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The CEO of the world’s biggest online travel company on how the hotel industry can get to net zero

December 9, 2021, 2:51 PM UTC
Glenn D. Fogel, CEO of Booking Holdings, speaking at a Bloomberg technology summit in 2018. The economic impact of COVID on the hotel industry “compounds the challenge of taking urgent action to address climate change,” Fogel writes.
Paul Miller—Bloomberg/Getty Images

In November, global leaders at the COP26 summit in Glasgow discussed the potential existential threat of climate change, and executives from the travel and tourism sector, like those of other global industries, committed to the goal of reaching net zero by 2050. 

We should all applaud this move. Prior to the pandemic, travel and tourism was one of the fastest growing sectors in the world economy, making up approximately 10% of the global GDP—yet producing 11% of global greenhouse gases in 2019. 

Despite the uncertainties of the ongoing pandemic and the latest Omicron variant, we must build a path to recovery with sustainability as a top priority. In particular, we need to support industry sectors, including lodging and accommodations, that promise immediate and measurable change. To further advance sustainability within hotels and other places to stay, we need to establish a transparent way to validate properties’ efforts in this area, and there need to be standards that encourage properties to progress on their own path to net zero.  

The industry needs ways to recognize properties that are making progress in sustainability. A recent study led by EY-Parthenon found that, while responsible for 10% of travel’s annual 264 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions, the lodging sector is poised to lead the industry in adopting planet-saving standards. In fact, EY-Parthenon estimates that a €768 billion ($867 billion) investment in the lodging sector over the next two decades would achieve net zero by the 2050 global goal.  

This goal is daunting but possible, and if we are serious about ensuring sustainability, these accommodations need our help.  

The hotel industry was hit particularly hard by the COVID pandemic, and we will continue to be impacted by Omicron and future developments with this virus. Many properties, particularly smaller ones, are struggling. Accommodations, especially small and independent properties, are not in a position to make large investments in the coming years of any kind, let alone sustainability investments that might require very long payback periods. This compounds the challenge of taking urgent action to address climate change, as many are simply not in the financial position to undertake certain actions.  

The sector also lacks relevant information about best practices, including data about the sustainability impact of specific measures, as well as financial and practical considerations that include the potential impact on the guest experience during implementation. Providing accommodations with tailored information and support can unlock this potential and tackle these challenges head on.  

In other industries, eco-labels such as construction’s LEED designation and manufacturing’s Energy Star provide vital guideposts for supporting responsible standards. For accommodations, existing certifications like Green Key have played a growing role in driving better practices by incentivizing eco-consciousness and informing customers about sustainable lodging options. However, for many properties the cost of certification itself can make the goal unreachable. 

Making real strides toward a sustainable future means enlisting everyone to the cause. It means creating sustainable travel standards that incentivize change while inspiring travelers and supporting communities. It means providing criteria that recognize the vast majority of planet-conscious properties, which are committed to sustainability, that simply lack the connections, resources, or funds to win themselves an elite green label. 

At Booking Holdings, we’ve chosen to address these barriers head on with our own Travel Sustainable badge, and we look forward to empowering our accommodation partners on their paths to host travelers sustainably.  

As we recognize in our own badge, there is no “one size fits all” solution on the path to net zero. Adoption and scaling of sustainable practices falls on a spectrum, one that warrants intermediate recognition for properties doing the work they are capable of now to be more sustainable. Those whose geographical limitations dictate a more incremental change, such as properties in corners of the world that lack access to renewable energy solutions, should not be overlooked by a limited, all-or-nothing measure of sustainability.  

The good news is that, as research shows us, many emissions reductions may actually lead to increased profitability. Some incremental measures can have a double dividend, cutting both emissions and operating costs. Far from superficial greenwashing, a clear, broad, industrywide standard for credibly measuring the impact of sustainability efforts would incorporate criteria already established by global environmental agencies—from eliminating single-use plastic toiletries to investing a certain percentage of profits into local community and conservation projects. 

By recognizing businesses for their ongoing efforts along the way, we can promote greater transparency within the industry that helps customers make more responsible choices. We can also recognize and encourage destinations making progress towards sustainability. A more graded standard that takes local realities into account makes sustainability an inclusive mission, allows information-sharing between different stakeholders, and enlists more businesses into the fold.  

As businesses across the globe shift their focus to operating more responsibly, customers expect everyone to act in the planet’s best interest. If we reserve environmental conscience for the select and privileged few, we are, as Voltaire once said, “making the perfect the enemy of the good.” A global movement demands a more inclusive vision of change and way for all participants to show the values they’ve embraced. The time to clarify this vision—to provide inclusive, locally relevant best-practice standards—is now.  

Glenn Fogel is the CEO of Booking Holdings and Booking.com.

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