The Hotel Industry’s Big Carbon Lie

The Hotel Industry’s Big Carbon Lie

Hotels are making claims about net-zero carbon emissions—but most are focusing on only half of the issue.

Behold the hotel of the future: It’s plastic bottle-free, anti-fossil fuel, and powered entirely by renewable energy. A renovation project, it gives new life to existing structures of concrete and steel, and reuses door frames, light fixtures, and even tile. All of its guest rooms are decorated with locally made furnishings upholstered in sustainably sourced fabrics. It’s LEED Platinum—one of just about a dozen hotels in the US to claim the organization’s highest rank. And it’s the first US hotel to receive Passive House designation, granted to buildings that meet stringent net-zero energy requirements.

When the Hotel Marcel opened in New Haven, Conn., in May 2022, it checked all those boxes as part of a mission to be the US’s first net-zero carbon-emissions hotel. But for all of the ways in which the Marcel makes real efforts to be a green marvel, it missed one huge consideration: embodied carbon.

Embodied carbon is the term that encapsulates all the harmful greenhouse gases emitted during renovation and construction of a building—an outsize part of any project’s footprint.

The Marcel’s triple-glazed windows? Good for keeping heating and cooling costs down, but a massive carbon emitter to manufacture. The hotel’s new, more efficient mechanical systems? They, too, emit large amounts of carbon during fabrication, transportation, and installation. Demolition of old walls? More carbon. Drywall, interior finishes, and bath fixtures for all 169 rooms? Carbon, carbon, carbon—all ignored in the Marcel’s net-zero promise.

“The net-zero objective is for operations,” the project’s architect Bruce Becker tells me, acknowledging the fact.

Given that hotel operations use more energy than virtually any other type of building, including those for offices, retail, housing, and manufacturing—accounting for an estimated 1% of global carbon emissions—net-zero operations are an admirable goal and a good example of the progress properties are making in day-to-day greening. Renewable energy, reusable water, and zero-waste policies also happen to save money on a month-by-month basis.

Embodied carbon in construction—contributing to at least 21% of global emissions, according to Brightworks Sustainability—is hardly a whisper amid the noise, if it’s mentioned at all, especially given how frequently hotels renovate compared with other types of large buildings.

Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc, for instance, which manages more than 500 hotels around the world (including the Marcel), publishes an annual sustainability report that follows environmental, social, and governance criteria. Yet its most recent report, released in 2020, didn’t mention embodied carbon once in its 72 pages of data and pledges. Considering that the Hilton brand opened 40 new hotels in 2020, that’s a lot of unaccounted carbon.

This is an excerpt from an article by Jackie Caradonio, originally published by Bloomberg.

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