Five climate lessons from 21 years in travel

Responsible Travel’s co-founder and CEO Justin Francis on what he’s learned, and the importance of daring to fail...

This month marks Responsible Travel’s 21st year. In many ways tourism is much altered since 2001. In many important ways it has yet to change enough. So how can we do better? Here are some thoughts…

1. Never be afraid to make a U-turn

Aeroplane taking off

As a start-up in 2001, we were early adopters of carbon offsets.

We bought into their appealing myth that a few pounds extra could cancel out flight emissions.

They were our first mistake. By 2009, following talks with Friends of the Earth and other campaign groups, we’d scrapped them.

We can’t offset our way out of the climate crisis. We have to fly less.

No holiday with a flight is ‘carbon negative’ or neutral. Claims to the contrary are irresponsible marketing; a convenient way to pass the buck and justify business as usual and unsustainable growth.

Carbon reduction is our only solution, and business must shoulder its share of responsibility.

For more than a decade now, we’ve advised customers to fly less. If you’re going to fly, make it count – stay for longer and travel with a responsible operator. Take short breaks by rail or explore somewhere close to home.

‘Offsets are better than nothing’ goes the argument. They don’t cancel out the impacts of a flight. Yes we need to invest more in reforesting and other green initiatives – and tourism has an important role to play in that. But we need this in addition to – not in place of – real carbon reduction today.

Offsets weren’t our last mistake. We changed our minds too on orphanage volunteering, elephant rides, zoos and other issues.

We’re far from perfect and constantly learning. There will be other ways we fall short. But to improve as companies, we have to be able to admit our mistakes. The hope, in taking that step, is that it can inspire others to follow suit. Only then is real change possible.

2. The climate crisis demands we dare to fail

Vegetarian food

Failing isn’t the worst thing we can do. Failing to act is surely worse.

There’s no place for timid half-measures in a climate crisis. Ambition is paramount, even if we’re not entirely sure at first how we’ll achieve our aims.

In 2020 we committed to a 55% reduction in CO2 per traveller by 2030, without the use of carbon offsetting.

Not easy when factoring in such a complex supply chain.

But I do believe it’s reasonable for travel companies to take some responsibility for their supply chain emissions – including aviation.

Responsible Travel has no control over the airlines. We don’t even book flights. But still, there are things we can do.

We can work to increase our flight-free offering, rail and domestic holidays. We can be honest with our travel community about the impact of their flights, and the need to take fewer of them. We can work with our 400 tour partners to scrap unnecessary internal flights. We can continue our government advocacy work for crucial system change.

And we can work with our suppliers to reduce carbon in other ways – increasing the number of renewably-powered accommodations, of local-sourced, Vegan dishes and the use of electric vehicles.

Is it perfect? No. It’s a work in progress. Is it achievable? I believe so.

But I do know we can’t wait for perfection. So we aim high, learn as we go and keep pressing forward.

3. The forgotten link: there’s no climate solution without nature

Mangroves in the Mida Creek

Back in 2001, talk of climate change centred solely on greenhouse gases.

Fast-forward 21 years, and Co2 still, by-and-large, takes centre stage.

Which is understandable. To meet the Paris Agreement targets and limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C, we need to radically reduce carbon emissions. That includes switching to clean energy and flying less.

But the narrative needs broadening.

Great then, that this year’s Earth Day is doing just that – with a focus on nature’s role in combating global heating.

Nature is our carbon sink. Soil, grasslands, mangroves, forests and oceans absorb up to half our manmade carbon emissions. But factors including destructive land use, pollution, over exploitation of resources and climate heating have put biodiversity into steep decline. A million species are at risk of extinction.

Without addressing this staggering loss life-sustaining habitats, we don’t stand a chance of reaching our global climate goals.

The global target is to protect and restore 30% of all land and oceans by 2030. I believe it should be 50%.

It’s a bold but achievable aim. We must keep nature restoration high on the global agenda. As a company we’ve committed to becoming nature positive this decade. And it’s exciting to see more and more businesses – within tourism and across industries – pledging to do likewise.

4. Nature positive travel: leaving more than footprints

Nature positive map

Treading lightly isn’t enough.

On founding Responsible Travel, our goal was to encourage exploration of the planet in a way that not only minimised harm, but maximised good. We knew firsthand that when tourism worked for local communities, travellers enjoyed a far richer, more enjoyable holiday.

At the time, our focus largely centred on how tourism could directly benefit local communities, and on how to reduce its carbon impact.

In more recent years, we’ve come to appreciate the enormous potential of tourism to help protect and restore nature too.

In partnership with local people, our industry is perfectly placed to create local revenue and jobs while funding vital rewilding and conservation work.

It isn’t a new idea. I’ve seen just such projects take root across two decades, from North Devon to Kenya’s Masai Mara, led by our own partners, with great success.

But now demand for nature-based holidays is rising. And with a responsible approach, that can only be a good thing.

Wildlife holidays and rewilding projects make natural partners. Increased habitat means more wildlife, more happy visitors and local benefits.

From community tourism projects in the Congo to reforesting UK native woodland, holidays can actively help to save the places – and wildlife – we can’t afford to lose. Find out more in our nature positive living map.

5. The big issues: If we fail to prioritise, we fail all

Walking with the Maasai

We’ve always been an activist company.

From the outset we worked to drive positive change in the industry – and ruffled more than a few feathers doing so.

I’m proud of the work we’ve led across so many important issues.

But I believe more than ever that two issues matter above all: reducing carbon emissions and protecting and restoring nature. Because unless we solve these, nothing else is possible.

So last year we resolved to focus our resources on these two core challenges, approaching both through the lens of diversity and inclusivity; topics that weren’t talked about in travel 20 years ago.

To quote the Intersectional Environmentalist, ‘The earth and its ecosystems thrive on diversity, and so does climate action.’

No more business as usual

Twenty-one years ago, the term ‘Responsible Travel’ was unheard of. People thought we were mad to name our business such a thing.

Now try googling it.

Job done, then? Not even close.

I still profoundly believe in the power of tourism to do good. That travel holds immense value for individuals, communities and for nature.

But there’s no place in a climate crisis for business as usual. We need tighter regulations to coax those more reluctant to adapt - on carbon and nature, and to protect communities. A fair and global standard, without the loopholes.

If nothing else, it makes good business sense. If you won’t change for the planet, do it for your profit margin. As with the meat-free movement, widespread change to tourism will be consumer-led. Businesses will adapt because their travellers will insist on it.

If tourism is to survive, we need to be honest about its impacts – and to contribute to building a lower carbon, nature-positive and more inclusive future.

After all, there’s no travel without a planet to explore.

Written by Justin Francis