COP-15: Collaborate or collapse?
In late December, the tour and travel industry stood in unity and presented well at the Copenhagen Climate Summit -- a windswept, chilly and tense "final decision day" for the 15th annual Conference of Parties (COP). For me and for others who attended, it was surely one of the most significant events of our careers. In fact, I felt a similar feeling years ago in New York City when the industry gathered after Sept. 11. This was different.
More than 155 heads of state, entourages and legal negotiators created an unprecedented event at the Bella Center, ongoing for several days since Dec. 7. My first view, touching down at Copenhagen Airport, was of endless presidential, state and military airplanes lined up in row upon row at the frigid airfield.
Just imagine, every world leader being in the same city! Many delegates stayed outside Copenhagen, some in Sweden. Military tents were used for passport and registration clearance, with long lines and snowy conditions. More than 45,000 were registered. Press articles described the event as somewhat unwieldy for the Danes, not surprising for those of us who attend very large conventions. I felt an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm and hope for what the next day might bring, and I saw no signs of protest. Frustration, yes. Discouragement, yes. But lack of hope, no.
Travel was approved for a side event that would be jointly led by Jean-Claude Baumgarten of World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and Talib Rafai of World Tourism Organization (WTO). About 40 travel leaders and environmental officers joined and several presented impressive positions on the challenge. It was a serious program of strategic, professional climate crisis plans, investments, cooperation and urgency related from individual companies, united together under WTTC and UNWTO. The climate challenge and its related effects were described as "the largest challenge this industry will likely face for the next 40 years."
Currently, travel and tourism accounts for only 5 percent of global emissions, yet is a visible, responsible and ethical industry, the largest industry in the world. There is a bold plan to address this, entitled Leading the Challenge on Climate Change (www.wttc.org), and both the UNWTO and WTTC have been addressing the challenges along with the UN Millennium Goals for a few years now with past and present CEOs and owners of sector companies.
Coincidentally, the day we arrived, Pres. Barack Obama and the U.S. delegation had just arrived, which created swirl, buzz and optimism. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had just made front page news with U.S. pledge of $100 billion annually by 2020 (and 17 percent reductions on 2005 levels by 2020) contingent upon transparency and public, private and multilateral funding. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered a compelling argument that 80 percent of reductions must occur at local and regional levels. But the G77 (developing nations) put forth concurrent strong requests to China and the U.S. to step up immediately. Former Vice President Al Gore advocated for an interim agreement meeting in July in Mexico as opposed to year's end. The place was emotionally charged.
Deadlines looming, thousands of negotiators hunkered down with legal teams and the Danes decided suddenly, to relocate all side events to prioritize governmental work. At our event, I can proudly say that global leaders of diverse sectors of travel were speaking with one voice about our common goal -- to protect our planet, to support our leaders and to comply with the urgency to reduce emissions, create innovative solutions and to work together on advocacy, education and cooperation.
Jonathan Counsell, head of environment for British Airways, emotionally pledged for the airlines priority compliance and innovative, strategic focus. He spoke about both the challenges of airline emissions at 2 percent of global CO2 (which will grow to 3--5 percent by 2050 if not addressed) and of the impressive efficiencies gained over the past four decades. His three key operational priorities are: fly shorter, fly smarter and fly lighter ... and of course, keep flying. Issues addressed included Next Gen airport infrastructure and ATC, biofuel testing, global caps and taxes and voluntary offsets. The new Boeing 787 carbon fiber hull is 22 percent lighter; in testing for year-end delivery in 2010 and has more than 825 orders.
Next, as the hotel, destination and tourism service sectors continued and the press concluded its Q&A, the WTO spoke to the positive power of travel. As many know, the economic advantages of tourism are measurably contributing to unprecedented positive levels of 2015 UN Millennium Goals such as eradicating poverty and providing economic development and prosperity to SME's and gender equality to women.
According to WTO, 50 of the least developed countries now name tourism as their No. 1 or number two source of foreign income, more than ever before in world history. Billions of dollars are directly sourced to poorer nations, island nations and UNESCO world heritage sites and biospheres by the United States. Travel companies and our guests hold tremendous promise for providing economic and social development and cross cultural understanding.
At the same time, Americans are the world's highest carbon emitters, averaging 20 metric tons per individual, which is off the charts, higher per capita than any other nation. Frequent travelers may be 40 or 50 metric tons annually -- and we all have many options available today to count carbs, reduce and offset -- as an individual, a family, a company or a community. I have done so for more than three years. It's easy and does contribute.
As the December Copenhagen skies grew dark at 4 p.m., word spread on every LCD screen at every turn that global leaders -- UK, USA, China and many more -- would stay through the night and as long as it would take to come to a resolve. We flew home, more contemplative, yet knowing we all have a price to pay and a new and a most worthy goal to achieve. As the New Year and New Decade of Change rings in, I feel awed by the immensity of the challenges we face, yet inspired by the hard work of a new generation.
Robin Tauck is Weston/Westport resident and a family owner and past president/CEO of Tauck World Discovery. To comment, refer to the blog at www.robintauck.com/blog.