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3 Reasons Why COP28 Was a Historical Moment for Business Travel

Every year, there’s a lot of buzz around COP (which stands for “Conference of the Parties” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as UNFCCC). I had the unique opportunity to attend this year’s COP28 held in Dubai, representing the global business travel industry and GBTA.  Whether you’re skeptical or not on what such a Conference can truly achieve, it is THE moment when almost ALL the world’s countries convene to (1) take stock of progress on climate action, (2) catalyze action to accelerate impact and (3) take new decisions to mitigate global warming.

And that is why it is absolutely important for the business travel industry as a whole, as COP sets the stage for many of the national or regional policies our sector will ultimately have to implement to deliver on a green transition. And let’s face it, COP also represents what business travel does best, bringing together over 100,000 people who traveled from far corners of the world to meet and negotiate in person – to discuss, debate and seal these agreements.

The international nature of COP is indeed its best asset. In a globalized world, where so many developing countries still need to scale their economies, it’s critical to have this forum to agree on what a “just transition” from fossil fuels  towards renewable and low/zero carbon energy looks like, to make sure that no-one is left behind.

Let’s dive into what made this COP such a historical one for the global business travel community: 

  1. This is the first time the global business travel industry was officially represented.

Relaunching the GBTA Foundation in July 2022 with a laser focus on  championing climate action in business travel enabled us to apply as Observer Organization with the UNFCCC. With this status, the GBTA Foundation can annually send an Official Delegation to the COP with access to the “Blue Zone,” the UN official site where Parties gather to negotiate and host events in their country pavilions.

This sends a very important signal about the business travel industry’s commitment to climate action. It enables us to better understand what’s driving the decisions that will shape the future of our industry, while also directly engaging with the decision makers and opinion formers all gathered in one place.

  •  COP28 came on the back of a flagship announcement for the aviation sector.

We  know that taking emissions out of business travel requires unprecedented collaboration, drastic investments, and bold actions by the travel industry. There is, however, a layer of added complexity that comes with aviation, a “hard to abate sector” (meaning, there is no immediate solution available to transition away from fossil fuels, which account for over 97% of its total emissions).

The better news is that technologies exist/are being developed. Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), will contribute to between 40% to 70% of the emissions abatement mix in the sector by 2050, alongside aircraft and operational efficiencies. It’s not available at scale currently due to very high production costs which does not make it commercially viable.

There is a parallel UN track looking into aviation specifically under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The week before COP, ICAO hosted in Dubai its third Conference on Alternative Aviation Fuels (CAAF 3) and where all countries agreed to a 5% reduction in emissions intensity from the use of SAF and low carbon aviation fuel (LCAF, a bridge fuel to SAF) by 2030.

I know what you’re thinking: 5% only, while other industries have committed to emissions reduction by 50% in the same timeframe? This 5% emission reduction means scaling the current use of SAF and LCAF from 0.1% today to close to 10%, which is a hundred fold increase within seven years. And this is while recognizing that building new plants can take an average 3-4 years to become operational. It’s also a global average – and we can hope countries like the U.S. and those within Europe will exceed these targets. (The blending mandate for SAF in Europe under ReFuelEU as well as incentives provided under the Inflation Reduction Act will certainly help,)   

Several GBTA members asked me if “curbing demand” was a COP28 topic, and I’ll be frank: It was not. Developing countries will rely on expanded aviation operations to connect with the rest of the world and develop their economies. Yet, “Travel with Purpose” is as important as ever for our sector − making sure every trip counts, choosing the lowest carbon option available, and rewarding companies that are investing in cleaner fuel and technologies.   

  • The level of cooperation between the public and private sector is unprecedented.

 The speeches of political leaders and government officials present at this COP welcomed the high-level of cooperation between the public and private sector to outline the modalities of a phase-out from fossil fuels. Of course, the timeline is critical before we hit a point of no-return.

Mandates, incentives, and even carbon pricing – these are all topics now being openly discussed to provide the market signal and long-term predictability needed to increase the production of renewable energy and develop green hydrogen and carbon capture technologies. And energy providers as well as the financial community must be around the table – as they are the ones who will need to invest the billions needed to make this transition a success. A green future for business travel relies on the success of the green energy transition. We all want – governments included – to continue reaping the benefits of travel. For our sector to own its future, we need to be fully vested in the cause of climate.

This is certainly building the case for GBTA to continue our advocacy work, on behalf of our industry, with governments around the world. We need to be present at future COPs, to witness (and measure) progress, to be part of the change, and to relay these messages back to our global community.