The Environment

The Sustainability Paradox | Can Snowsports Ever Really Be ‘Green’?

After last season's write off, this winter sees the return of the ski trip. With the climate crisis seemingly getting worse, we ask industry leaders whether it's possible to enjoy skiing while also future-proofing its existence

It’s a beautiful, crisp, mid-season morning. There’s been heavy snowfall overnight, leaving the slopes glistening white and the skies sapphire blue. Down in the resort, the lifts are already whirring into action, whisking the initial groups of powder-hungry skiers and snowboarders up the mountainside to lay the day’s first tracks.

“Up here, on a day like this, it’s easy to forget that the planet is in turmoil”

Up here, on a day like this, it’s easy to forget that the planet is in turmoil. But the uncomfortable truth is that the snowsports industry, along with the rest of the world, is facing an existential dilemma. The climate crisis is here: seasons are changing, winters are getting warmer, and extreme weather events are becoming increasingly frequent and catastrophic.

This places the industry at the centre of its very own sustainability paradox. To survive, global warming must be stopped, but with mountain economies relying so heavily on carbon-intensive tourism, the question of how to achieve this is a troubling one. One thing is clear: if the snowsports industry continues to ski down this particular line, it risks melting the very foundation upon which it’s built.

Pictured: A black and white scenario in the Alps. Credit: Getty Images / iStock

Winters In Decline

Studies into the rate of snowfall decline are being conducted all over the world and the results make for some grim reading. One such study, published in The Cryosphere, estimated that Switzerland alone could be in line for a 70-percent reduction in snow cover above 1,200m by the end of the century. Further down the mountain, there may not be any snow at all. This, considering that around a quarter of the Swiss Alps’ ski resorts are below 1,200m, will have cataclysmic implications for the region.

Bare slopes and dry ground in the early and late season are already facts of low-altitude mountain life. Perhaps ‘chilling’ is the wrong word, but it’s definitely a deeply unpleasant glimpse into the future for ski areas located further up. Dom Winter, the aptly named Program Manager at Protect Our Winters (POW) UK confirms this. 

“Studies into the rate of snowfall decline are being conducted all over the world and the results make for some grim reading”

“The snow season is already around 30 days shorter than it was in the seventies. Even the top source of climate info globally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recognises that climate change has already significantly impacted the running of low-elevation ski resorts. We’ve seen barely over one degree of global heating so far. If we carry on with no intervention, we’re on track for three.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If global targets are met and warming goes no further than two degrees above pre-industrial levels (which, admittedly, is still a lot), declines in snow could be curbed at 30 percent.

“The knock on implications will be severe if these targets aren’t met,” Winter tells Mpora. “Wildlife dependent on the current climate, and communities reliant on water from glaciers and income from winter tourism would all be in real trouble. But the good news is there’s still time to make a huge difference.”

Pictured: Picture Organic’s Demain Jacket, with its eco-friendly Xpore membrane

An Industry United

Those involved in the world of snowsports have a vested interest in reducing their own environmental impact, with individuals, brands, resorts, local governments and other organisations working towards this common goal. 

“Travel directly to the resort via a train and funicular link, eliminating the need for flights”

Les Arcs is one of only a handful of French resorts to have been awarded the Flocon Vert (green snowflake). This sustainability certification has been run by Mountain Riders since 2011, and is designed to help people to choose resorts based on their environmental credentials. To qualify, resorts must comply with 20 criteria, split up into four themes: local economy, social & cultural, governance & destination, and environment & natural resources.

The elephant in the room when it comes to making snowsports greener is the industry’s reliance on highly polluting air travel. To address this, Les Arcs encourages visitors to make use of its flightless link. Mountain lovers from London, for example, can travel directly to the resort via a train and funicular link, eliminating the need for flights.

Pictured: Planks have teamed up with POW UK for the ‘No Skiing On Mars’ collection

“When you know that 57 percent of CO2 emissions from ski resorts come from skier transport, this is the first commitment to make if you are eco-conscious,” says Cécile Romualdo, press officer at Les Arcs. “By comparison, ski lifts, and all other ski-related activities, produce only two percent of the greenhouse gases in the mountains.”

“Ski lifts have been fitted with solar panels, rainwater and heat from machinery is collected and reused, and the resort is now producing its own hydroelectricity”

Even so, Les Arcs has been committed to making it’s resort infrastructure greener too. On the mountain, ski lifts have been fitted with solar panels, rainwater and heat from machinery is collected and reused, and the resort is now producing its own hydroelectricity. The goal is to be fully self-sufficient and carbon neutral by 2030.

“Because we are a high-altitude resort and because we have efficient snowmaking networks, we will not be the first to be affected by climate change,” Says Romualdo. “But we have become aware that our environment is a treasure that must be preserved. We know that we need to develop a greener type of tourism, which is built around the natural assets of the mountain rather than at the expense of them.”

Les Arcs isn’t alone. There are currently eight resorts that hold Flocon Vert status and many more are making efforts to gain the certification. 

And resorts aren’t the only industry bodies fighting for a more snow-filled future. Snowsports brands have always been a huge part of mountain culture and Picture Organic Clothing is one name that always crops up early on in conversations about sustainability.

“When we talk about clothing, a big part of sustainability is what goes into the material,” says Picture Organic Clothing co-founder Julien Durant. “Historically, our outerwear has been made using recycled polyester, but we’re now moving away from oil-based fibres to eliminate the use of fossil fuels.”

“In the snowsports world, engineers are hard at work on new technologies to make things greener”

Take Picture’s Expedition range, for example. It’s made entirely from bio-sourced materials blended with recycled materials, and treatment of the fabric is completely PFC free. Or the brand’s Demain jacket, using Xpore fabric which is made with recycled polyolefin and sugarcane, yet outperforms many of its competitors.

“We’ve focused on making all our outerwear range for next season from bio-based materials to move away from fossil fuels,” Durant tells Mpora. “Polyester is oil-based. Sure, recycled polyester is better because we’re reusing, but it ultimately comes from the same harmful place. We guarantee for next season that 50 percent of the composition of our products will be bio-based.”

Elsewhere in the snowsports world, engineers are hard at work on new technologies to make things greener. In Funiflaine, a bold new lift project has just been given the green light. Connecting two major ski areas, it will take around 500,000 cars off the mountain each year, saving 10 tonnes of CO2 emissions. And snow groomer company Pinroth has just developed its first hydrogen-powered snowcat, the Leitwolf H2 Motion.

Pictured: A lonely skier makes the best of it in the Carpathians. Credit: Getty Images / iStock

Individual Action

When it comes to making snowsports more sustainable, the buck doesn’t stop with the brands and resorts. As lovers of the mountains, we all need to make changes in order to keep doing what we love. So, what can be done on an individual level?

“Around two-thirds of the climate impact of a typical snowsports trip from the UK to Europe is air travel,” Explains POW UK’s Winter. “So that is one of the more effective ways to reduce the impact of a trip. Likewise, longer trips will be better than lots of little ones. Or even just sticking to Europe rather than further afield.” 

There are hundreds of fantastic resorts that are accessible by train from London, and faster to get to than you might think. Destinations like Morzine, Les Arcs, Vaujany, Meribel and Les Gets can all be reached in between seven and nine hours. When you add up all of the pre-flight faffing and transfer turmoil that invariably comes with air travel, the time difference is marginal.

“Two-thirds of the climate impact of a typical snowsports trip from the UK to Europe is air travel”

You could also consider renting your gear, including clothing, rather than buying it. For those who only visit the mountains for a week or two a year, this might be a greener option than buying. EcoSki Rental is one platform that offers this service, allowing customers to use top-flight ski and snowboard gear, then return it for the next person. 

Picture Organic Clothing Is currently working on a similar project, whereby skiers and snowboarders can rent the latest Picture gear. 

“It’s aimed at the urban ski-addicts who are visiting the mountains once a year for a vacation,” Durant tells Mpora. “They might live in big cities, in small apartments with limited space, but still want to use the latest gear. This will be vastly more sustainable than these consumers buying the gear themselves, as products will be used by many different people.”

‘Hello darkness, my old friend.’ Credit: Getty Images / iStock

Is It Enough?

Even with all of these efforts, it’s still just a drop in the ocean in terms of global emissions. So, is it time to hang up our planks for good? Dom Winter doesn’t think that’s the answer.

“We’re all stuck in a carbon emissions-intensive system and stopping skiing/boarding, or especially switching to another type of holiday abroad, wouldn’t cut emissions much, and would lead to big societal impacts. We have a window to push the world, including the outdoor industry, to a place where we can continue to fully enjoy our incredible outdoor places, and need to take the chance right now to do that.”

“Until those in power put the climate crisis at the top of the agenda, everything else is just background noise”

To effect real change, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture. Until those in power put the climate crisis at the top of the agenda, everything else is just background noise. Should you travel by train and be savvy about where you choose to ski or snowboard? Yes, but the most significant thing we can all do as mountain lovers is to band together and put pressure on our governments and big business.

Pictured: The official banner for COP26

“We run campaigns to push for the scale of change needed, and the public’s support makes all the difference,” Winter tells Mpora. “Our current campaign is called Divest the Dirt, helping stop money saved for the future from destroying it. We help our community learn how to act most effectively too, running a course called Carbon Literacy Training, so if you didn’t follow some of this or want to learn more, do sign up for that. We also help organisations take action, as their climate footprints are much larger than individuals’, through our POW Pledge – a guide on the pathway to Net Zero.

“Pile pressure on the people who can actually make a difference”

“Even if you made your trip greener you’d probably only cut a small fraction of your personal annual emissions,” explains Winter. “Even not going at all wouldn’t save much. Go and live in the woods and make your personal emissions as low as possible? It’d still be a drop in the ocean. We need to get to Net Zero emissions globally, where all climate emissions into the atmosphere are balanced by those coming out. Billions of tonnes of carbon cut. The only way we can do this is by changing our systems, our economy, and by making sure the right national and international decisions are made.”

Time is of the essence. In the run up to the UN Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow this November, anyone interested in keeping our winters white has an opportunity to pile pressure on the people who can actually make a difference.

Read our Green Issue here.

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