Press release

Self-regulation and technology alone can’t solve the travel industry’s emission challenge

Published on
July 9, 2018

The travel industry is looking for ways to reduce CO2 emissions from its activities. For this purpose, among other things, the Carbon Management Calculator has been developed. However, Wageningen University research shows that this is not the definitive solution. "Technological innovation alone is not enough. Self-regulation alone will not ensure that the CO2 emissions of the travel sector will decrease," says PhD student Harald Buijtendijk of the Cultural Geography chair group at Wageningen University.

Researchers at Wageningen University & Research have developed a new approach that helps scientists and policymakers better understand eco-innovation processes The approach offers an easy-to-use framework of fit-for-purpose analytical questions. The advantage of the new approach is that it opens up new ways to enrol eco-friendly products and technologies in mainstream business practices and create consumer acceptance.

Eco-innovation is considered an important driver of sustainability transitions. However, it takes more than technological invention; eco-innovation trajectories are successful when they change mainstream production and consumption practices. The researchers learned this when they tested their approach in a study of a specific industry-led eco-innovation process: the development of CARMACAL, a web-based Carbon Management Calculator for the Dutch travel industry. Structural emission reductions are crucial for sustainability transitions in this sector.

Yet, with 6.8 million holidays involving air travel in 2016, the Dutch travel industry relies heavily on aviation. Also, political inertia complicates the formulation of effective tourism-related climate policies. The study was published in the scientific journal Journal of Sustainable Tourism. The study offers important contributions to present public debates about the role of the travel industry in airline industry growth, airport construction and expansion plans in the Netherlands and beyond, and the impacts of tourism on the quality of life.
The study explains why an eco-innovation like CARMACAL, which was developed in the protected space of a subsidised project between 2013 and 2015, has since failed to change established tour operator routines. Harald Buijtendijk: “Technological invention in itself is not enough. Our study of CARMACAL shows how this new technology confused tour operators: it confronted them with unpleasant choices that touched the fundamentals of their business.”

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The study shows how CARMACAL helped tour operators identify different carbon management practices that have opposing implications for socio-economic and environmental sustainability. The practices triggering most industry support, like carbon offsetting and carbon labelling, are least effective in addressing tourism’s climate impact and vice versa. According to Buijtendijk, this shows the travel industry has reached the limits of what it is capable of when it comes to taking voluntary responsibility for its own climate impact: “The saga that Corporate Social Responsibility measures, or, voluntary action before the law, enable businesses like tour operators to tackle climate change must stop. Buijtendijk stresses effective government intervention is urgently needed. “Self-regulation alone is not going to curb tourism-related emissions.” The researchers points out that new technologies like CARMACAL are more effective when they are part of a concerted policy effort.

Their study calls for a comprehensive policy mix that favours the integrated production and consumption of green technologies. Buijtendijk: “Tour operators exploit generic assets and operate under uncertain climate policies. Transition research shows that, under these conditions, businesses tend to protect established practices rather than stimulate consumer acceptance of new technologies”. The researchers therefore recommend concrete policy measures that strengthen the contribution of eco-innovations like CARMACAL to sustainability transitions. Government-funded innovation programs should strongly link technological invention to tangible market experiments. Buijtendijk: “A technology like CARMACAL invites people to design creative new travel products and services. To do that effectively, innovation projects should blend technological and commercial expertise, and actively involve consumers as end-users from the start.” To make this possible, government funded innovation programs may be more successful when they emphasise the importance of shared learning, stimulate experimentation and replication, and articulate supportive institutional requirements, alongside technological achievement.