President Joe Biden didn’t waste any time. On January 20, his first day on the job, the newly elected president signed an executive action recommitting the United States to the Paris climate agreement, the largest global effort to curb climate change.
With the move, he reversed President Donald Trump’s 2020 withdrawal from the international accord. But the reversal of the decision to withdraw must be coupled with action in order for it to bear any siginificance in the race to contain global warming and its potentially devastating impact on the planet.
On April 22, Biden indicated what some of that action will be. The president hosted a Leaders Summit on Climate during which he announced that the United States will commit to a new target of achieving a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2030.
“In recent years, climate change has upended the lives of millions of Americans,” the president said in an Earth Day address.
Biden noted that climate change has resulted in more than 22 catastrophic weather events in the last year, including the winter storm in Texas that killed 111 people and disrupted the lives and livelihoods of millions, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, windstorms, and severe droughts.
Gregory Miller, executive director for the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), applauded the president’s renewed commitment to the cause. “The climate crisis is the number one existential threat we face as individuals, communities, businesses, and as a travel and tourism sector. A sustainable future for tourism will not be possible without the U.S. as a leader to address the climate crisis,” he told AFAR.
The country’s return to the Paris agreement and the new commitments set forth by Biden “sends a message to other countries and corporations that climate action will need to be a priority,” said Dr. Susanne Etti, environmental impact specialist at Intrepid Travel, a global tour operator that went carbon neutral in 2010.
“More importantly, this action also shows the dire news for humanity that if we don’t work ahead to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius, our planet will face catastrophic consequences. In response, I believe we’ll see many people and businesses re-evaluating and considering how to reduce their carbon emissions, whether big or small, to prevent worst-case climate crisis from unfolding,” said Etti.
What is the Paris climate agreement and why does it matter?
Signed by 196 parties in 2015 (including the United States), the Paris Agreement went into effect in November 2016 and is a legally binding international climate treaty. Its main goal is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels, though ideally global warming would be limited to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
In order to reach this ambitious climate goal, participating countries are being held to account by being required to submit concrete plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with the ultimate aim of reaching a “climate neutral world by mid-century.” The accountability piece is among the most significant factors of the treaty. Signatories have committed to reporting the climate actions they have implemented and the progress being made toward mitigating climate change.
By rejoining the alliance, the United States is pledging to drastically reduce climate pollution and to the transparent monitoring, reporting, and ratcheting up of climate goals, noted Etti.
What are the consequences of not meeting the Paris Agreement goals?
What’s a fraction of a degree here or there? Why the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius?
Quite simply, “limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would reduce the number of people frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves by about 420 million, with about 65 million fewer people exposed to exceptional heatwaves,” Alan Buis wrote in a June 2019 NASA report on global climate change.
It would also significantly reduce the probability of drought, heavy rainfall, flooding events, fires, and the degree of sea level rise. Fewer species would become endangered or risk extinction and there will be fewer shifts in entire biomes, such as ecosystems that transform into dry and arid deserts. Rising ocean temperatures would be limited as well, which would have a less severe impact on ocean and marine life. And agriculture and crop yields will be less at risk.
The report points to events like the extreme heatwave in Europe in the summer of 2006 that could become more frequent if the Paris climate goals aren’t achieved, and the deadly heatwaves India and Pakistan saw in 2015 that could occur annually.
These events often have a devastating effect on travel, too. They often thwart travelers’ plans, can strand travelers unwillingly and can alter and harm the places and landscapes travelers hope to visit.
Buis also concluded that climate-related risks are found to be generally higher for disadvantaged people and communities, something that was highlighted by Biden in his April 22 address.
“Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other communities of color continue to be hit hardest by the impacts of climate change,” Biden stated. “They bear the highest burden of pollution, face higher rates of heart and lung disease, are least likely to have safe drinking water in their homes.”
The United States has “an obligation to correct these historic wrongs and to build a future where all people have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, healthy communities in which they can live, work, and learn, and a meaningful voice in their future,” stated Biden.
Among the many changes Biden’s agenda brings to travel is greater investments in climate-friendly rail networks and manufacturing more electric vehicles. The president also seeks to protect and restore many of the country’s natural resources, including the forests, wetlands, coastal and ocean environments that travelers cherish.
What should travel companies be doing to join the fight on climate change?
Sustainable travel advocates see the U.S.’s new position on climate change as an opportunity to embrace change.
Intrepid Travel’s Etti feels that now is the time for the travel industry to go above and beyond previous goals. “The travel industry, which contributed to roughly 8 percent of carbon emissions prepandemic, must take meaningful actions to decarbonize across the whole value chain,” she said. “Carbon offsetting isn’t the answer for the travel industry—we need to reduce carbon emissions.”
Transportation services, a major part of the travel infrastructure, including airlines, trains, ships, and automobiles, are increasingly investing in carbon offsetting and carbon reduction programs.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has asked the airline industry the commit to a net reduction in aviation CO2 emissions of 50 percent by 2050 relative to 2005 levels, a goal United Airlines has said it would uphold.
These goals are important, said Miller, because the path forward is not to not travel but to travel better. For him, the benefits offset the potential drawbacks if travel is done well.
“While the spotlight on greenhouse gas emissions from air travel is merited, the responsible traveler must keep greenhouse gases and tourism in a climate crisis in perspective,” said Miller. “Yes, we absolutely need to reduce our use of air travel, but we must also remember that responsible, sustainable travel contributes a considerable portion to the experience-based economies of more than 125 countries and more than 80 percent of the world’s developing countries depend on tourism for hard currency exchange.”
Instead, Miller proposed a travel and tourism industry committed to simply doing better by the communities and environments it engages with.
In June 2020, CREST partnered with five sustainable travel organizations to create a Future of Tourism coalition, which established 13 guiding principles for travel companies that want to be better stewards of the planet. They include ideas such as protecting natural ecosystems and cultural assets; demanding fair income distribution; choosing quality over quantity; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and eliminating plastic use.
More than 500 companies have signed onto the coalition, including hotels, resorts, and tour operators. Signatories include Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Hilton, Lindblad Expeditions, the Travel Corporation, and others.
How can travelers help in the climate change effort?
As we begin to emerge from the Great Pause in travel due to the coronavirus pandemic and as the United States sets forth an aggressive new climate agenda, this is an opportunity for travelers who wish to roam the world more responsibly to do so with even greater purpose.
“This past year has led to travel’s great reset, and one of the positive outcomes has been an awakening in terms of our greater responsibility to each other and to the planet,” stated Jessica Hall Upchurch, vice-chair and sustainability strategist for Virtuoso, a global network of luxury travel specialists.
Hall Upchurch noted that travelers’ mindset has transitioned from a sentiment of “someone should do something,” to “I can and should do something,” a change that is “driving people to make different choices on their future travels than perhaps they did just over a year ago.”
In a recent survey of 250 travelers, Virtuoso found that 82 percent want to travel more responsibly in the future as we emerge from the pandemic. The majority (72 percent) said that sustainable travel should support local communities and economies, preserve a destination’s cultural heritage, and protect the planet. They want to advocate for the planet with their dollars, too. More than half (78 percent) of the respondents said it’s very or somewhat important to them to choose a hotel, cruise line, or travel company that has a strong sustainability policy. Miller pointed to Intrepid Travel and the Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort in Aruba as examples of such companies.
Ultimately, 70 percent feel that traveling sustainably enhances the vacation experience.
In order to do so, “It is crucial for the responsible traveler to ask questions, research a resort operator, and ensure that they outline their commitment to sustainability—not just removing plastic shampoo or not changing sheets, which is good, of course, but they make a commitment to their footprint, surrounding community, and the more holistic approach to sustainability,” advised Miller.
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Michelle Baran Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.