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In the age of the ubiquitous “eco-hotel”, where buzzwords sometimes take precedence over actual sustainability, a few places are working toward true carbon-neutral status.

First they reduce their energy use as far as possible – through things like solar panels and energy-efficient air conditioning – and then they pay to offset any energy they do use by supporting carbon-reduction projects, such as forestry programs or schemes that capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground. 

For example, the Saunders Hotel Group, a family-owned chain of six hotels headquartered in Boston, has received carbon neutral certification by buying offsets to cover each room’s carbon dioxide emissions. Tedd Saunders, the group’s chief sustainability officer and president of the consulting firm EcoLogical Solutions, explained that the cost to the hotel group is about $10,000 a year, which offsets the equivalent of nearly 5,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s like eliminating more than 11 million vehicle-driven miles per year.

But paying for offsets is the easy part, and on a per-room basis it’s not very expensive. The hard part, explained Saunders, is reducing the hotels’ carbon footprint by investing in things like a more energy-efficient boiler or using local suppliers to cut down on transportation emissions. It has to be a comprehensive effort, he said, so “guests see that we’re not just cherry picking”.

The luxury Soneva resort chain, with properties in the Maldives, Thailand, Greece and Sri Lanka, is striving to fully decarbonise by 2015. Arnfinn Oines, who’s in charge of chain’s “social and environmental conscience”, said the company will begin using a new solar power plant at the Soneva Fushi resort in the Maldives. The company is also aiming to offset guests’ air travel – in Thailand, for example, Soneva owns a reforestation project to plant new trees. “We are working on going beyond zero carbon -- to decarbonising our entire operation including indirect emissions,” Oines said.

Stephen Russell, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington DC, noted that hotels often don’t go beyond their own onsite operations when they talk about carbon neutrality, which he calls a “broad, nebulous term”. There are also emissions associated with goods and services purchased by hotels, such as waste management and transportation.

But Russell has seen an increase in hotels striving to reduce emissions, particularly in the last five years and particularly among hotels that cater to corporate clients.

In fact, 23 global hotel groups have recently come together to develop a protocol for measuring and reporting the carbon footprint of hotel stays and corporate meetings. So far, the standardized approach, which was launched in June 2012 and is spearheaded by the International Tourism Partnership and the World Travel and Tourism Council, is geared toward companies that book conferences and corporate travel. But Saunders has no doubt it will in time become a tool for individual travellers to gauge just how environmentally friendly hotels really are.

Right now, there are not many ways for travellers to figure out whether a hotel is serious about reducing energy use or whether it is just using buzzwords. Saunders suggests Green Seal, a US-based non-profit that evaluates hotels, among other products, for a fee, and grants a bronze, silver or gold certification based on general sustainability. A similar organisation, Green Key, gives ratings based on self-assessments and some on-site inspections, which are accessible for free on their site.

When Saunders first started working on emission-reduction issues in 1989, he said the issue of carbon neutrality was not even “on the hotels’ radar screen”. But in recent years, he added, the urgency has never been greater among hotel operators. “It is encouraging to see that all the big players in the industry are taking this seriously and are putting together concerted efforts,” he said.

Lori Robertson writes the ethical traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to bbcethicaltravel@gmail.com.

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