This week at COP26, travel took a stand with the launch of the Glasgow Declaration: A Commitment to a Decade of Tourism Climate Action. Louise Southerden caught up with one of its chief architects, British sustainable tourism writer Jeremy Smith, to get the backstory on this history-making pledge.
It was January 2020 when Jeremy Smith co-founded Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. Yep, just before COVID-19 slammed on the brakes and made us all stay home for almost two years.
Despite this, or perhaps because of the enforced pause to think about their impacts and align their operations with their values, almost 380 travel companies, organizations and professionals of all kinds, all over the world, signed up to Tourism Declares.
In real terms, the declaration meant signatories were committed to developing their own “climate action plans” to reduce their emissions by half by 2030, in line with guidelines set by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Now the UN has picked up the climate action ball and is running with it, in the form of the new Glasgow Declaration launched this week.
It’s “a landmark moment in our industry’s response to the climate emergency,” says Jeremy, who has spent the past six months drafting the declaration with representatives from UK-based charity The Travel Foundation, VisitScotland, the UN World Tourism Organization and the UN Environment Program, with input from more than 30 other tourism organizations around the world.
To find out more, we chatted with Jeremy, who is based in southwest France, about sustainable travel, post-pandemic ’revenge travel’ and what declaring a climate emergency really means.
Adventure.com: What does the Glasgow Declaration mean for travelers?
Jeremy Smith: It’s currently hard for travelers to distinguish tourism businesses and destinations who are committed to sustainability from those who are just good at saying they are. Because the Declaration commits signatories to measuring their emissions and reporting on their efforts to reduce them, it will make it much easier to see who is truly walking the talk.
In the long term, over the course of this decade, it will also make it easier to find the most sustainable providers because signatories commit to collaborating with each other and supporting the SMEs and smaller destinations that make up the majority of tourism, which will accelerate their response to the climate emergency.
I think it will also improve the quality of people’s experiences. The Declaration is not only focused on direct decarbonization, but also on the role tourism can play in regeneration of ecosystems and communities, which means cleaner water, more flourishing wildlife, and societies with a better quality of life. And that makes for better holidays.
Do you have any concerns about the timing of the Glasgow Declaration post-pandemic? A lot of travel businesses will be doing it tough for a while to come, and climate action might not be a priority for them right now.
The longer we leave climate action, the harder it will be. It’s better we work to embed climate action into the recovery, than to ’recover’ unsustainably then have a bigger hill to climb even more quickly and after more harm is caused in the next few years. The purpose of the Glasgow Declaration is to support our industry, bring them together to collaborate, and share resources, so it’s important that this is done together, equitably, now.
When COVID-19 was declared a health emergency, the world responded immediately. If we’re declaring a climate emergency, shouldn’t we be aiming for a similarly extreme response to the climate crisis?
Yes, 100 per cent. We should be responding with the urgency that the US responded with after it was bombed at Pearl Harbor. If your house is on fire, you don’t sit down and draw up plans for an extension; you pour water all over it as fast as possible and get your mates and neighbors and the fire engines around and so on. The difficulty is that the climate emergency is incredibly complicated.
One of the reasons we created Tourism Declares was a frustration—that’s a mild word, but let’s use it for now—that the majority of tourism’s response to the climate emergency was based on saying things like, “For every return flight you book with us to Australia, we’ll plant a tree.”
It’s marketing and it’s feeble. With Tourism Declares, and now the Glasgow Declaration, at the heart of it is a commitment to recognize what the climate scientists are saying: That we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030, and we need to align our operations with that. We’re saying, “That’s the line, drawn by the climate scientists”.
Is it enough? No, it’s not enough. We always need to do more. Cutting emissions in half by 2030 is too slow. We should be cutting emissions in half by tomorrow, but that’s not going to happen without a huge number of other consequences. But what’s happened this week in Glasgow is enormous—a never-before-seen coming together of our industry and destinations and communities to commit to climate action and with a capacity to make it possible.
Have any airlines declared a climate emergency yet?
One airline has bravely declared it; a Tanzanian airline called Regional Air. There’s no getting around the fact that the easiest way to reduce emissions related to tourism is to reduce aviation, because that’s where such a significant part of tourism’s emissions come from.
And I do think that where it is replaceable, we should totally be looking to replace it. But I’ve spoken with airline groups and they find the framework extremely challenging—and we can’t change the science to fit them in.
Where do you see the balance between individual and industry responsibility for tourism’s carbon emissions: Who should do more?
Obviously everyone has to play their part, but the onus for change should weigh most heavily on those organizations that profit from the situation we’ve found ourselves in, that design the marketing to encourage us to take the flights, to do the holidays, that made us all believe that ‘relaxation’ and ‘status’ means ’one week on the other side of the world.’.
As an industry, we’re very fond of saying we’re responsible for one in 10 jobs and 10 per cent of global GDP. Well, surely that puts us in a position of responsibility to be a leader, if we’re responsible for a tenth of everything? It’s time to stand up and make some changes.
Also, we are a unique industry because we can take people to places to experience what a better world could be like. I’ve always felt that tourism has this ability to show people a vision of the future, to say, “This is what it’s like to stay in a building that’s entirely sustainably built and run, to eat totally organic food, etc.”
Then people go home and think, “That was amazing!” and start making changes in their lives. That puts the travel industry in the most enormous position of opportunity and, I think, responsibility.
How concerned are you about the impact of ’revenge travel’, the anticipated post-pandemic travel boom sparked by people wanting to ‘get back’ at COVID-19?
It’s a horrible phrase and in the context of the post-overtourism return, it is hugely concerning. Throughout COVID-19, I’ve often been asked, “Do you think we’re going to change massively and everything in tourism is going to become sustainable?” and I massively hope so. Do I think ’revenge travel’ is going to be a thing? I hope not.
What’s one thing you’d like all travelers to understand to help them travel more sustainably?
Beauty is nearby. We’ve built this whole ‘bucket list’ mentality of ‘ticking things off’ and once you’ve seen it, you move onto the next thing.
But that’s such a shallow way to see things. When one discovers incredible things relatively nearby, there’s an enormous benefit obviously in not flying to the other side of the world, but the other benefit is you get to go back.
And going back is what makes things better. I like to think one of the positives of COVID-19, is that we’ve started realizing that the world we live in for work and school and whatever else is also a magical world we can visit for long weekends and return to again and again, and that changes our relationship with the world. That’s what “sustainable tourism” means to me.
Now that the Glasgow Declaration is up and running, will Tourism Declares slowly fade into the sunset?
Not at all. This is the end of the first chapter in our story. Tourism Declares will now be the flagship climate action program of the Travel Foundation, which ensures we have the governance, the funding, the structure and the support network to do much more than we could as a group of committed volunteers.
We’re still going to be very much a part of it all, doing all we can to make sure the necessary changes happen. Because it’s one thing to say we’ve got to cut emissions in half by 2030, it’s a whole other thing to arrive at 2030 and say, “We did it.”
Louise Southerden is an award-winning Australian travel writer with a passion for simple, sustainable living and has had a productive pandemic: she built her own tiny house. Read all about it at www.noimpactgirl.com