SB'24 San Diego is open for registration. Register early and save!

Walking the Talk
Science-Based Climate Targets Key to Sustainable Tourism

Regardless of whether a travel-related company has submitted its commitments to SBTi; setting specific, quantifiable, time-bound goals is essential for meaningfully reducing climate-changing emissions.

British mathematician Lord Kelvin is credited with saying that if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Business management consultant Peter Drucker later offered his additional perspective when he said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

At a time when industries around the world need to drastically reduce their environmental footprint, these quotable missives offer more than nice soundbites: They clearly explain why definitive measurements are needed in order to limit global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels as defined by the Paris Agreement goals.

The tourism industry is no exception: Destinations around the globe reliant on tourism are already reeling from the impacts of a changing climate; and the industry also creates approximately eight percent of carbon emissions globally.

“Being … responsible for over nine percent of worldwide GDP, this industry must play its part in the transformation to a net-zero economy if it is to remain economically competitive,” Karl Downey, head of sectoral development at the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), told Sustainable Brands® (SB).

SBTi is an organization that develops criteria and provides tools and guidance for companies to set science-based greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions-reduction targets in line with what scientists have indicated is needed to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero before 2050. (Note: As of press time, recent revisions to SBTI’s emissions-reduction criteria and permitted reduction approaches are being called into question by employees and other stakeholders; but it remains the de facto approver of corporate climate-action strategies.)

The organization does not have tourism-specific guidance; but US-based travel operator Legacy Vacation Resorts (LVR) had its targets officially accepted by SBTi in April 2021.

“As with all B Corps, LVR shares a global vision of an inclusive, equitable and regenerative economic system for all people and the planet,” Alex Smith, the company’s COO, told SB. “Part of this vision is a deep commitment to climate science and a desire to be part of the movement leading the way in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Regardless of whether a travel-related company has officially submitted its commitments to SBTi; setting specific, quantifiable goals that can be measured is essential for meaningfully reducing GHG emissions.

“In the absence of science-based targets, organizations often set targets either as a communication vehicle — ’we’re going to be here by then’ — or they don’t really relate to the true scale of their impacts, the true ambition necessary to make the changes needed, or the true capabilities they have to achieve them,” said Jeremy Smith, co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency and co-author of the World Travel Organization’s Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism.

In other words, a science-based strategy breaks down what can and should be done within a certain timeframe to achieve climate-related goals — rather than virtue-signaling ambition that fails to create true emissions reduction. A science-based approach clearly defines how companies will reach goals such as achieving net zero or carbon neutrality. Quantifiable goals also hold companies accountable for taking definitive action on Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions; after all, it’s nearly impossible for any company to accurately reduce and report when there’s no baseline from which to work.

“What you see is that those companies that are aligned — at whatever level they are — with the science-based targets or are taking themselves down the journey with science-based targets have the most organized, structured, comparable emissions reporting; whereas those that haven’t gone down a science-based target (journey) often report in different ways,” Jeremy Smith said.

However, he noted that aligning with SBTi specifically isn’t the only indicator of valid, proactive climate action. Travel companies and destinations that are members of or aligned with other frameworks, initiatives or certifications such as B Corp — or that work with well-trained climate consultancies — also undertake rigorous planning and reporting. These businesses, therefore, tend to have climate-action plans that are more exacting, time-bound and tied to measurements.

In addition to B Corp certification and SBTi participation, for example, LVR is also engaged with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Race to Zero and B Lab Net Zero by 2030 (the B Corp Climate Collective). It is a signatory of the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism and Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, as well as a partner of the US Department of Energy's Better Climate Challenge and a member of 1% for the Planet.

“We do all of this because we recognize no company will ever be perfect, but we can take actionable steps to becoming the best company we can be for all stakeholders. These efforts and partnerships show our team members and guests that we are willing to walk the talk and use the power of our business as a force for good,” Alex Smith said.

While it may be true that companies can’t manage what they can’t measure; the reality is that setting aggressive, quantitative climate-action goals can be challenging, costly and time-intensive — especially for small businesses. For those companies just beginning this journey, Jeremy Smith suggested seeking out working groups and destination-based schemes offering the tools and guidance best suited and relevant to their specific needs.

“Finding the support networks in every respect is the vital way to engage in doing all of this,” he said. But, he added, “what we need is action. You can’t see your target as your goal and be done — publishing your climate-action plan is just the beginning of your work on climate.”