Three Steps to Decarbonize Your Hotel

Gone are the days when hotels could simply put up signs encouraging guests to reuse their towels and then call themselves “green.” As travelers become more aware of the environmental impacts of their actions, they are increasingly choosing brands that adopt eco-friendly practices. With climate change at the forefront of the global sustainability agenda, a growing number of tourism businesses are taking concrete steps to become carbon neutral.

This article provides a roadmap for reducing your hotel’s carbon footprint. We’ve broken it down into three main steps: 1. reduce reliance on fossil fuels, 2. protect forests and blue carbon ecosystems, and 3. Support innovative climate solutions that scale.

Step 1. Reduce reliance on fossil fuels

Hotels consume energy for lighting, heating, cooling, cooking, refrigeration, and other end-uses. When this energy comes from fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal it can add up to a massive carbon footprint. To identify which of your operational activities are the most carbon-intensive, you can conduct a carbon footprint assessment. Once you’ve done this, you’ll have a better idea of the greatest opportunities to reduce your carbon footprint. 

Switch to renewable energy sources

The most effective way for hotels to reduce their carbon footprint is by transitioning to renewable energy sources which produce significantly less emissions than fossil fuels. In addition to mitigating climate change, switching to renewables can result in long-term cost savings.

There are a few different types of renewable energy sources that hotels can use. The first thing to consider is whether or not there is already renewable energy infrastructure in the region where your hotel is located. If so, you may be able to purchase clean energy from a local power provider. In many places, the infrastructure either does not exist or is insufficient to meet local needs. When this is the case, hotels can help lead the way by installing their own on-site renewable energy systems. 

Over the past few decades, many hotels have started using solar energy. It is important to note that there are actually two different types of solar energy technologies: solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and solar thermal systems. Though these technologies both harness the power of the sun’s rays, they serve different purposes. Solar PV panels convert sunlight directly into electricity which can be used for your hotel’s power needs. You may even be able to sell the excess electricity that you produce back to the grid. Solar thermal systems on the other hand absorb the sunlight and then convert it into heat. This thermal energy can be used to heat guest rooms or provide hot water for showers, swimming pools, laundry, and dishwashing. Other types of on-site renewable energy technologies that harness the power of the local environment include small-scale wind turbines or micro-hydropower systems. Looking for a more creative option? Some hotels are introducing electricity-generating gym equipment that allows guests to power up the building while they’re working out.  

Did you know that the food scraps from your kitchen can also be used as a renewable source of energy? From discarded vegetable peels to half-eaten meals, food waste is a major issue for many hotels. One study found that hotels in the UK alone produce an estimated 79,000 metric tons of food waste each year. As food breaks down in landfills, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas that has 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Rather than letting your food scraps go to waste, they can be converted into biogas via a process called “anaerobic digestion.” This biogas can then be used to produce electricity or heat. An added benefit of this process is that the residual slurry can be used in your gardens as nutrient-rich fertilizer.

When determining which type of renewable energy technology to utilize at your property, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Select the type that makes the most sense for your hotel’s particular needs and the energy sources that are readily available. If there isn’t much wind in the destination where you’re located, it probably doesn’t make sense to install wind turbines. You can also advocate for policies and programs that reduce local barriers to the installation of renewable energy systems. 

Adopt energy-efficient design and technologies

Hotels can also lower the carbon-intensity of their operations by reducing the amount of energy that is used for different processes and activities. By decreasing your energy usage, you’ll also cut down on needless energy expenditures. 

Hotels can incorporate efficiencies directly into their buildings by adopting bioclimatic design principles. Bioclimatic design works in harmony with the local climate to create comfortable spaces while optimizing energy use. Though bioclimatic techniques vary by climate type, examples include orientating windows to absorb the sun’s heat, using trees and overhangs for shading, and choosing light-colored roofing materials to reflect solar rays. Traditional architecture styles often tend to be bioclimatic since they’ve been adapted to the local environment for centuries. They are also a good way to showcase traditional construction techniques and locally-sourced building materials.  

Beyond the design of the building itself, hotels can utilize energy saving technologies to further drive down their carbon footprint. Consider upgrading your washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioning units, and other appliances to more efficient models. Alternatively, some hotels are switching to ozone laundry systems which eliminate hot water use and shorten drying times. 

Replace existing light fixtures with LED bulbs which use 75% less energy, and last much longer, than incandescent lighting. Heat pumps offer an efficient alternative to traditional furnaces and boilers since they capture heat from the outside air, water, or ground. Similarly, sea water air conditioning systems (SWAC) use cold ocean or lake water to cool buildings. Combined heating and power (CHP) systems also require less energy due to their ability to generate electricity and heat simultaneously. Other carbon reduction tactics include reducing waste, conserving hot water resources, or providing sustainable transportation options such as electric golf carts, bicycles, or kayaks. 

This day in age, it’s no longer just about which devices you use, it’s also about how you control them. Automated energy management technologies are quickly becoming the way of the future. Photosensors or timers can be used to automatically turn off or dim lights at certain times of day. This is especially useful for areas such as parking garages or outdoor areas that only require bright lighting after dark. More hotels are starting to add keycard master switches into their guest rooms. These systems conserve energy by automatically switching off the power in the room when guests leave and remove the keycard from the designated slot. 

More advanced “smart” energy management systems utilize sensors to detect when a guest room is empty. These systems prevent unnecessary energy use by automatically turning off the lights, closing the curtains, or adjusting the thermostat when rooms are unoccupied. Sensors can also be used to shut off the heating or air conditioning when a balcony door is left open or to control lighting in conference rooms and other less-trafficked areas. Some smart systems even allow guests to control the air conditioner, lights, curtains, and television via a universal remote or an app on their phone.

Localize your supply chains

Once you’ve optimized your direct operations, you can go a step further to reduce fossil fuel usage within your supply chain. While there are a number of ways to decarbonize your supply chain, there are some tactics that you will have more control over such as where you source your goods from.  

Localizing your supply chain can reduce carbon emissions while also providing a number of business benefits. There is a growing movement among consumers to “buy local,” so incorporating the local flavors and culture into your offering can make for a distinctive guest experience. For hotels, this means creating locally-inspired menus and sourcing ingredients from local farmers, fishers, cheese-makers, or bakeries. Furnishings, decor, linens, and staff uniforms are also good items to source from local suppliers. 

When you procure goods locally, it cuts down on the amount of transportation, packaging, and refrigeration needed to get them from point A to point B. This equates to less energy usage and a smaller carbon footprint. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, local supply chains also tend to be more resilient to global crises and disruptive events. 

Step 2. Protect forests and blue carbon ecosystems

After you’ve cut down your hotel’s fossil fuel use, the next step is to protect or restore natural ecosystems that act as carbon sinks. Forests are carbon sinks, as are blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass, and salt marshes. These ecosystems possess a natural ability to fight climate change by capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in their biomass and soils. 

In addition to preventing carbon emissions, forests and coastal habitats provide other important benefits. These critical habitats promote biodiversity and support nature tourism activities, such as birdwatching, hiking, and snorkeling. They can also help to reduce flooding and stabilize shorelines. In fact, one study found that mangroves prevent more than $65 billion of property damage each year. 

The most direct way that you can protect these ecosystems is by leaving them intact. It is common for coastal hotels to remove mangroves that grow along their property or use fertilizers that kill seagrass beds. Be consciously aware of your impact on these sensitive ecosystems and implement practices that conserve them.

Another way that you can protect these ecosystems is through carbon offsetting. When you purchase carbon offsets, you fund projects around the world that have been certified to reduce carbon emissions. One way that carbon offset projects can deliver these emissions reductions is by protecting or restoring natural ecosystems. 

Take for example the Maísa REDD+ carbon offset project. This project prevents carbon emissions by protecting an area of the Amazon that is threatened by deforestation. The Kenya Blue Forests project takes a similar approach to conserve existing mangrove forests and reforest degraded areas. 

When you invest in these types of carbon offset projects, you can help create benefits that go beyond carbon reductions and conservation. Many projects also improve the livelihoods of local communities by creating local jobs, providing skills training, improving sanitation, or increasing food security.

There are a number of different organizations that offer carbon offsets, including Sustainable Travel International. To create the greatest impact, look for projects that are located in the country or region where your hotel is located and be sure to choose a reputable provider.    

Step 3: Support innovative climate solutions that scale

As the world races to tackle the climate crisis, new technologies and solutions are emerging on a regular basis. You can support decarbonization at a larger scale by supporting the development and implementation of these innovative technologies. 

In order to fully decarbonize the planet, we must reach a point where all energy is generated by renewable sources. However, there isn’t currently the infrastructure in place to meet the world’s energy demands. You can advance the global clean energy transition by investing in the development of renewable energy infrastructure. Again, carbon offsetting offers a means to do this. While some carbon offset projects reduce emissions by conserving ecosystems, others focus on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. The Cerro del Hula project for instance is constructing a 51-turbine wind farm in a rural region of Honduras. Once operational, this wind farm will provide more than 340,000 MWh of renewable energy to the Honduran electric grid each year. In addition to wind farms, carbon offset projects may establish other types of renewable energy infrastructure such solar, hydro, or gas-to-energy power plants. 

You can also help curb the climate crisis by investing in companies or donating to projects that are researching and developing newer technologies. While some companies are developing renewable energy technologies that harness the power of the ocean, others are working to improve energy storage technologies. As it becomes more apparent that we’ll need to go beyond reducing emissions, more attention is being given to carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies which remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. There are different types of CDR technologies such as direct air capture (DAC) which scrubs carbon dioxide directly from the air and stores it deep underground. Researchers are also experimenting with processes that utilize the power of waves to remove carbon from the ocean and reduce acidification. 

As climate solutions continue to evolve, stay informed on the latest technologies and strategies and take action to position your hotel as a leader in the fight against climate change.


This article was authored by Sustainable Travel International and reprinted from the Hotel Business Review with permission from www.HotelExecutive.com.

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