COP27: The Path To Uniting The Travel Industry For Urgent Climate Action With Jeremy Smith of Tourism Declares A Climate Emergency

Written byDominique Zamora

“We need to speed up everything good that is happening, not pat ourselves on the back for finally having the conversations.”

Jeremy Smith, Co-Founder, Tourism Declares A Climate Emergency

Presented by:

5 Media

One year after the official launch of the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, and 30 years since the adoption of the larger United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the tourism industry now faces a reckoning.

Considered a landmark agreement for an industry responsible for roughly 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the Glasgow Declaration, launched last year at COP26, brought together over 300 signatories in global tourism to commit to halving the industry’s emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.

As of June of this year, this number has doubled to over 600, with industry giants like Expedia Group, Contiki, Booking Holdings and Condé Nast lending their support to a growing coalition led by Tourism Declares A Climate Emergency, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

Over the past year, tourism governing bodies, private businesses and international commissions have stepped up their commitments to advocate for more responsible, regenerative futures, with successes ranging from the expansion of the Dominican Republic’s Marine Protected Areas to the pan-European adoption of the Ministerial Declaration for circularity and climate action to the launch of the U.S.’s Sustainable Travel Coalition.

Still, worsening storms, runaway deforestation and growing international tensions continue to make abundantly clear the immediate necessity of moving beyond simple commitments into measurable, scalable and truly transformative implementation.

As the world turns its attention to Egypt and the 27th annual UN Climate Summit, we caught up with Jeremy Smith, Co-Founder of Tourism Declares, to discuss what we should expect from COP27 as well as his vision for the next chapter of tourism industry reform. 

Photo by Matt Palmer

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced spearheading this coalition over the past year?

Jeremy: The biggest challenges that confronted us with Tourism Declares have evolved into the biggest challenges that confront us with the Glasgow Declaration. At Tourism Declares we were always a self-funded group of volunteers, and as the initiative grew, it became harder and harder to deliver on the rapidly expanding work we were doing.

Now, there is some funding and institutional support and more and more companies and destinations working on different aspects of climate action. Therefore there are resources and capacity. But meanwhile, partly thanks to the capacity, and partly thanks to momentum, the work has grown immeasurably in the last 12 months. And therefore we are still constrained by limited resources to deliver on this rapidly expanding work, and by the small number of people working on it full time.

Unless this changes, this is only going to become a greater challenge, made all the more complex by the fact our sector is incredibly fragmented and diverse, and therefore the more different actors from different sectors that come on board, the more new work needs doing collaborating on working out for their roles and responsibilities, and how this affects everything and everyone else.

Photo by Adam Vradenburg

If 2022 was about attracting signatories and building momentum, how would you characterize Tourism Declares’ top priority going into 2023?

Jeremy: Tourism Declares’ original mandate was super clear – We were there to get things started, to bring the industry together and build momentum.

And that’s what we did in 2020 and 2021. All the way through to COP26. But following on from my answer to your previous question, in order to accelerate and keep delivering at scale, the focus shifted to the Glasgow Declaration, which I was one of the co-authors of, and which built on our original commitments and framework, but now with the UNWTO and Travel Foundation providing institutional support.

Tourism Declares’ role naturally shifted after COP26, and we very consciously took a step back to make sure that the focus was on people coming together in the UN mandated Glasgow Declaration initiative. We didn’t want to confuse people or just make noise or work for the sake of it.

Much of my work this year, therefore, has been with the Travel Foundation and the UNWTO building capacity and alignment across our sector, and doing what we can to accelerate progress. But in the background, many of us who were involved from the beginning have been continuing conversations as to what role Tourism Declares might play next in supporting climate action. Watch this space.

Photo by Randy Fath

The road to decarbonization has been fraught with half-measures and risky bets, including unregulated carbon offset and trading markets and reliance on unproven carbon removal technology.

What have been some of the more promising and/or innovative projects the tourism industry has undertaken to halve its emissions by 2030, and in what ways do you think it still has room left to improve?

Jeremy: We need to park any idea that there are magic tech solutions coming to solve this problem at the speed and scale we need. Many of them may come later, and hopefully some will play a much needed role. But we need to act urgently now (we needed to act urgently 20 years ago). We need to work with the tools, the tech, the people, the resources at our disposal.

At a destination level, it’s vital and inspiring to finally see significant shifts in how certain National Tourism Organisations are rethinking their role, and in particular how they market inbound tourism. Norway and the Netherlands for example. Prioritising domestic and neighbouring markets, and factoring in the relative carbon costs to assess and compare the economic and environmental impacts of different tourist segments.

At a business level, we’re seeing examples not just of companies tweaking their operations to be a bit more efficient, but designing whole new ways of operating – seizing the opportunity to lead. Take Byway Travel, one of the tourism success stories in the UK during these pandemic-affected years. It was launched to ONLY offer people holidays by train. And it has been a huge success.

As for where there is room to improve, well, undoubtedly there is room to improve in the aviation sector. It remains the primary contributor of carbon emissions from our industry. And that isn’t going to change quickly and they’re not going to radically reinvent or scale up SAF or deliver hydrogen or electric planes at anything like the scale or speed necessary, and therefore there needs to be ways of changing tourism’s relationship with aviation. That can come in many different ways – pricing, shifting the subsidies away, supporting other forms of transport, designing the itineraries, delivering the communication and marketing that makes the alternative – as with Byway – the desirable option.

Photo by Thomas Lipke

This year’s conference priorities are Finance, Adaptation, Loss & Damages, and Increased Ambition. What overlaps do you see between these broader conference goals and those of the tourism sector in particular?

Jeremy: Well, I’ve already mentioned the challenges around finance affecting our work through Tourism Declares and the Glasgow Declaration. It’s not unique to us – speak to anyone working on climate action in tourism. They need massive support. The greatest challenge is finding the finance and resources to deliver on it. Climate Action is still not a priority, let alone THE priority for most businesses and destinations. Businesses and destinations are still working out how to get as many people as possible to come.

Adaptation. Again this has been underexplored by our industry which – when it does look at the climate emergency – still focuses mostly on decarbonisation. But you only have to see the experiences of this summer, or right now, and the huge changes in our weather systems and the changes that these are having to our world from the drying Rhine and Mississippi, to wildfires to melting permafrost to snow not appearing etc. Everyone knows we are going to have to adapt our industry to the changes that are happening now. And that these changes are going to continue to accelerate. The key question is are we going to make the inevitable changes in such a way that is equitable and fair, and supports those who are vulnerable and going to be most impacted as a result of the need to change?

Which brings us very much onto the next of your issues – loss and damage. Just as it is with the rest of the world so it is even more with tourism. Most of tourism’s emissions are caused by travel from the Global North. That’s where the airlines are owned. That’s where the large corporations are owned. That’s where most of the travel is coming from and funded. Meanwhile countries all across the Global South have become hugely dependent on the money that this tourism brings in. These countries are also both the ones least responsible for the climate emergency, and those suffering the most from it. As we adapt and change tourism, some of them will most probably suffer all the more. Tourism needs to work out how it addresses this.

Final issue –  how do we deliver increased ambition? It’s a really good start that the Glasgow Declaration has over 700 commitments from all across our sector, but it’s only a start. We need to see these numbers in the 1,000s within as little time as possible. And we need to build on all the knowledge and insights from these frontrunners as they write their climate action plans and work to deliver them. We need to build on this. Gather the knowledge. Stop reinventing the wheel. And then support the rest of our industry in building on their work.

Photo by Appolinary Kalashnikova

If we are to cut emissions in half for our sector by 2030 or even get close to it, we need to speed up in ways that are measurable. So draw a timeline for us: What do you imagine an ideal remainder of the decade would look like, if tourism were to successfully do its part to combat the climate crisis?

Jeremy: At the Travel Foundation we’ve been working on a piece of research with the European Tourism Futures Institute and Breda University where we’ve been modelling exactly what’s possible, looking at how we might deliver our commitments to cut emissions in half. It’s been an incredibly challenging piece of work. I can’t yet go into the details, but suffice to say that what’s utterly clear is that without huge ambition, huge commitment, huge transformative change at levels that we aren’t even going to get close. We’re going to miss our commitments by a long, long way. So we need to speed up everything good that is happening, not pat ourselves on the back for finally having the conversations.

We need to redesign tourism in the ways I said above, shifting the way we holiday. Remembering that holiday is not a right is an absolute privilege. That the majority of the world doesn’t know what it feels like to get on a plane, stay in a hotel for a week, or kick back with a trashy novel on a sunlounger at the beach.

We also need to look beyond our industry, and lend our voices to pushing for changes there, because so much is dependent upon changes beyond us. We absolutely need meaningful carbon pricing – it’s a nonsense when an offset is $18 a tonne and you can fly to the other side of the world for a few hundred dollars. It isn’t equitable when aviation kerosene is subsidised and train travel isn’t. Meaningful carbon pricing across everything would change the dynamics of tourism overnight.

That carbon pricing needs to be supported by a shift in investment, out of fossil fuels and into clean solutions – rail, bike lanes, EVs, organic food, renewable energy. Put these in place at scale,  then many more of us can go on holiday by train. Explore the destination by bike. Stay in Net Zero accommodation. Eat wonderful, local, healthy regenerative food. All of a sudden the negative impacts of much of our holidays are mostly removed, and we’re supporting developments that are not only good for tourism, but for society itself.

Isn’t that what regenerative tourism’s all about?

This story is in partnership with 5 Media, an impact non-profit that tells powerful stories about sustainable initiatives. By elevating the work of those working to make an impact, bringing awareness to environmental causes and sharing how we can come to action, they inspire and empower their community.

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