Reducing or offsetting greenhouse gases is no longer enough: eliminating emissions is tourism’s biggest challenge. Achieving net zero by 2050 is critical to limiting global temperature rises, and it tasks the accommodation sector with huge operational transformation.
The guest room sector is resource hungry. Its high energy and water consumption, as well as waste generation are responsible for roughly 10% of tourism’s greenhouse gas emissions.
To achieve decarbonisation targets, accommodations must reduce emissions by 6% to 7% per year. That’s the equivalent of eliminating residential emissions in 2.3m households each year. How do we get there?
1. Smarter energy, water and waste
Building new zero-carbon accommodations isn’t enough to sufficiently lower emissions because many 2050 hotels have already been built. We need to prioritise decarbonising existing stock.
There are dual benefits for doing so. Energy, water and waste account for the bulk of emissions, and reducing these can lower operating costs, too. For instance, energy consumption produces 60% of a hotel’s carbon emissions and represents around 6% of operating costs.
Addressing these big three factors can cut an accommodation’s emissions by 32%. Not only is it a significant reduction, but most associated measures have a positive business case over a 15-year investment period.
Those with the largest abatement potential include installing energy efficient appliances in guest rooms and service areas, switching to low-flow water fixtures, and fitting double-glazing and sunshading to windows.
Some measures dovetail with encouraging sustainable guest behaviours. For instance, key card controlled switches to ensure lighting, heating and air conditioning only run when guests are in their rooms.
And some measures, such as opting out of daily linen and towel changes, and lower laundry temperatures reduce emissions and running costs without any upfront investment. These alone aren’t enough to achieve emissions targets, but they’re an obvious place to start.
2. Renewable energy
Reducing consumption is one side of the energy equation. The other involves minimising reliance on fossil fuels. Depending on geography and specific circumstances of each individual accommodation, the first most obvious step minimising carbon footprint is to buy renewable energy from the grid.
For some properties, an opportunity to produce renewable energy on site is worth consideration. For example, Meliá Serengeti Lodge, Tanzania, generates 45% of its energy via solar panels (and turns waste into compost in an on-site incinerator). In the US, Hyatt Regency Greenwich generates 75% of its energy from an on-site fuel cell, which they say reduces carbon emissions by 40% compared to buying energy from the grid.
Payback periods of these installations depend on the local energy price, the type of technology employed, characteristics of the product, subsidy schemes and local conditions, which could favour either wind or solar, neith or both.
3. Carbon offsetting
Carbon credits function like negative emissions; they neutralise part of an accommodation’s carbon output rather than reducing it directly.
One way is to buy credits in carbon prevention schemes. These fund projects that reduce third-party emissions, such as upgrading power plants and transport structures.
Alternatively, credits can pay to boost carbon storage via biological, physical or chemical processes. For instance, forests are carbon sinks; they pull carbon out of the atmosphere and transform it into biomass. Some carbon credit schemes monetise afforestation in return for lower cumulative emissions.
Carbon offsetting options are currently limited, however. Credits may be useful during the transition phase, but, in most cases, shouldn’t be prioritised over measures hotels and other travel accommodations could implement directly.
On a global scale, most properties have a long way to go before they can reach net zero. The emerging pathway examples, direct support from government or investors, and knowledge-sharing across the industry can help, especially now that we are witnessing a growing sustainability agenda awareness among the travellers. As a renowned polar explorer, Robert Swan, once said “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” No single hotel or climate-conscious traveller can solve this mammoth problem alone, but together we will surely get there.
*Source for all statistics/visuals EY-Parthenon Report: The Road to Net Zero, 2021