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Hot topic: Can skiing ever be green?

With global warming an increasing threat to winter sports, can snow holidays ever be whiter-than-white when it comes to the environment?

Hot topic: Can skiing ever be green?
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Sweeping down a perfectly groomed piste, with fresh air in your lungs, mountain vistas all around can feel like the most wholesome, natural pursuit. But behind this pure thrill loom copious environmental concerns. From flattening trees to create runs, to energy-guzzling infrastructure, snow sports stand accused of destroying the very environment they celebrate.

And the environmental clock is ticking. The industry is having to survive in ever-decreasing seasons. Winters are generally shorter by a month compared to 30 years ago and experts predict that we’re heading to exceed the 2C global average temperature limit set at the Paris Agreement. This spells an end to the ski industry within the next 80 years in all but high or very northern locations. In the Alps, snow cover could drop by at least a third by the end of the century — leaving low-lying resorts unusable and forced to close. This sees the industry competing in an increasingly claustrophobic market. And it’s a catch-22 situation — in order to survive, the ski industry needs global warming to halt, yet the way resorts are run is leaving a huge carbon footprint that’s contributing to climate change.

Resorts are having to get smart to survive. Laax, in Switzerland, is working on a sustainability project called Greenstyle, with an aim to become the world’s first self-sufficient ski resort. “We need snow but right now snow needs us,” says Reto Fry, sustainability manager at the Weisse Arena Gruppe that runs Laax. “Our goal is to eliminate our CO2 emissions and encourage others to join us.”

The Swiss resort has already cut its energy consumption by 15% over the past seven years, and it now acquires 100% of its energy from CO2-neutral sources, such as hydro, wind and solar power. Waste heat from its train engines is used to warm surrounding buildings, and there’s an increasing number of charging stations for e-bikes and electric cars. Restaurants serve local produce with a smaller carbon footprint than the food that’s often flown in to mountain resorts, and Laax has also added recycling stations and water fountains around the mountain, so skiers can avoid buying plastic bottles.

By 2023, Laax wants to have halved its waste and be oil-free (all lifts are already powered by hydroelectric power but oil is still used to heat some buildings).

Being environmentally-friendly is moving from fashion to necessary function. Ski lodges and hotels are competing for increasingly eco-aware customers with green infrastructure and initiatives. Even kit can be sustainable, with brands such as Picture making clothing from recycled materials, while skis and boards are moving towards ethically sourced bamboo by companies such as Lonely Mountain Skis, and Nix Snowsport Co.

Resorts, too, are realising that green credentials can win them more visitors. In Colorado, Wolf Creek has switched all its energy consumption to carbon-free solar power and its snowcat machines run on biodegradable grapeseed oil. Vail Resorts has also pledged to achieve zero carbon emissions across all its resorts by 2030, while in California, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski area is set to be supplied by 100% renewable energy by the end of the year.

Closer to home, Chamonix plans to slash its carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. Its energy-saving projects — which include a free resort train for skiers — have earned it the Flocon Vert (‘green snowflake’), a sustainability award given by Mountain Riders, a French group that campaigns for a more sustainable winter sports industry.

Villars, in Switzerland, has also introduced sustainability initiatives, which range from a fleet of hybrid buses to low-energy snowmaking systems and fitting public buildings with solar panels. Over in Lech, Austria CO2 emissions and air quality have been improved by building a biomass plant to provide heat and hot water, and by laying on a free bus service to remove reliance on cars.

A green dream?

But can skiing ever be truly eco? After all, most of us who fly to a resort are ramping up the planet’s carbon emissions before we even get there. A typical one-way journey by plane to a ski resort creates around 122 kg of CO2 per person, while a journey by train emits 90% less (12 kg of CO2 per person), according to research by Best Foot Forward.

“Aviation is the fastest-growing contributor to global warming, so avoiding a flight when there’s an easy alternative is probably the biggest single thing that any individual can do to cut their carbon footprint and limit their own impact on the environment,” says Kate Andrews, co-founder of rail booking site, loco2.com.

The fastest journey from the UK to the Alps by train is around seven hours, (routes from London St Pancras to Moûtiers, Aime la Plagne and Bourg-Saint-Maurice), where onward transfers usually take between 10 and 40 minutes. Sounds too slow? Andrews claims that once you factor in airport check in, passport control, baggage collection and lengthy transfers, the difference isn’t quite so hefty.

So, take the train to rack up those green points (Snowcarbon offers detailed journey planners, rail-ski packages and route info) but it’s the in-resort infrastructure that also makes a heavy hit on the environment. Warmer winters means a worrying lack of snow, with most resorts relying significantly on cannons for a quick fix. These machines — which work through the night, spraying water mixed with nucleating agents into the freezing air to create artificial snow — have a considerable environmental impact. Across the Alps, artificial snow consumes the same amount of water each year as 1.5 million people — and in some regions, tap water is even used.

For Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, the arrival of snow cannons at virtually every major resort over the past decade is a worrying trend. Many resorts, including Laax which has 300 snow cannons, power them entirely by renewable energy and use water saved in artificial lakes — but not all. “Between 200 and 600 litres of water are needed to make every square meter of snow,” Francis says. “One third of ski resorts in the French Alps now have drinking water shortages. So, there’s a direct competition between the ski industry and providing water for local residents.”

As well as paling in comparison to the feeling of skiing on real powder, artificial snow is four times harder than natural snow — not fun if you take a tumble. “Fake snow is less safe, and the chemicals used to make it leech back into the environment when it melts,” Francis says. “It’s also expensive to produce, pushing up the price for ski passes. The downhill ski market is already declining, and it will continue to shrink partly due to the cost of producing fake snow.”

Over in America, Aspen powers its snow guns with grid electricity that’s 39% renewable and growing, thanks to a collaborative effort between the utility and the resort. The Colorado resort is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020 from 2000 levels, having introduced renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. But for Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability of Aspen Skiing Company, dealing with climate change is about more than solar panels and reusable water bottles — and political lobbying is key. He also says skiers wanting to reduce their impact on the environment while pursuing the sport they love should write to resort CEOs asking what they are doing on climate policy.

So, should we all stop skiing in order to save the environment? Not yet, says Auden. “It’s not skiing that the problem, it’s how we power our economy. Nothing can be eco-friendly in a world running on fossil fuels. But if we can decarbonise, sure, skiing can be eco-friendly.”

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)