The extreme heat waves this summer have kept the challenge of climate change at the top of everyone’s mind. Making the transition to a zero-carbon, sustainable economy means making different choices wherever consumers go and the idea of sustainable tourism has gained momentum in recent years.
Choosing a sustainable travel option is tricky
However there are plenty of barriers to identifying and choosing a sustainable holiday option. For a start, can something as carbon intensive as travelling by road, air or sea currently make a claim to be a green journey given the low use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and a nascent electric vehicle network in Europe? The existing tourism model does not lend itself to low resource use. Package holidays and hotel accommodation are designed to make efficiencies by serving thousands of people at once and use huge amounts of energy and water, generate waste and can degrade local biodiversity like beaches or forests.
Air travel: green fuels and greenwashing
These challenges have not stopped some in the travel sector from making baseless claims about their green credentials. In 2020, budget airline Ryanair billed itself as having “the lowest carbon emissions of any major airline" and later said that "the single most important thing any customer can do to halve their carbon footprint is switch to Ryanair."
The UK advertising standards watchdog found these claims to be unsubstantiated and banned the ads. They continued to be shown in other countries in Europe despite complaints, demonstrating the challenge of enforcing green claims across borders.
Aviation is one of the fastest growing sectors in terms of CO2 emissions over the past decade, and progress on reducing carbon is urgently needed. Some headway has been made recently in developing cleaner aviation fuel. Sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs have a higher proportion of bio-based fuels or synthetic biofuels. These are critical as options like hydrogen based fuel or electrification of the air transport sector is a long way off.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel Targets
Activity is now focused on making fossil-fuel based fuel more sustainable with a mix of bio-based fuels primarily from feedstock and waste. Perceived as a key tool for meeting net zero targets in aviation, SAFs currently make up only 0.05% of EU aviation fuel. The market received a boost with a new ReFuelEU Aviation Plan with a target that SAFs should make up 4 to 8% of the jet fuel used by 2030, and around 63 - 68 % of all aviation fuel in Europe by 2050.
The UK had a more ambitious early target, calling for SAFs to make up 10% of aviation fuel by 2030. This may be helped by them adopting a looser definition of a clean SAF than the EU. Once airlines can demonstrate they are meeting or exceeding these targets, it will be much easier for consumers to trust their claims, unlike in the case of Ryanair which was based on a methodology and figures that they had created themselves. Where information is trustworthy, backed up by a clear criteria and subject to independent oversight, it has real value in consumer decision making.
Ecolabels for sustainable accommodation
When it comes to choosing a place to stay, eco-labels, trust marks or environmental labels can be a beneficial tool for consumers. Sustainability labelling has been around for a long time on food, clothes, devices and appliances but has grown in importance and reach as attention around climate change grows and companies look to cash in on their ‘green’ credentials. There’s over 450 environmental labels in use across the world, many of which are self-declared and unverified and use broad terms such as ‘planet friendly’ which mean very little.
For consumer-facing environmental labels to be useful and help drive up quality and ambition in the market, they need to adhere to strict, independent and publicly available criteria which is regularly reviewed to make sure it is meeting best practice and be assessed by an independent third party. There is room in the marketplace for different sustainability or environmental labels, however they should all demonstrate that they are robust and ambitious and are not used for ‘greenwashing’.
One example of an environmental label with strong backing is the EU Ecolabel which has expanded into tourist accommodation. This is a good example of how ecolabels can help guide consumers into more sustainable tourism and push providers to improve their offer. Places like hotels, campsites and B&Bs are licensed to use the ecolabel if they meet the strict criteria, and are regularly audited by independent inspectors. The kind of criteria that hotels or campsites must meet include:
50% or 100% of hotels energy comes from renewable sources, depending on local availability
Promotion of public transport, electric vehicles, car sharing or bicycles for getting around the area
At least two local and seasonal food products served per meal, with local food sourced from within a 160km radius
A ban on complementary toiletries and single-use plastic packaging
All sheets, towels and floors cleaned with eco-friendly detergents.
Travelling can be a resource intensive business, but stricter targets on clean aviation fuels and robust information schemes offer some routes to a more sustainable mode of tourism in the future that is Approved by Tomorrow.