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What does it mean for a hotel to be carbon neutral?

A guide to a new wave of ‘green’ hotels

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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Renderings of the Six Senses Svart in Norway are straight out of a sci-fi movie. An overwater hotel shaped like a wheel glows at the foot of a glacier — the Svartisen glacier in the Holandsfjorden fjord, to be specific — like a space station floating in orbit.

If all goes according to plan, the otherworldly image will come to life in 2024 as the first carbon-neutral and emission-free resort (Six Senses has not yet broken ground on the project), joining an emerging movement of carbon-conscious hotels.

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

Hotels contribute about 1 percent to global carbon emissions, says Claire Whitely, head of environment for the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance charity.

Of the 36.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted worldwide last year, that would mean hotels contributed roughly 363 million tonnes — about as much as it takes to power about 45.7 million homes for a year.

There are more than 90,000 hotels in the United States using energy on air conditioning and heating; laundering towels and sheets; lighting rooms and lobbies; and refrigerating the mini bar — not to mention the energy and resources to build and furnish them.

“We are talking about properties that are operated 24/7 and talking about over a billion hotel nights,” says Peter Templeton, interim president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council.

The carbon-neutral and carbon-positive labels sound good on paper, but some experts question if they are more performative than productive. Travel industry experts and climate scientists explained what travelers should know about the new wave of ‘green’ hotels and how to pick one.

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What does it mean to be carbon neutral?

When hotels say they’re carbon neutral, they usually mean they are taking the same amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they emit. Christoph J. Meinrenken, a physicist at the Columbia University Climate School says technically the term should be net carbon neutral, as true carbon neutral would mean having zero carbon emissions — but carbon neutral is more commonly used.

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

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

While it will cost hotels to make green changes, “it’s not going to cost much extra to do now that so many [green] strategies are becoming more and more commonplace,” 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 solutions that are readily available, such as LED lighting, induction cooktops and management systems with sensors that make sure energy is being used efficiently.

Whitely agrees. “The technology that we need to decarbonize the hotel industry is here,” she says. “We just need to put it into place.”

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What about carbon positive and net zero?

Carbon negative, energy positive or climate positive refer to a hotel offsetting more carbon than it emits. The term carbon positive 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,” Meinrenken says.

A property may strive to do this by producing more renewable energy than it needs, or make up for the carbon used in the construction of the hotel, not just daily operations.

Svart’s proposed design is an example. 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 using solar panels and geothermal wells to offset the carbon associated with the building’s construction.

To make Populus climate positive, Grant McCargo, founder, CEO and chief environmental officer of Urban Villages, says they’re planting trees to offset the carbon cost of the hotel’s construction and operations. They are also using a low-carbon concrete mix and installing windows with “lids” designed to reduce the hotel’s energy needs and require less washing. They also omitted a parking lot to encourage visitors to use public transportation.

Properties claiming to be net-zero mean they are offsetting all of their greenhouse gas emissions — methane, nitrous oxide, among others — not only carbon.

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

Criticism of carbon claims

Critics say pledges such as carbon neutral and net zero don’t always accurately factor the full scope of emissions. Others are wary of their legitimacy.

Then there’s the concern that a hotel may have noble sustainability goals but doesn’t stick to them.

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

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

Rumsey says buying carbon offsets can be a good thing, but it shouldn’t be considered a final solution to hotel sustainability concerns.

“That’s just sort of a temporary Band-Aid approach,” he says. “At the end of the day, we can’t buy our carbon-way out of climate change through offsets. These hotels and these flights have got to change their emissions in a fundamental way.”

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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 that travelers choose can influence the industry.

While shopping for a place to stay, Meinrenken says travelers should scrutinize 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 on how.

“Usually, architects are proud of their designs, and the website will describe whether that hotel is off the grid or whether it uses solar panels on the roof, whether it’s a Passive House design, which would indicate very low intrinsic energy consumption, etc.,” Meinrenken says.

As for digging into what offsets a hotel uses, it may be difficult for a traveler to research whether the claims hold up. “Unless they voluntarily disclose that, it’s probably difficult to find out — too much work for travelers,” Meinrenken says.

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

“The most significant emissions associated with travel involve lifting a couple hundred people to 30,000 feet and propelling them to their destination at 500 m.p.h.,” Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program, said in an email.

“But making the hotels more sustainable can’t hurt and changing people’s perception of what luxury feels like can be very significant in terms of moving policy,” Wara added.

Ultimately, it’s not just about greenhouse gases. Meinrenken says it is also important to be concerned whether a hotel treats its workers fairly, whether it destroyed an ecosystem where it was built and whether it contributes to the community or just takes its resources.

Krueger recommends supporting social causes as well, and taking steps such as setting your own carbon emissions budget and making compromises to offset your trip (e.g., biking or taking public transportation to work).

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