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Sink or swim, what Copenhagen means for the industry

The 15th "Conference of the Parties" (COP15), which takes place 7-18 December, is being posited as the most important meeting of its kind since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, and by some as the most important meeting ever

Attended by heads of state and environment ministers from around the world, delegates are expected to call on the developed world to do much more to cut carbon emissions and provide financial help to developing nations already affected by climate change.

Scientists mostly agree that warming needs to be kept below 2°C, with a strong consensus that, to achieve this, emissions have to be cut by 25%-40% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, and by 80% before 2050.

What countries are willing to commit to varies wildly, with the UK aiming for a reduction of 34% by this time, Japan 25% and the US around 4%. China has issued its first figures, saying it will reduce its carbon intensity by 40%-45% (from 2005 levels only) by 2020.

Politics with numbers is very much part of the process. And given the scientific consensus, the tourism industry has to be asking itself what a cut in emissions across the sector of 40% by 2020 would mean in practice.

What is at stake at Copenhagen? The future of the planet. Consensus has it that carbon emissions need to drop faster than previously thought yet there is disagreement about how to move forward, with emerging economies such as China rapidly increasing emissions, sometimes in order to export to the most developed economies.

The disagreement between nations on where cuts should be made means that China and the US have stated that there is now no time for a legally binding deal to be struck at Copenhagen. National and local initiatives may have to be the immediate way forward, with business taking a lead through schemes such as the one set up by Marriott International to stop deforestation.

“We've been very active in protecting endangered rainforests and have endorsed tropical forest preservation language contained in House-passed legislation in the United States,” says Mari Snyder, Marriott’s vice president for social responsibility and community engagement, who will be attending the Copenhagen talks alongside the International Tourism Partnership and the World Travel and Tourism Council. “We are pleased to be working with a wide range of partners to ensure the world's tropical forests are included in a final climate bill,” adds Mari. “We will be working alongside many of these partners at the conference and events conveying this commitment in Copenhagen.”

“The fact that nobody now expects to see a legally-binding agreement at Copenhagen is no reason for the hospitality industry to relax its numerous efforts to reduce emissions and consumption,” argues Stephen Farrant, Director of the International Tourism Partnership. “There remains an urgent need to achieve solid global agreement, not least for the sake of vulnerable communities who are least able to deal with the consequences of further climate change.

“Furthermore, there may now exist an opportunity for the private sector to demonstrate clearly the part it can play in helping to deliver against the new political framework which, hopefully, will emerge from the talks this month. And, in any case, regardless of the political process, the more enlightened businesses are already showing real leadership in this area; in the future, customers and shareholders will be expecting nothing less.

The importance of the Copenhagen talks for the travel industry as a whole were highlighted at November’s World Travel Market in London by its chairman Fiona Jeffery. She also spoke of the challenges to come, noting how some in the sector were dealing with the need to reduce carbon emissions amid the growing consensus that carbon offsetting is more sop than solution. “We should, for example, look to what’s already happening in other sectors and other industries,” she said. “Some hotels are monitoring and reporting on carbon efficiency of rooms. It’s a neat solution providing consumer choice but also importantly ensures energy control by the hotel.”

Speaking ahead of the Copenhagen conference, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachauri called for an urgent new value system of “sustainable consumption”. He has recently suggested measures such as ensuring hotel guests are made more responsible for their energy use. “I don’t see why you couldn’t have a meter in the room to register your energy consumption, from air-conditioning or heating, and you should be charged for that,” he said. “By bringing about changes of this kind, you could ensure that people start becoming accountable for their actions.”

While Pat Maher, consultant to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, thinks the talks at Copenhagen may not have a direct impact on the hospitality industry, he recognises that it will have a trickle-down effect, “that will influence everyone, including hotels. We see this as an important step on the road map to a meaningful global action to stop the climate change crisis. It will reinforce our members’ commitment to their green initiatives.”

Ufi Ibrahim of the World Travel and Tourism Council believes that cutting the cost of new technologies is key. But she is concerned that the lack of a firm deal could spell problems for travel, tourism and the environment. “There needs to be some level of harmonisation across the world and if governments are allowed to operate stand-alone policies it makes it very difficult for a global industry like ours,” she says. “Governments left to their own whims could make decisions on a political basis rather than based on science or the needs of the planet moving forward, and that is quite a frightening prospect.”

With the prospect of any binding overall agreement at Copenhagen looking uncertain at best, there is a sense that Ibrahim’s fears over lack of harmonisation could be realised, especially during this period of economic recession. Time will tell whether this is the case, as well as what will be agreed, but indecision is unlikely to help either the tourism sector or the planet in the long run.