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Environmental challenges and opportunities for the tourism sector

The tourism sector contributes about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and those are set to grow by 130% by 2035.

Reflora Writing team

Reflora Initiative

Published: March 16, 2022


The tourism industry is constantly under stakeholders’ pressure, due to the high demand for natural resources. The sector faces several sustainability issues such as water and energy usage, food waste, pollution, and waste. Additionally, from the GHG emissions perspective, organizations such as International Tourist Partnership (ITP) argues that the hotel industry must reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per room per year by 66% by 2030, and 90% by 2050 to ensure that the growth forecast for the industry does not lead to a corresponding increase in carbon emissions. For this reason, it is considered that the industry will need to go even further to help limit warming to 1.5oC and avoid the very worst impacts of climate change. Additionally, it is considered that the hotel industry’s science-based target is more ambitious than that of commercial buildings in general due to the growth forecast of the industry, which brings a challenging scenario for the sector.

The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership argues that the tourism sector contributes about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and those are set to grow by 130% by 2035.

It is estimated that global hotel and hospitality sector is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. It is also one of the most impactful, with some 17.2 million rooms booked each year. Due to this situation, the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership argues that the tourism sector contributes about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and those are set to grow by 130% by 2035. Air conditioning, kitchen and laundry facilities and hotel guest rooms contribute the most to energy consumption, prompting hotels to focus on energy efficiency, switching to renewable energy and electrification.

The Financial Times also mentions that while data gathering on carbon emissions is now standard practice, assessing other elements of hotels’ sustainability goals, such as water usage, can be more complex. They also argue that measuring the impact of water usage, for example, depends on local conditions. Therefore, additional efforts are needed in order to not only reach net-zero targets to bring climate change down, but also it is necessary the efficient use of natural resources in order to avoid situations of water scarcity.

The tourism sector is also exposed to climate change risks. Some studies have argued that climate change will modify the competitiveness and sustainability of key segments of tourism destinations. For this reason, it is considered that this sector will have to adapt to climate change, both to minimize risks and to capitalize on new opportunities. For instance, companies in the sector are already taking action in order to build stronger reputations in their sustainability strategy. This is the case of IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group), which created its own system, IHG Green Engage, to measure and manage its impact on the environment, with four levels of certification. One of the practices evaluated is the reduction of carbon emissions. For this reason, the group has a commitment to reduce 46% by 2030. Hilton is another example of how a more planet-friendly business model is feasible, having committed to reduce its emissions by 61% by 2030.

It is considered that achieving carbon reductions at scale in the hotel sector will also rely on the capacity of operators to collaborate and influence with the wider industry.

Other studies have shown that Accor stands out as a top performer, in the best position to work towards carbon neutrality. Marriott, partially due to its largest portfolio, is considered the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. When taking into account the different sized portfolios Hyatt Hotels is the largest polluter per room, closely followed by Marriott. Even though there is some evidence of efforts on some organizations to reach carbon neutrality, there are still some brands in which they still need to work on the improvement of their reporting on emissions. There is even an absence of targets and reporting processes by other companies that are part of the industry, that demonstrates the early stage in which the sector is to be carbon neutral.

According to the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, to mitigate climate change and achieve science- based targets, hotels and the hotel industry will need to advance their technological solutions and their organizational approach to the topic. Technical approaches to reducing carbon will need to be more efficient by pursuing the highest and most innovative levels of efficient technology. These technologies also need to be more renewable by producing and sourcing more renewable energy directly on-site at properties and supporting the acceleration of power grids toward renewables and away from fossil fuels. Finally, hotels need to be more electrified by supporting the transition to electrification of equipment, and building an infrastructure to generate, store, and distribute electricity across a network.

Even though the previous initiatives are directly associated with the business activity, addressing scope 3 is also a relevant aspect to consider in the industry. It is considered that achieving carbon reductions at scale in the hotel sector will also rely on the capacity of operators to collaborate and influence with the wider industry. In the Global Hotel Decarbonization Report (2017), it is mentioned that significant mitigation opportunities exist in the supply chain, and from collaboration with construction and development companies. For example, hotels are big users of cotton, one of the most resource-intensive crops, with one kilogram of cotton using 2,000 liters of water to produce, as well as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Though this is a business activity that is not directly associated with the industry, the use of cotton in hotels indirectly has a significant impact on the environment. Moreover, Hotels can drive significant change, reaching millions of guests every year, through the promotion of vegan and vegetarian menu options, certified paper, wood, and seafood, and have an immensely positive impact with a great story to tell. Therefore, the industry could leverage its efforts towards carbon neutrality with a collective action across travel and tourism to reduce scope three emissions that are part of their supply chain.

By Silvia Andrade, Reflora Intern.