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Inside winter travel: The greening of the slopes

Climate change has slid down the agenda for skiers, but resorts still assert their 'eco' credentials. Patrick Thorne reports

Five winters ago was one to forget in the Alps. The 2006-7 season started badly with unseasonably warm weather, meaning there was very little snow. It wasn't the first time this had happened but it did coincide perfectly with a period when the world's media were as obsessed with climate change as they are now about economic meltdown.

"Global warming poses threat to ski resorts in the Alps" warned The New York Times on 16 December 2006. It quoted an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report that warned rising temperatures spelt doom for lower-lying ski resorts in the Alps.

Kitzbühel Lift Company director Georg Hechenberger disputed the warning, pointing out one theory claiming rising temperatures would disrupt the Gulf Stream, making northern Europe colder. High-altitude resorts, the safest bet for snow, would then be too cold for pleasant ski holidays.

Back then, the ski travel industry was caught in the headlights of global publicity. On one hand, the ski areas looked set to be the first victims of climate change; on the other, they were portrayed as perpetrators, with people flying around the world to get their snow fix, generating the CO2 emissions blamed for global warming. (This irony was lost on a group of Colorado resorts that were advertising their environmental friendliness while advising skiers fed up with poor conditions in Europe to fly to the US.)

The 2006-7 season ended with a late surge by Mother Nature, who conjured up heavy snow in March and April. Some months later, the world's media were finally provided the hard evidence they craved of global warming destroying an industry dependent on low temperatures.

"Snowless in a warming world, ski resort in French Alps bids adieu," claimed The New York Times again on 19 July 2007, reporting on the little village of Abondance (00 33 450 730 290; valdabondance.com), where the town council had taken a majority (and what turned out to be temporary) decision to stop offering snow sports.

But was it all down to climate change as the report implied? If the journalist had sought to dig deeper he'd have discovered that hundreds of small ski areas at all altitudes had stopped offering skiing over the past few decades, thanks as much to rising energy, staff and insurance costs and changing consumer trends as to declining snow cover.

"Frankly, I'm a lot more concerned about demographic and economic shifts than I am about a few tenths of a degree, plus or minus, on a climatological temperature chart," says Skip King of ski industry consultancy firm Reputation Strategies (reputationstrategies.com).

"I work with ski areas all over the US – including areas which aren't blessed with either impressive topography or reliable natural snowfall – and in some cases, not even reliable cold temperatures. They've been dealing with that since long before people got concerned about global warming and they're all doing just fine."

So what has changed since 2006-7? Well, those who follow snowfall stats will say "not a lot": last winter record snowfall accumulations were reported in western North America, and even Scottish ski areas have had a couple of banner winters after being largely written off.

Importantly, those who report seriously on climate change will point out that this does not mean climate change isn't happening, and indeed that it fits with their projections of changing weather patterns and extremes in different places as the planet slowly warms.

The attitude of ski resorts has certainly changed markedly. Their annual "press kits" that arrive in journalists in-boxes each winter now have a few pages detailing their environmental efforts. When new infrastructure is built, explanations on the greenness of its construction and operation precedes description of its practical advantage to skiers.

There have been big investments in green technologies too. Whistler Blackcomb, the Canadian giant, has installed a hydro-electric power system that runs the entire resort, while the little Austrian ski centre of Salzstiegl uses two wind turbines to achieve 100 per cent green energy. Other ski areas are hydro-powered, including the world's biggest, the French Three Valleys area.

With climate change out of the headlines, has there been a change in the approach of skiers and boarders after a period of soul-searching for some when the climate change debate broke? Are they switching to terrestrial transport? The signs are mixed.

Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) reports that, before the recession, one in five skiers opted to offset the CO2 emissions from their flights. "Since then, it has dropped to 7 per cent," says spokeswoman Marion Telsnig. This season, however, Crystal has started selling rail holidays to the Alps at the same price as travelling by air – and doubled the number of ski holidays by train.

The Ski Club of Great Britain's annual Snowsports Analysis report notes another 1 per cent drop in the numbers of British skiers and boarders self-driving or travelling by rail last winter, as packages including air travel look more affordable.

That OECD report predicted that the (then more distant) 2020s were when climate change would start to have a significant impact on snowsports in the Alps. It seems we need some more poor winters and perhaps an end to economic turmoil for it to move back up the public agenda again.