Will COP26 be a turning point for tourism?

What does the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism demand of its 300 signatories, and what does it mean for travellers?

By Simon Usborne
Published 15 Feb 2022, 10:43 GMT, Updated 24 Feb 2022, 15:19 GMT
One of the glasshouses at Glasgow Botanic Gardens.

One of the glasshouses at Glasgow Botanic Gardens.

Photograph by Allan Baxter

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that moving millions of people around the planet is a carbon-intensive business. Tourism accounts for an estimated 8-11% of global greenhouse gas emissions (worse than construction), according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). It also finds that aviation alone causes around 17% of total travel carbon emissions.

And all the signs are that this will get worse as the world becomes increasingly mobile: research published at the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference suggested that by 2030, transport-related emissions from tourism alone will make up 5.3% of man-made carbon emissions if annual tourist arrivals (domestic and international) almost double from 20 billion in 2016 to 37 billion by 2030, as has been forecast.

What happened in Glasgow?

The annual COP conferences have long been a forum for debate and resolution beyond the core negotiations of the gathered governments. And tourism has been a focus of these climate-centric events (ironic, perhaps, considering the fleets of chartered jets these events attract). Glasgow's COP26 arguably represented the most significant moment so far because the focus shifted, productively, to the emissions of big businesses.

More than 300 companies involved in global tourism signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism. Galvanised by the challenges of the pandemic and the opportunity it offered to the industry to ‘reset’ its ways, the firms all pledged to halve their emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. They must also present, within a year of signing, a detailed climate action plan to lay out plans for hitting those targets — and show they’ve set aside sufficient funds to make it happen. There’s also a requirement for signatories to collaborate and share best practises.

Who’s behind it?

The declaration was created as a collaboration between the World Tourism Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme, VisitScotland, the Travel Foundation and Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. “These influential organisations lacked a unified approach during much of the pandemic on the key issues affecting travel’s restart, so it’s great to see that they are more willing to work together,” says Lebawit Lily Girma, global tourism reporter at travel industry news company Skift.

Who’s signed?

The 300 initial signatories include some giants of the industry, including several global hotel chains and key tourism destinations. Among them are Accor, Barbados, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Iberostar Group, Intrepid Travel, Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, Skyscanner and The Travel Corporation. Others are expected to follow. A lot of the destinations on the list are among those most keenly affected by climate change. 

Who hasn’t signed?

Notable absentees so far include the major airlines and cruise lines. “Despite their huge contributions to emissions, they lack the technology needed to reduce them significantly,” Girma says. Work to improve efficiencies and find relatively cleaner fuels is ongoing and gathering pace. “But it’s unlikely it will happen by 2030 or even 2050,” Girma adds. The WTTC also used Glasgow to launch a ‘decarbonisation roadmap’, outlining various ways in which different travel industry sectors — including aviation and cruise — can cut emissions.

How will signatories make these cuts?

It will depend on the kind of business they are. One of the signatories, Intrepid Travel, provides a possible blueprint and has positioned itself as a pioneer. The Australian-headquartered global adventure travel company says it became carbon neutral way back in 2010. It offers free advice to other companies on the same journey, including ways to properly measure emissions, reduce them by minimising aviation, cutting and recycling waste and relying more on public transport than most tour operators traditionally do. Intrepid also then offsets remaining emissions by purchasing credits tied up in renewable energy projects that meet the highest certifications currently available. “Climate change presents an existential threat to all of humanity, but nowhere is this more profound than for the travel industry,” said Intrepid co-founder Darrell Wade before COP26. He’s also vice chair of the WTTC and chairs of its sustainability committee.

How meaningful is all of this?

“It signals a major turning point for the travel industry,” Girma says. “Before this effort, there were no uniform guidelines for the tourism industry on how to align with the Paris Agreement, and no uniform commitment or leadership. In fact, climate action was largely unprioritised in terms of how to tackle it as an industry, as hard as that may be to believe.” Jeremy Smith, co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency and a sustainable tourism consultant, called the Glasgow Declaration “undoubtedly the biggest climate commitment our industry has come together for”.  

How will we know if the signatories are delivering on their pledges?

The term ‘greenwashing’ originated in the travel industry and it would be tempting to suspect that some companies might use signatory status to market themselves as loosely ‘green’ while not necessarily taking any meaningful action. The fact is, though, that they can’t simply hide; as well as presenting a climate action plan within a year of signing, participants must also then continue to report their progress annually. There will be support for signatories who face difficulties in doing so, but signatory status will be revoked after a 90-day grace period if adequate reports are not forthcoming.

Will travellers care?

The tourism industry has already started to burnish its environmental credentials as a way to market itself to an increasingly aware population of travellers. You can be sure that signatories to this new declaration will shout about it. But there is also a sense that real momentum is there. Speaking to US media company Forbes after COP26, Wade recalled that Intrepid’s commitment to going carbon neutral over a decade ago confused more people than it impressed. “Today, we’re about 10 times as big and 15 times more profitable than we were back then. And now almost everyone cares about climate change and emissions,” he said.

More info:
ukcop26.org wttc.org

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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