Copenhagen: What’s next

Was anything achieved at Copenhagen?

Yes and no. The build-up to December's UN climate change conference in Copenhagen saw a huge amount of hope and an equal amount of media coverage with speculation about what figures would be agreed and who would sign what. For the travel industry, there was concern over the possible introduction of carbon taxes as well as debate about the potential effects of climate change on the viability of tourist destinations around the world.

The summit started slowly but was studded with drama, including the arrival of US President Barack Obama, who seemed set to herald a leap forward in the negotiations. But, as the delegates packed their bags and paid their hotel bills, no overall agreement was reached. However, there was a so-called "accord" made, outlining a broad set of commitments, which even Obama said was "not enough".

Prevarication among the nations has also led to growing doubt over the ability of the UN to deliver global deals, bringing into question the process by which such important decisions are made and whether the UN is the right body to deliver them.

The 192 countries (and 115 heads of state) involved in the climate change talks were trying to balance political impact at home with global environmental impact, so something had to give. Every target has a financial correlation and, in a time of recession, it was always unlikely that the aspirations of scientists and green campaigners would be matched by the actions of participating nations.

However, there was agreement that global temperature rises should be limited to 2°C. This is broadly in line with the numbers mooted by the scientific community, yet many smaller nations had called for a further 0.5°C reduction. And without a binding set of carbon reduction targets, there is no telling how the increase will be kept below 2°C.

There was also a commitment to protect rainforests and to donate $100bn a year by 2020 to aid developing countries affected by climate change. And there was a hope that they would be able to commit to a legally binding agreement when COP16 convenes in Mexico later this year, but, as we have seen, nations such as the US and China still seem some way from agreeing carbon emission targets. At least both countries are now negotiating face-to-face on the subject.

"I think the most positive thing to come out of Copenhagen was the focus on the subject, and when you have focus you have discussion and that is the first step to getting a solution," says Faith Taylor, who as corporate vice-president of sustainability and innovation at Wyndham Worldwide attended the summit. "What I found being there is that a lot of countries and companies are not going to wait for that global agreement to be signed before they start. So it allowed those people who were there to have that discussion, even with the agreement in negotiation."

Dr Murray Simpson, co-director of CARIBSAVE, a programme that aims to find a sustainable solution to enhance the livelihoods, environments and economies of the Caribbean, agrees that there was some progress made at Copenhagen. "While the lack of a global deal was disappointing, there were glimmers of positivity in terms of potential transparency of measurement in the Annex 1 and developed world," he says. "Also there was empathy and a strong indication of financial commitment to small island states and developing countries, which could bode well for the tourism industry in those countries in the medium- and the long-term."

The main message would be "no change" as far as global regulation is concerned, but with more national and local targets being set, and the need to prepare for a binding global agreement, the industry needs to continue the momentum.

As Faith Taylor notes, it will pay to be an environmental innovator. "I think the consumer perception is different now and they make choices by doing their online research and reviews," she says. "People aren't waiting for a global policy to see what businesses are doing. I think what is happening is that those organisations that are moving forward are going to receive a leadership position in the market."

With no compulsion on measurement, reporting and verification for national carbon emissions, hotels may feel there is no justification for shifting to renewable energy. However, investing in green technologies now may make low-carbon initiatives more economically viable in the long term, especially with the relatively low costs of technology and labour in this downturn.

This is certainly the view of British green economist Lord Nicholas Stern, who is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy. He also believes that the introduction of renewable energy could lessen the impact of rising fuel costs during economic recovery.

Green business expert Dan Ilett, a founder of sustainability research company CleanAnalysis and editor of Greenbang.com, also believes that those who begin using renewable energy early will be at an advantage. Though he thinks that careful consideration is required, rather than simply adoption of any new technology that may be on offer.

"The real advantage in adopting clean tech comes when there's a business case, and in many cases that can be seen when the technology reduces any kind of waste, be it physical or service-based, like time," he says. "But, in essence, if you cut waste for now using proven technologies, you'll be ahead of most people. Looking to move to the 'whizz bang' immediately without having made your processes and capital as efficient as they can be, would in my opinion be leapfrogging all the important stuff. That is to say, this is more about how you think about it and approach it than what technologies you use," Ilett says.

National governments and city councils will still decide upon and apply national carbon reduction targets, if only for local quality of life and as a nod to green voters, but we will not see any sign of global agreement until COP16 at the earliest. This summit opens in late November and the lack of decisive action may further increase cynicism about the ability of the UN to broker any kind of binding agreement.

Meanwhile, the biggest impact of Copenhagen will be on energy conservation, says Brigitta Witt, who was present at the summit as vice-president for environmental affairs at Hyatt Hotels Corporation. "It will now be the focus of more and more governments, leading to a greater level of scrutiny and regulation," she says. "It will mean a change in the way we run our hotels and how we build them, and those that aren't efficient will become a liability."

It is clear that the hotel industry will need to defray possible criticism by increasingly using spending power to invest and adopt environmental schemes that help reduce the sector's carbon impact. One such scheme is the anti-deforestation REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) in the Amazon, in which companies, including hotel group Marriott Hotels & Resorts, and governments pay people not to destroy the rainforest.

"As part of our commitment to the high-value REDD projects, Marriott has made advocating aggressively for forest preservation a priority in the past year," explains Mari Snyder, vice-president for social responsibility and community engagement at Marriott. "It's a dynamic industry, one that is continually progressing its sustainability efforts; because it's a long journey to a greener future and we need to get there quickly."

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