Monday, 6 December 2010

How to Ski Green in the French Alps

Skiing and snowboarding occupy a tenuous position in the field of responsible travel. On one hand, it can be claimed that an affinity with the natural environment is key to promoting preservation and that mountain resorts are fundamental in creating a tangible awareness of climate change. On the other hand it’s undeniable that mountain tourism holds huge potential to threaten nature’s fragile beauty and that if we want our beloved pistes to be there in ten years’ time, it’s high time we started to ‘ski green’.

One problem is that, when surrounded by never ending vistas of seemingly pristine natural beauty, it’s quite easy to become oblivious to the idea that there’s any problem at all. So let’s tackle this one issue at a time…

Issue 1: Fake Snow
Barometers of climate change, ski resorts are threatened directly by rising global temperatures, which have led to low altitude resorts like Abondance in the Haute-Savoi being forced to close. Yet you’d be forgiven for thinking the issue had resolved if you’d visited resorts such as Tignes, Val Thorens and La Grave la Meije last year, which extended their 2009/10 season until the second week of sunny May.

It’s likely that you were skiing on man-made snow. Determined not to be beaten, most resorts now rely on snow cannons to replenish their rapidly thawing pistes. Over recent years, investment in ski resorts has shifted from getting you around the mountain, to giving you something to ski on; it’s largely been acknowledged that recharging the snow pack must take priority over upgrading lift systems, and many resorts now depend on ‘fake’ snow, having given up on the reliability of the real stuff.

Referred to by the French conservation group, Mountain Wilderness, as ‘the cancer of the Alps’, snow cannons work by spraying water particles and nucleating agents into frozen air. They require vast quantities of water to fuel the machines and then later in the season, drain the melted snow back into rivers, full of nutrients which disrupt natural biodiversity further downstream. In addition, cannons use masses of energy to create the snow, and the unnatural snow cover can prevent fauna germinating come spring time.

So what’s the solution? Should we start sabotaging the snow machines and ski on grass? No, don’t be silly. What we could do is avoid booking holidays at the tail end of a ski season. Fuelled by increased demand, many resorts now remain open until early May thanks to snow machines, despite temperatures reaching the high 20°Cs. We could also give other snow-related activities better recognition. Before the revolution of snow cannons, if cover was light, we turned to activities such as snow shoeing, ski touring and ice-skating.

Issue 2: Carbon
Perhaps the biggest environmental impact of skiing is the carbon produced getting us out there. Around 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK are thought to derive from flying, a figure which increases year on year, with the appearance of new flights. The European ski-season has a big part to play in this; the past decade has seen ski-specific airlines such as Snowjet appearing on the market, and additional flight routes are added each year to keep up with the ever increasing demand – in 2009 Snowjet opened their new Gatwick to Geneva route and for the 2010/11 ski season British Airways announced a new scheduled flight from London city airport to Chambery.

Mountain Riders, a French environmental ski charity, believe that reducing carbon travel costs is the most important step we can take towards skiing green. Following an environmental audit of French resorts with the French Environment and Energy Management Agency, it emerged that 74% of carbon emissions associated with a ski holiday came from transporting skiers and snowboarders to and from their resort.

This doesn’t bode well for the UK government, who are aiming for a 60% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. But the good news is that, if we choose to ski within Europe, even more so in France, the alternative options for getting into the mountains are often more convenient and less expensive than the combined costs of flying and transfers…

Option 1: Rail Travel - Daniel Elkan, founder of snowcarbon (specialists in rail travel to ski resorts), suggests that travelling by rail produces less than 10% of the carbon a flight does. The added bonuses include a wonderfully relaxing journey with room to move around in, sleep and do a few stretches ready for the first run, so that you arrive in resort refreshed and ready to hit the slopes.

Option 2: Self Drive - The website saveoursnow claims that a single short haul flight for one person generates as much carbon as three months driving a 1.4 litre car. So long as your car contains more than one passenger, a road trip across France can massively reduce your carbon footprint, plus you have the added advantage of travelling door to door with no hanging around at airports. Oh, and don’t forget to save some boot space for duty frees on the way home.

Option 3: Carbon offsetting – Always an option to help ease the conscience of anyone who can’t tear themselves out of their confined, refrigerated easy-jet seat. Approved by TICOS (The Tourism Industry Carbon Offset Service), the additional money paid by passengers can go towards projects such as replacing diesel generators with hydro-electric plants in mountain resorts, or replanting areas of woodland.

Issue 3: Litter
Snow is a litter-bug’s dream. Drop as much as you like and just watch it sink beneath the surface, gone forever…well, at least for a few months. Cigarettes, banana skins, bottles, gloves, hair bands, dropped poles, even skis, the debris left behind after a few million skiers have descended on the Alps for a season is immense but is rarely seen by those who cause it – blissfully unaware litter-bugs are likely to return the following year to a fresh blanket of pristine snow, oblivious to the damage created the previous year.

In the resort of Val Thorens, it’s estimated that over 30,000 cigarette butts are found beneath the lifts when the snow starts to thaw. Taking up to five years to biodegrade, the butts not only contaminate water supplies but are also ingested by animals who graze the slopes during the summer months.

French resorts do not ignore the issue, and many have a commendable supply of recycling bins in resort towns, but on-piste waste disposal remains an issue, where the presence of bins is not a particularly practical or aesthetically appealing option, not to mention potentially hazardous for skiers and boarders.

We can’t really blame the ski-resorts or tour operators for this one, although they could be encouraged to follow the lead of some US resorts and ban smoking on chair lifts altogether. But is it really too much to ask skiers and boarders to take litter back to their chalets and dispose of it there? And thanks to a rather bespoke range of portable ashtrays available nowadays, it need not mean smelling of decomposing rubbish in your back-pack all day - Keep Britain Tidy has the low down on some of the coolest.

So it seems there’s so much room for redressing the balance between environment and exploitation within the ski industry but the good news is that there’s much that we as skiers and boarders can do directly, and with immediate impact. By not fuelling the demand for unseasonal snowfall, considering alternative travel options to flying and by taking greater responsibility for our own waste, we’re already moving closer to the reality of skiing green.

Luckily, there’s plenty of momentum behind this move. Compared to other commercial ventures, the majority of people involved in the ski industry, whether chalet owners, tour operators or first time skiers, there’s a genuine desire to conserve nature’s beloved mountains. We just need a firm reminder and a push in the right direction…

This article was also published by Responsible Travel News

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