Travel companies are vowing to go 'net zero'. Here's what it means
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By Hannah Sampson
The "net zero" bandwagon is crowded: Companies, cities and entire countries have taken the pledge to reduce their carbon footprints, setting deadlines decades into the future for balancing out their emissions in a race to keep the globe from heating to disastrous levels.
More newcomers signed on in the run-up to COP26, the UN climate summit that ended earlier this month in Glasgow, Scotland. Even heavy users of fossil fuels, including travel companies, are getting on board. Airlines tout their plans in calls with investors. Cruise lines highlight their ambitions.
More than 300 companies, destinations and other tourism players signed on to the Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism, committing to submit climate action plans within 12 months that detail efforts to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero no later than 2050.
The pledges are crucial to the effort to stabilise the globe's warming at 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, the most ambitious goal outlined in the Paris agreement. But delivering on the promises will be difficult, and many scientists warn that net-zero ambitions amount to kicking the climate can down the road when more immediate action is necessary. Here's the key information to know about net-zero goals.
What does net zero mean?
When companies pledge to reach net-zero emissions – typically by 2050 – they are saying they will balance out the carbon or greenhouse gases that can be traced to them, by removing the same amount of emissions from the atmosphere. The pledges generally come with commitments to significantly reduce emissions. Depending on the source, "carbon neutral" can be either a synonym to net zero or a weaker classification that refers to a strategy of investing in offsets without a significant reduction of emissions.
What are travel companies pledging?
Major players across the travel industry are vowing to achieve net-zero goals by the midpoint of the century, and some are setting their target earlier. Earlier this year, Alaska Airlines committed to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by 2040. Airbnb said this month it would become a net-zero company by 2030, focusing on emissions tied to its corporate operations across the world.
While some individual airlines had made announcements, members of the International Air Transport Association passed a resolution in October to achieve net-zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050. The trade group that represents major US airlines, Airlines for America, said in March that its member carriers are committed to working with government leaders to achieve a 2050 goal.
The Cruise Lines International Association said last month that its ocean-going member lines were committing to "pursue net carbon neutral cruising" by 2050. Royal Caribbean was ahead of the industry group to which it belongs with a pledge last month to achieve net-zero emissions by that date.
And hotel giant Marriott announced in September that it committed to "reach net-zero value chain greenhouse gas emissions" by 2050 at the latest.
Many more companies have offered their own pledges, and pressure is mounting for those who have not. The World Travel & Tourism Council compiled an extensive report laying out the path to net zero for its industries.
How will airlines reach their goals?
Most companies are aiming for a combination of reducing their emissions and offsetting or removing the amount of carbon they release into the atmosphere. The airline trade group says turning to sustainable fuel represents 65% of its strategy.
Smaller elements include creating offsets, or removing carbon from the atmosphere through nature-based projects or new technology; investing in electric or hydrogen propulsion; and improving infrastructure and efficiency in operations. Different airlines have taken their own approaches. United, for example, is investing in carbon-capture technology.
How will cruise lines reach their goals?
For its part, Royal Caribbean Group says its approach includes modernising its fleet with 13 new "energy-efficient and alternatively fuelled" ships; investing in energy efficiency programmes and developing alternative fuel and power solutions. The broader cruise industry points to greater use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) – a fossil fuel that emits less carbon dioxide – along with battery and hybrid power and the use of shore-side electrical power in ports.
What about hotels and holiday rentals?
Marriott says its initiatives may include using more renewable energy, modifying design standards to make buildings more efficient and installing automated systems such as smart thermostats.
Airbnb's pledge includes plans to power corporate offices with renewable energy, help vendors reduce their carbon emissions, encourage employees to take public transportation and help them adopt renewable energy in their homes. The company said it would also invest in offsets.
Is going net zero realistic?
Most companies agree that reaching their goals will not be easy. Airlines and cruise lines especially highlight the roadblocks they face, including relying on fuels or technologies that are expensive, not widely available or in development.
"Achieving net-zero emissions will be a huge challenge," the International Air Transport Association said, noting that 10 billion people were expected to fly in 2050. That's more than twice the 4.5 billion passengers who flew in 2019.
What companies aren't proposing: scaling back their operations. Airlines plan to fly more people. Cruise lines will build more ships and fill them with more passengers. More hotels will open.
Holly Jean Buck, an assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Buffalo, said reaching net-zero targets is possible, but only through more ambitious actions than what we have seen so far, especially from the aviation and cruise industries.
"A lot of the technology that can be used is here; it's just really expensive right now," she said, naming biofuels, hydrogen power or fuel made from carbon dioxide.
She added that companies needed government action to help bring down the prices of alternatives.