Carbon Neutral Hotels: How Green Are They?

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Renderings of the Six Senses Svart in Norway are straight out of a sci-fi movie. A wheel-shaped hotel on stilts shines at the foot of a glacier – the Svartisen Glacier in the Holandsfjorden, to be precise – like a space station floating in orbit.

If all goes according to plan, the otherworldly image will come to life in 2024 as the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-emissions resort (Six Senses has yet to kick off the project), joining an emerging movement of hotels carbon conscious.

In Turkey, Stay Hotels claims to be the first carbon-neutral hotel group in the country. In Denver, construction is underway on Populus, a 265-room property that claims to be the first carbon-positive hotel in the United States when it opens in late 2023. In New Haven, Connecticut, Hotel Marcel, opened in April, is the first net zero hotel in the United States.

Hotels contribute about 1% to global carbon emissions, says Claire Whitely, environmental manager for the charity Sustainable Hospitality Alliance.

Of the 36.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted globally last year, that would mean hotels contributed about 363 million tons, or about as much as it takes to power about 45, 7 million households for one year.

There are more than 90,000 hotels in the United States that use energy for cooling and heating; wash towels and sheets; lighting of rooms and halls; and refrigerating the mini bar – not to mention the energy and resources needed to build and furnish them.

“We’re talking properties operated 24/7 and over a billion hotel nights,” says Peter Templeton, interim president and CEO of the US Green Building Council.

Carbon neutral and carbon positive labels sound good on paper, but some experts question whether they are more performative than productive. Travel industry experts and climate scientists have explained what travelers need to know about the new wave of “green” hotels and how to choose one.

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What does it mean to be carbon neutral?

When hotels say they are carbon neutral, they generally mean that they remove the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they emit. Christoph J. Meinrenken, a physicist at Columbia University Climate School says technically the term should be net carbon neutralbecause true carbon neutrality would mean having zero carbon emissions – but carbon neutrality is more commonly used.

This is often done through carbon offsets, which account for the carbon emissions of a person, business, or government by removing carbon from the atmosphere. This can be done in a number of ways, such as planting enough trees to capture the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the hotel, or funding renewable energy or reforestation projects.

Some hotels do not necessarily have “green” operations; they simply buy offsets. Other hotels become net carbon neutral by being more energy efficient and then covering the rest of their emissions through carbon offsetting. For example, at the all-electric Hotel Marcel, 100% of its electricity is produced by solar panels on site.

While it will cost hotels to make green changes, “it won’t cost much more to make now than so many [green] strategies are becoming more mainstream,” says Peter Rumsey, founder and CEO of Point Energy Innovations, a building systems and renewable energy engineering company.

Rumsey says hotels can become more energy efficient for less money these days with readily available solutions, such as LED lighting, induction cooktops and management systems with sensors that ensure the energy is used efficiently.

Whitely agrees. “The technology we need to decarbonize the hospitality industry is here,” she says. “We just have to put it in place.”

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What about carbon positive and net zero?

carbon negative, positive energy or positive climate refer to a hotel that offsets more carbon than it emits. The term positive carbon is sometimes used in the same context, although the term is counterintuitive; we want less carbon, not more. “Some people use it in marketing, but technically it doesn’t make sense,” says Meinrenken.

A property can strive to achieve this by producing more renewable energy than it needs, or by offsetting the carbon used in hotel construction, not just day-to-day operations.

The design proposed by Svart is an example of this. The hotel and its adjacent services, such as boat shuttles and guest activities, plan to be self-sufficient in electricity, water and waste management. It will also create a surplus of renewable energy by using solar panels and geothermal wells to offset the carbon associated with the construction of the building.

To make Populus climate positive, Grant McCargo, Founder, CEO and Chief Environmental Officer of Urban Villages, says they are planting trees to offset the carbon cost of building and operating the hotel. They also use a low-carbon concrete mix and install windows with “covers” designed to reduce the hotel’s energy needs and require less washing. They also omitted parking to encourage visitors to use public transportation.

Properties claiming to be net zero mean that they offset all their greenhouse gas emissions – methane, nitrous oxide, among others – and not just carbon.

Templeton has seen thousands of projects move towards green building certification such as LEED or Passive House, with some embracing zero energy or zero waste concepts. He expects more, especially as new policies incentivize greener choices.

Critique of carbon claims

Critics say promises such as carbon neutrality and net zero don’t always accurately account for all emissions. Others are wary of their legitimacy.

Then there’s the fear that a hotel might have lofty sustainability goals but not stick to them.

“Once you put the green or sustainable label on something, a lot of people tend to stop asking questions,” says Robert Krueger, a sustainability expert who created the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program at WorcesterPolytechnic Institute.

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“Architects and engineers work to create a building on paper that works a certain way. But when you put people in that building, it changes the way it works,” says Krueger.

Rumsey says buying carbon offsets can be a good thing, but it shouldn’t be seen as a definitive solution for hotel sustainability concerns.

“It’s just kind of a temporary band-aid approach,” he says. “At the end of the day, we can’t buy our way to reducing climate change through offsets. These hotels and flights need to fundamentally change their emissions. »

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How travelers can do their research

Rumsey doesn’t think it’s up to consumers to fix the problem, but the hotels travelers choose can influence the industry.

When looking for a place to stay, Meinrenken says travelers should look into a hotel’s sustainability claims. Consider it a red flag if a hotel claims to be green, eco-friendly, or carbon-neutral but offers no explanation of how.

Usually architects take pride in their designs, and the website will describe if that hotel is off-grid or if it uses rooftop solar panels, if it is a passive house design which would indicate a very low embodied energy consumption, etc. said Meinrenken.

When it comes to offsets used by a hotel, it can be difficult for a traveler to research whether claims hold. “Unless they voluntarily disclose it, it’s probably hard to find out – too much work for travelers,” Meinrenken says.

Of course, greener hotel choices aren’t the only considerations travelers should make.

“The biggest emissions associated with travel involve lifting a few hundred people to 30,000 feet and propelling them to their destination at 500 mph,” said Michael Wara, director of the University of Washington’s climate and energy policy program. Stanford, in an email.

“But making hotels more sustainable can’t hurt and changing people’s perception of what luxury is can be very important in terms of policy change,” Wara added.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about greenhouse gases. Meinrenken says it’s also important to ask whether a hotel is treating its employees fairly, has destroyed an ecosystem where it was built, and is contributing to the community or simply taking its resources.

Krueger also recommends supporting social causes and taking steps such as setting your own carbon emissions budget and making trade-offs to offset your travel (for example, riding a bike or taking public transit to get to work).

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