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Is skiing an ecological horror?

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Being interested in skiing and its ecological impact goes far beyond the simple question of greenhouse gases. If it is indeed a question of CO2, it is also a question of biodiversity, soil artificialisation, water management, and above all of social choices. What are the risks of transition? What imaginaries should we build for the decades to come?

The time of choice has arrived for a majority of the 250 stations in the territory. Although only 10% of French people go to the mountains in winter each year, 120,000 jobs are affected and thousands are at risk because of climate change. How can ski resorts reduce their emissions and adapt to a rapidly changing climate? What are the best practices that ski lovers should adopt to reduce their ecological impact?

What is the carbon footprint of skiing?

Skiing vacations are often blamed for being a high emitter of greenhouse gases. A “rich man’s” sport, which would be a disaster for the environment. Let’s check this with some orders of magnitude.

First of all, it is extremely difficult to get an ‘average’ figure when talking about a ski holiday. Indeed, the figure will be very different if you go to the Massif Central, the Jura, the Pyrenees or the Alps. The result also differs between downhill and cross-country skiing, even though, as we will see, ski lifts only account for 2 to 3% of emissions.

We had seen in an interview with Loïc Giaccone that “Transport accounts for 57% of the carbon footprint of ski resorts (according to a study by the ANMSM and the ADEME in 2010, on 10 representative resorts). The next big item is housing. Then roads, freight, waste and finally the ski area, with 2% of emissions.” We find the same orders of magnitude in a study conducted by the Utopies firm in collaboration with the resorts of La Clusaz, Grand Bornand and Tignes.

They estimate a day of skiing at 48.9kg CO2eq, on average. How to reduce your carbon footprint when skiing? It’s actually quite simple. You should avoid flying and driving and get there by train/public transport, heat yourself to a maximum of 19°C during the day and 17°C at night, vegetate your food and rent your equipment.

Is a carbon neutral ski resort possible?

Some ski resorts have announced their desire to become carbon neutral by 2025, 2030, 2037 etc. This is simply greenwashing, and as stupid as claiming that an airport can be carbon neutral.

First, a company, an activity or even a city cannot be “carbon neutral”. It doesn’t make sense physically. It can at best “contribute to carbon neutrality”.

Second, to claim that they are carbon neutral, resorts resort to carbon offsetting via tree planting. Carbon neutrality is not about continuing your polluting activities and planting trees on the other side to compensate. That would be too easy. The effectiveness of carbon offsetting by planting trees has already been demystified in several articles(here, here and here).

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, ski resorts would not exist without tourists. Since these tourists do not come by foot or by canoe, the ski resorts are also responsible for the emissions from tourist transport. 10 million people visit French ski resorts, of which nearly a third are foreigners. As long as teleportation is impossible, ski resorts claiming to be carbon neutral will be greenwashing.

What are the other ecological problems posed by skiing?

It would be dangerous to limit the activity of skiing to the simple subject of CO2. The problems caused go far beyond that. The following is a list of key issues and risks to consider.

Secondary residences and land artificialisation

France has 3.6 million second homes. It’s a world record that might make some people smile, but it certainly doesn’t make people who fight against land artificialisation smile. In some communes, the rate of second homes exceeds 70%. This is the case of several cities on the map below (Savoie Mont Blanc), where we continue to build concrete where we should limit the artificialization of land.

Figure 1 - The mountains, a breeding ground for second homes
Number of second homes and share of the total housing stock in Savoie Mont Blanc, by municipality
Figure 1 – The mountains, a breeding ground for second homes
Number of second homes and share of the total housing stock in Savoie Mont Blanc, by municipality

This excessive concrete development is not only an environmental disaster, but also a social problem since it contributes to gentrification. The arrival of new inhabitants with a high level of economic or cultural capital has important effects on land prices, the commercial offer and the transformation of landscapes, which can lead to an increase in social inequalities and exclusion processes.

In Courchevel, entire sections of the mountain are ravaged to build hotels. Ultra rich people buy almost new villas at several million euros and raze them to the ground to rebuild a new one with a pool and a heliport. One can imagine that for these people, the 72€ day pass is not really an issue, as well as the preservation of biodiversity.

Impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems

The impact of ski slopes goes far beyond its impact on the soil. Biodiversity is once again the forgotten ecological issue and the impacts on the different ecosystems are rarely taken into account by ski resorts. Loïc Giaccone rightly reminded us that climate change ” is the seventh leading cause of species extinction. First there is “overexploitation”, then agriculture, then urbanization, then invasive species, then pollution, then changes in land use, and finally climate change

Animal and plant species must cope with both land artificialisation and climate change. When they have a choice, they migrate and/or adapt. But adaptation has limits and we know that the share of climate change in the impact on biodiversity will increase over the century.

Finally, light and noise pollution are two elements that are also rarely mentioned. Ski resorts are diversifying and some now offer night skiing. “With the help of the spotlights and a starry sky, skiing takes on a new, strong and original dimension. A moment to live intensely!“says France-Montagnes.

This light pollution contributes to the flight of the wild fauna, but what is the interest when one can make the sports installations a little more profitable?

Ski resort Le Collet d'ALLEVARD by night : credit : © Pierre Borasci
Ski resort Le Collet d’ALLEVARD : credit : © Pierre Borasci

What is the environmental impact of artificial snow?

Snowmaking (or artificial snow) is at the heart of several controversies and deserves some attention. “To produce snow, you need ice balls with a diameter of a few tenths of a millimeter, by spraying micro-droplets of water that solidify before reaching the ground. The consistency of this snow is close to that of packed snowLucas Berard-Chenu, Doctor of Geography, reminds us.

It allows operators to reduce the risk of insufficient snow cover and to make the best use of subsequent snowfall. Essential investments according to some, a maladaptation according to others. 39% of the tracks in France now have recourse to it, while they are 70% in Austria, 48% in Switzerland and 90% in northern Italy. Sometimes even 100% for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

Once used sparingly, it is now an imperative for many resorts that survive solely on artificial snow. However, this artificial snow cannot, for the time being, free itself from constraints such as the need for sub-zero temperatures and the need for water resources.

As droughts increase and choices are made about water use, it is likely that the use of these snow guns will be questioned.

Adapting ski resorts is a matter of survival

“Will we be able to ski in 2050?” turns out not to be a good question. Instead, the question should be “in what condition will we be able to ski in 2050, and at what cost?”

In the end, it turns out that keeping ski resorts alive is more a political issue than a question of snow availability. If a region decided to subsidize snow guns and maintain ski resorts throughout the season, climate change would only have a relative impact on the risk of reduced snow cover, even at -40% in some resorts.

In contrast to some resorts that continue to close their eyes to the reality of climate change, Métabief, located in the Jura mountains, has taken the initiative not to wait. In line with climate projections, the resort has decided to consider the end of downhill skiing by 2030-2035 and to invest in diversifying activities (mountain biking, trail running, etc.).

Sunset on the Métabief ski resort. Credit: Thomas Wagner
Sunset on the resort of Métabief. Credit: Thomas Wagner

Even if the diversification of activities will bring in less revenue than alpine skiing, notably because of the fall/disappearance of the sale of ski passes, it is essential for a majority of French resorts to avoid an ecological disaster and a social break-up that is still avoidable.

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Thomas Wagner
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