it remains committed to its ban on single-use plastics, advocating for the industry to eliminate heavy fuels and will continue to push the boundaries of testing innovative low emission alternatives for cruising.

COVID-19 has meant less shared items, which has led to more packaging onboard, but Hurtigruten is still committed to eliminating single use plastics ©Hurtigruten / Ole Martin Wold

Meanwhile Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) has used the shutdown as an opportunity to unveil its long-term strategy towards carbon neutrality. The cruise line mapped out a plan in June which included a commitment to reduce its carbon intensity through more fuel-efficient ships, an increased investment in alternative fuels and the implementation of a voluntary carbon offset scheme. The latter goal will involve NCL purchasing carbon credits to offset three million metric tonnes of CO2 emissions over the next three years, with purchases expected to ramp up in future years to reach the goal of carbon neutrality. “Despite the pandemic’s unprecedented headwinds, we have never wavered on our commitment to drive a positive impact on society and the environment through our global sustainability program,” NCL’s CEO Frank Del Rio said last month.

Major player Carnival, which has battled some highly publicised environmental issues in the past, also continues on its path to making amends for past indiscretions with several new sustainability areas of focus. The headline target is a commitment to become a carbon neutral operation by 2050 and achieve a 40% reduction in carbon rate per available lower berth day by 2030, relative to a 2008 baseline. The cruise line also flagged plans to expand alternative fuels strategy across its liquefied natural gas (LNG) program and battery, fuel cell and biofuel capabilities, as well as deliver a 50% reduction in absolute air emissions of particulate matter by 2030 relative to a 2015 baseline.

Cruise lines including Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line are focused on reducing their emissions through fuel efficient ships, purchasing carbon credits and using LPG and biofuels.

While all of these policy documents certainly sound like progress, the question is inevitably asked, ‘do these measures go far enough?’ As Intrepid’s Susanne Etti rightly points out, Australia’s tourism sector has more on the line than most countries around the world given its abundance of unique biodiversity.

“Australian travel and tourism businesses are on the forefront of the climate disaster – particularly after the devastating Black Summer bushfires, the declining health of the Great Barrier Reef and the loss of native wildlife and biodiversity,” she argues. “It is up to each of us to play a role – we cannot wait for governments – we can also advocate, lobby and reach out to local representatives to push for change.”

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