15 December 2021

COP26: Irish tourism’s sustainability challenge

Such has been the devastation over the last 18 months, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, any talk of sustainability challenges for Ireland’s tourism industry understandably centre on commercial viability. However in tandem to this is the existential challenge of environmental sustainability that the world, Ireland and Irish tourism has no choice but to address. The United Nations summit last month in Glasgow, Cop26, articulated the enormous task that is facing mankind and highlighted the role Governments and business sectors must play. The Irish Government recently published its Climate Action Plan and within that individual industries must deliver concrete results if the collective aspirations of the Plan are to be attained. Ireland’s tourism industry will not be found wanting and is committed to moving to a more environmentally sustainable model. A new national tourism policy is expected from Government in the latter half of 2022 and in advance of that the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC) will bring tourism leaders together and publish a flagship report on how the industry is prepared to play its full part in meeting the sustainability challenge and maximising opportunities therein.


COP26 – the United Nations global climate summit in Glasgow last month– was billed as the “last, best hope” to save the planet. The outcome after two weeks of presentations, negotiations and protests has been greeted with mixed reviews. The positive reviews were based on new climate promises from heads of state and titans of industry which point to further momentum in addressing the climate issues with renewed ambitions and timelines. However, activists and protesters point to a lack of a concrete action plan and enforcement mechanisms.

Key takeaways from COP26

The overarching message from the event is that to date the world has done too little to tackle climate change and the time for action to address global warming is running out. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, reiterated the top priority as limiting the rise in global temperature to just 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The Glasgow pact defines specific steps for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by almost half by 2030 and reducing methane emissions, another potent greenhouse gas, with 2050 the target for achievement of zero emissions. Coming out of COP26 one thing is clear: momentum has changed gear with net zero commitments now the norm, an ambitious target for countries and businesses. Other commitments from the conference included the U.S. and China – the world’s two biggest polluters-jointly agreeing to cut emissions this decade; leaders of over 100 countries, accounting for 85% of the world’s forests, agreeing to end deforestation by 2030; while more than 100 countries committed to cutting methane emissions by 30% by the end of the decade. In addition the negotiators addressed the complex and technical issue of carbon offsets with a proposal on how to regulate this growing global market.

However, how countries and business sectors will move from pledges and commitments to clear detailed plans is as yet unclear, as is how to meet the challenge of financing the transition while mitigating the consequential risks to price volatility. Amongst the issues the final agreement failed to address were a commitment to the reduction of output by fossil fuel producing countries and how developing nations can be financially supported to transition to cleaner energy and coping with extreme weather disasters caused by global warming.

COP26 closed with calls for countries to return next year with stronger emissions-reduction targets and promised to double the money available to help nations cope with the effects of global warming. Countries facing the biggest challenge to more speedily address emissions are principally the U.S., China, Russian, India, Brazil and Britain.

Climate change and the global travel and tourism industry

Sustainability has become an unavoidable topic and rising priority for the future of the travel and tourism sector.

Ireland is crucially dependent on aviation to deliver foreign visitors who in pre-pandemic years arrived on air services and accounted for the bulk of foreign earnings. Increasingly businesses and the growth in employment in the sector have been driven by arrivals of higher spending visitors from source markets with no alternative travel options to Ireland other than flying.

While the carbon footprint of travel and tourism is not particularly well quantified, best estimates suggest it accounts for approximately 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions through transportation, construction, food, accommodations and shopping. [Nature Climate Change 2018]. Unsurprisingly, the sector’s footprint is highest in developed economies by high spending visitors in the top global origin and destination tourism countries. Over recent decades the rapid growth in global tourism demand has outpaced the move towards decarbonisation. Continued growth in travel and tourism demand and its relatively high carbon intensity could see the sector accounting for an increasing share of global greenhouse gas emissions globally and in Ireland.

COP26 and Aviation

The 10th day of the event focused on transportation with inevitably a sharp focus on aviation. This provided a platform for IATA to confirm its commitment of net zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement, which has been endorsed by most airlines around the world.

Aviation contribution to climate change is most frequently measured by way of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burn in aircraft engines. Research suggests that aviation probably accounts for in the region of 2.5% to 2.8% of global carbon dioxide emissions [Our World Data / International Energy Agency].

Despite significant investment and progress on aircraft technologies, the development of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and improved management of airspace, how aviation will reach its zero emissions target is far from clear. Much short term confidence is placed on SAF, which is currently more expensive than fossil based jet fuel, while longer term expectations fall on new technologies to bridge the gap. The investment to scale up SAF is challenging with, as yet, no clear pathway involving the key stakeholders and who pays– governments, aviation companies and major oil producers. The immediate future is uncertain as airlines grapple with financial losses, increased debt burdens, and rising cost of fuel. Assuming a robust post pandemic recovery of demand for travel the dilemma is how the sector can reduce its carbon footprint through technological developments at a pace that will outstrip the rate of growth in airline travel.

Specific outcomes from COP26 include twenty airlines signing up to switch 30% of flights under 1,500km to electric, hydrogen and hybrid aircraft. [World Economic Forum’s Target True Zero Initiative], with a greater push to see the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) champion its ambitious targets through a mixture of improved efficiency, offset credits, and the use of blended SAF with regular jet fuel.

It is evident that the ramp up of SAF and the development of engine technology to deliver zero emissions aircraft is work in progress with years of effort ahead to deliver on the targets.

Some current initiatives by airlines serving Ireland include:

Aer Lingus’ parent IAG has committed to invest $400m in sustainable aviation fuels over the next 20 years and is the first European airline group to commit to powering 10% of its flights by SAF by 2030.

Meanwhile Aer Lingus has introduced more fuel efficient A321Neo aircraft on its transatlantic network.

Ryanair is taking delivery of a firm order for 210 Boeing 737-8200 aircraft, an investment valued at over $22bn delivering a 16% fuel reduction per seat and upwards of a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions. In addition, the airline is introducing electric gound-handling vehicles at 11 airports across Europe, which will deliver zero emission turnarounds at eight Spanish airports saving 1,000 tons of CO2 a year.

Aside from carriers there is a significant onus on tourism industry stakeholders, from accommodation providers to attractions and experiences and on the ground transport providers, to play their part and ITIC will bring together all parties when publishing its tourism industry sustainability commitments next year.

Ireland’s Climate Action Plan 2021

While many tourism and hospitality businesses have over recent years improved their energy efficiency, focused on securing more local inputs, and have taken advantage of technological developments to reduce their carbon footprint, 2021 has been a year of marked policy and legislative progress in shaping Ireland’s climate action response.

The Climate Action Plan 2021, published in November as COP 26 concluded, provides a detailed plan for taking decisive action to achieve a 51% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and setting Ireland on a path to reach net-zero emissions by no later than 2050, as committed to in the Programme for Government and set out in the Climate Act 2021. The €125bn plan lists the actions needed to deliver on the climate targets and sets indicative ranges of emissions reductions for each sector of the economy. It will be updated annually, including in 2022, to ensure alignment with our legally binding economy-wide carbon budgets and sectoral ceilings. The first two 5-year carbon budgets (2021-2025) require an average annual cut of 4.8% in emissions, increasing to an annual 8.3% cut over the period 2026-2030.

Detailed targets by enterprise sector have yet to be published but will undoubtedly prove challenging for the broad tourism sector. While few disagree with the need for change and ambitious targets the debate has only begun with many questions yet to be answered. What is the role of Government and businesses? What level of reduction of carbon footprint is meaningful? How will tourists adapt? Who pays?

The critical shift in thinking and approach that emerged from COP26 is that while there is a general acceptance that there is an urgent need to address climate the solution will require a public private partnership with shared responsibilities. The challenges are many with transport and tourism already facing an uphill recovery from the pandemic.

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