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Sustainability Series: Taking Responsibility for Climate Change Mitigation

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Referring to climate change as a complex phenomenon is an understatement. The plethora of issues involved in climate change, and accompanying mitigation, are difficult to comprehend, and are a main barrier to taking action for many. This first opinion in Euromonitor International’s sustainability series discusses the difficult situation climate change presents to individuals, companies and governments, and explains the need for the tourism industry to take action. It starts off a number of opinions highlighting key thinking, providing best-in-class examples and practical solutions for the tourism industry.

Should the tourism industry help mitigate climate change?

Two of the largest travel exhibitions in Europe (and the world), the WTM in London and ITB in Berlin, both have a CSR day with awards and convention sessions focused on tourism’s relation to climate change and sustainability. At the ITB convention, which took place in March earlier this year, the host of the CSR day, Professor Stefan Gössling, posed some interesting questions to the audience. A filled room was asked to vote on the question: “Who is responsible for driving the implementation of sustainability practices?”, with 50% of attendees pointing at governments, 36% at individual tourists, and only 14% at players in the tourism industry.

Answers to another question along the lines of: “How can climate change best be mitigated?” further indicated how little responsibility is put in the lap of tourism companies. Only 18% of attendees voted for the introduction of a global emissions trading scheme where companies’ emissions are capped (although the audience might have been reluctant to vote for this, as the EU emissions trading scheme has largely proven to be ineffective).

In contrast, 40% voted for the implementation of a CO2 tax paid by individuals, and 42% would rely on new low-carbon technologies. To this, Professor Gössling aptly noted how “convenient” this approach would be for the audience, as the industry would “not need to change at all”.

Whether you look at this from a moral or practical point of view, the question that needs to be asked is whether the industry can rely on government taxation or individuals to take action to change behaviour.

Governments often ineffective at supranational level

When considering government activity, the track record is not very promising. While on a national scale, governments can be very effective at enforcing environmental regulations, the supranational approach that is needed to combat climate change has been less effective. Most experts accept that the EU Emissions Trading Scheme has not resulted in the reduction in greenhouse gases expected since its implementation in 2005.

Furthermore, the Paris climate change agreement signed by 196 countries in December 2015 was hailed as a breakthrough for global climate mitigation, but as panellists at ITB pointed out, it will not come into effect until 2020, and global emission targets set for 2030 are actually higher than emissions registered today. Current global CO2 emissions are around 40 Gigatonnes per year, and are allowed to increase to 55 Gigatonnes per year by 2030 under the new agreement, in effect allowing things to get worse before they might get better.

Individuals feel responsible, but might not act

Taking a large sample of respondents in nine countries, Euromonitor International found that the majority of people tend to accept that they are responsible for changing their behaviour in an effort to mitigate their environmental impact, and that this acceptance has grown over time (with the exception of respondents in Germany).

Survey Respondents (%) Agreeing Individuals Have Responsibility to Tackle Climate Change: 2011/2015

individual <span class=TextHighLight>responsibility</span> CC

Source: Euromonitor International

Note: Russia was not included in the 2011 survey. For the 2011 survey, 15,933 people responded to the statement: “We, as individuals, must take responsibility for tackling climate change”. For the 2015 survey, 16,353 people responded to the statement: “I try to have a positive impact on the environment through my everyday actions”. Data represent % of respondents answering either “strongly agree” or “agree”.

But, while individuals feel responsible, this does not necessarily translate into action. A gap between attitudes and behaviour is well documented in ethical consumption literature. As early as 2000, Cowe and Williams talked about the 30:3 syndrome, with 30% of consumers claiming to be ethical consumers, but only 3% actually buying ethical products (Who are the ethical consumers?, report by the Cooperative Bank, UK). In their book, The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, Devinney, Auger and Eckhardt (2010, page 56) argue that the gap between people’s intentions, values and attitudes on the one hand, and actual behaviour on the other, is “something of a trademark for the lack of validity in [the] field” of ethical consumption research.

This is an important notion, especially for the tourism industry. The tourism industry deals with people trying to escape their mundane lives. While sustainable behaviour is becoming more prevalent in people’s day-to-day lives, this does not necessarily mean that these same actions and attitudes translate into people’s travel behaviour. “Getting away from it all” and “pampering oneself” are well-known mantras in the tourism industry, but too often this leads to a disregard for the negative natural, social and economic impacts tourists can have. Travel and tourism is often facilitated by one of the worst polluting transport modes, flying, and sees people visiting fragile natural and social environments not always able to facilitate the mass influx of tourists. Keeping your footprint low is becoming more important to individuals, but they tend to rely on the facilities and infrastructure available. Changing these facilities and infrastructure is therefore an important first step.

Euromonitor International’s opinion series on sustainability

Above discussion lays bare some important barriers to mitigating climate change, and paints a rather gloomy picture. There are, however, many players in the tourism industry which do take responsibility, and which do take action to help change the impact travel and tourism has on the social and natural environment. The aim of this sustainability series is to share and discuss what actions are undertaken and what barriers there are for tourism players, but also the benefits of working towards climate change mitigation. The first best-in-class example will discuss the unconventional but sustainable approach Loop Head Tourism in Ireland is taking towards tourism.

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