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Was COP26 a COPout?

It’s unlikely you’ve made it through the last few weeks without hearing about the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference – otherwise known as COP26. As world leaders gathered to discuss climate action plans, and emission reduction strategies, the tourism industry had its moment in the spotlight; addressing the ever-increasing need to make the sector more sustainable.

Before Covid-19 hit, the tourism industry accounted for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet at the same time it contributed $9.2trillion to the global economy – that’s more than 10% of total GDP. While the need to return to international travel has never been greater, a balance must be reached so that the planet does not suffer, for the benefit of profit.

So, what was COP26 all about?

COP26 (the 26th ‘Conference of the Parties’) was one of the world’s most important international conferences, designed to bring nations together, to negotiate and decide on the most effective ways to tackle climate change.

Why was it important for the travel industry?

Sustainable travel is no longer a niche branch of the sector, but a global need if we’re to continue seeing the world – and having a world to see! The conference provided a platform for governments, the aviation industry, and travel companies to put forward solutions to an ever-growing problem.

Is this linked to the Paris Agreement?

Yes! The Paris Agreement was formed in 2015 at COP21 in Paris. This legally binding treaty was signed by 192 countries, all of whom committed to reducing global greenhouse gasses and temperature increases. Part of this was the introduction of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals – you can read about how our expeditions support these, here.

However, much of COP26 was about outlining new targets because the ones set in 2015 aren’t enough to keep the planet within 1.5 degrees of warming. What’s more, poorer countries who are already feeling the effects of climate change the most, are the ones really suffering as they need financial support to help them tackle the impacts and reduce emissions.

So, what happened?

Joe Biden had a nap, Boris Johnson failed to wear a mask while sat next to national treasure, Sir David Attenborough, and more than 180 carbon-emitting flights were taken to a conference, about well, reducing carbon emissions…

All that aside, there was some good to come out of the event – particularly for travel and tourism, where the demand for industry-wide collaboration in the fight against climate change was recognised through several new initiatives.

International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition

The UK and US were amongst the 21 countries that joined the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition at COP26. Which means they are committing to supporting aviation emissions reduction, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), and new aircraft technologies. Sounds great, right? Well, maybe not so great, as it relies heavily on the often-criticised offsetting programme of the ICAO, which has been condemned for detracting from the real issue, in that countries should be going further – and sooner; not pushing the responsibility onto someone else.

The fact the UK are leading on this coalition is also jarring given that just days before COP26, Rishi Sunak announced a move to cut domestic flight taxes – making short-haul, internal flights even cheaper. This, coupled with a freeze on fuel duty, and no tax break for the rail industry, means that flying and driving personal transport is more affordable than lower-carbon public transport alternatives. Yes, really.

Youth Leading the Way

While it might feel as though world leaders are a few steps behind, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. A European non-profit, Youth for Sustainable Travel (YfST) ran a campaign to raise awareness about the issues facing the travel industry. For COP26, the campaign launched was Rail to the COP.

Their vision is simple, to live in a world where travel is always meaningful and does not cause harm to travellers, ecosystems, or communities. As part of the Rail to Cop campaign, YfST launched the Climate Train, and invited politicians, civil servants, and youth activists to engage in meaningful conversations about the industry and the need for a more sustainable future.

Here at Outlook, we’re really on-board (if you’ll excuse the rail pun) YfST’s vision and are developing new products and adapting our itineraries to ensure we are always providing our teams with the most appropriate form of transport, reducing our need to fly wherever possible.

The Glasgow Agreement

The travel industry came together in a big way at COP26, with the launch of the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism. Knowing how vulnerable the sector is to the effects of climate change, while also being huge part of the carbon emissions problem, the declaration was launched as a catalyst to increase urgency across the travel industry about the need to accelerate climate action.

Drafted by UNWTO, UNEP, VisitScotland, Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency and the Travel Foundation, the declaration now has hundreds of signatories, and we’re proud to be amongst them as launch partners of the declaration. Like us, all signatories are committing to five key pathways:

Measure and disclose all travel and tourism-related emissions

Decarbonise by setting and delivering on targets aligned with climate science

Regenerate, restore and protect ecosystems

Collaborate with stakeholders to ensure plans are as effective and co-ordinated as possible

Finance sufficiently to meet objectives set out in our climate action plan

We’re so proud to be part of this movement, understanding the need to work together in tackling climate change, to ensure the industry we love, and is so important to billions of people around the world, is only ever a force for good.

Did COP26 work?

Well, that depends on who you ask. Undoubtedly, positive conversations were had, awareness was raised, and commitments were made. However, it’s too early to know if the event can be deemed a success because the pledges made and targets set are not legally binding – in other words, if they aren’t met there are literally no legal consequences, and no one would be held accountable. There is a general feeling amongst observers that COP26 was steeped in too much compromise and vague action plans at a time where immediate, significant change is needed.

However, despite world leaders watering down their commitments at the last minute, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, conceded that COP26 did provide “building blocks for progress” in key sectors including; fossil fuels, deforestation, and transport. COP26 may not have done enough, but if we can consolidate the positive energy generated by the platform, it puts us on the right road as we head towards COP27 in Egypt next year.

How will Outlook Expeditions get involved?

We believe the travel industry should and must be a part of the fight against climate change and so we have declared a climate emergency and are committed to reducing our emissions, both as an organisation and on our expeditions. We’re also pledging to educate our teams to help raise the next generation of socially responsible, global citizens; and are constantly learning, reviewing, and adapting, to ensure our expeditions are transformative experiences; for our teams, the communities they visit, and the planet.

Follow our journey and keep up with our latest developments here.

Written by
Francesca Gallone