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How Oregon Coast is tackling carbon emissions at a destination level

As part of our work with Expedia Group developing our Destination Climate Champions online training programme, we spoke to a number of destinations who are already embarking on climate action. Arica Sears Deputy Director of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association explained what they are doing.  

Why do you think DMOs should engage in climate action?

The way I talk about this with our community members is by saying that the tourism industry is contributing to and being impacted by changing climates. Here on the Oregon coast, we experience this change in climate maybe in unique ways than other regions. For example, we have some of the highest levels of ocean acidification off our coastline, which is negatively impacting our seafood industry, like Dungeness crab, fishing, and our oyster industry. We also have seen wildfires impact our region, as well as erosion and other unprecedented events and storms. 

So at the core of tourism is really our communities and our local environments, and those two groups do not adhere to timelines like your fiscal year or 10 year vision. Because of that, this is really the time for DMOs to get involved and support those communities, our local environments, and also those visitors that want to come and have a really positive experience in our region. 

How do you prioritise what to do?

Understanding how to prioritise our climate action plan was a huge discussion for us. I think it’s important to understand how your climate action plan or the work you’re doing could outlive current staff. If you moved on to a different role or organization, could the work move forward? Are you taking actions that are pet projects of staff and Board members? Or are you doing things that could really have that positive impact for your industry and community? 

We looked at how we could create a prioritisation criteria, so that every year as we analyze what we’re going to do in the climate space, we’re doing it in a sound way that makes sense to our stakeholders, to our visitors and to our team. After much discussion and work with our climate scientist, we came up with criteria that helped us determine our prioritisation score for tactics. That criteria includes the speed of action. Is it something that we could actually do within the next year or two years? Or is this something that’s going to take NASA 20 years to figure out? If so, it might have less of a prioritisation score for us. Second is the emission reduction potential. So if we were to do this action, how much could it actually reduce our emissions? An example here in Oregon is that most of our power is actually hydropower, it’s not coal. So when people talk about reducing their electricity use, that is great, but it actually won’t reduce their emissions that much. So that’s not a huge priority for us in our plan. 

The third thing is ecosystem resilience. How will this support droughts or wildfires, flooding, erosion?  Reach also prioritises action. The bigger reach it has, the higher prioritisation score it has for us. And then lastly, diversity, equity and inclusion. How is this reaching those goals and being more inclusive of a larger group of people? So those scores together help us determine the different actions that are being presented to us, and the ones with the highest scores are what we will try to focus on next. 

What challenges have you encountered in tackling emissions at a destination level?

One of the most challenging things for a DMO like ours when it comes to climate action is that we really have no control over the major sources of emission. We are not a governmental body. I cannot create laws or restrictions, but there are some ways that we can engage and should be engaging in emissions and measuring them and understanding where the source comes from. 

The first thing that we’ve done is started to calculate our own emissions, including our staff and our contractors using 2019 numbers pre pandemic to have a good understanding of what that is. We looked at what our largest source of emissions was as a team and how we could create strategies to reduce that. 

Second, we can support and advocate for measurements. We’re very lucky here in Oregon. We have state agencies that do require that measurement, and we are seeing increasingly that businesses and industries are being required to measure their emissions, and I think that advocacy is really a big piece of that. So, for example, there are new emerging tools and calculators for businesses to measure their own emissions. 

The last thing we can do as a DMO is look at the larger picture of what’s going on. We are able to look at our state’s numbers and the largest sources of emission and relate that to tourism. In Oregon that is transportation. If we know that transportation is one of the biggest emissions for our industry, we can start aligning our staff time, our resources and our advocacy around better transportation options like public transit, ways for people to carpool together and things like EV chargers and EV vehicles that visitors can use while in our region. 

Additionally, we realise that even though it’s hard for us to measure everything in our region there are partners who can measure their emissions.  Every year we have an annual grant fund that opens up to businesses or nonprofits in our region. This year we focused on climate action, so one of the ways that someone could get that funding is if they are a business reducing their emissions. It’s sort of a reward system. If a business is doing the right thing, we want to help tell that story to visitors who are also looking for that experience. We’re starting to incorporate that more into our criteria of funding recipients. 

We have also been exploring tools for climate donation systems. It’s a way for a visitor to add a dollar a night, or a certain percentage of their food to go to a climate resilience project or another donation system where they could calculate their entire carbon footprints and then offset it. We have this pretty rigorous criteria for an environmental organisation that would receive that. Part of that criteria is that they have to be measuring their footprints and proving that they are reducing their emissions. 

Can you give three pieces of advice to others who want to reduce their carbon emissions?

First, understand your scope of influence. A restaurant is going to have a very different focus than a lodging operator or a whale watching tour or a destination management organisation. So understand your staff, your team, your visitors, your business size, your food, or your supply chains.

The second thing is to connect with resources, people, or talent that can help. I am not a climate scientist. I did not have a background in climate before I began doing this work, but we were able to connect with people who did, who were passionate about it, had the expertise and the backgrounds. And some of it was affordable, partnering with the AmeriCorps programme to bring in somebody for a year to help us with planning was incredible. Right now in the United States, there is a lot of funding for climate solutions, so this is a really great time to start working out what you want to do to access those funds. 

And the third piece of advice is to approach this work with a sense of curiosity. Approach this like an academic experience and with a sense of learning because I guarantee if you ask me these same questions in six months, in a year, in five years, I will have different answers and I should have different answers. Funding is changing, science is changing, more partners are coming on board with this. We’re just seeing emerging talents in technology. It’s not like you have to create a plan, then be stuck with that for the next 10 years. Start off and say, what can we do? What questions should we be asking? What can we do today, tomorrow, next year? I just think it really changes your mindset as you begin doing this really important and crucial work. 

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