Ski resorts: Go for the green run
How well are ski resorts resolving their environmental dilemmas?
The world's ski industry epitomises the difficulties of getting to grips with the fight against climate change. Resorts that have talked the talk are now spending serious money on green power projects. But, as with our society as a whole, the industry has not yet worked through all the contradictions.
We have passed through the "greenwash" era of limp initiatives that typified the early years of the decade. Resorts no longer boast that they have a recycling bin or a signpost saying it's a good idea to turn the light off when you go out.
Now resorts are trying to cut carbon emissions in an increasingly serious attempt to save their future, bravely doing their best, despite the fact that their fates may be sealed by the actions of mankind as a whole, not theirs; the wind turbines are going up and bio-mass heating systems going in regardless.
On the other hand, the past summer has seen a global spend of hundreds of millions of pounds on power-hungry new snowmaking machinery as a short-term fix (although no one will admit to thinking that).
Sixty US resorts now receive all or most of the power required for these snowmaking guns, as well as the ski lifts and other resort infrastructure, from renewable energy suppliers. Vail Resorts is the second-largest private buyer of green energy in the country (behind a food retail giant). Some of the largest ski areas in Europe are green powered, including the vast Three Valleys, which also runs its piste-grooming machines with bio-fuels.
Yet the contradictions which affect all of us in our daily lives are still there. Aspen is one of the loudest campaigners against climate change, but it is building a huge development at one of its resorts ("in a green way"). To fill all those hotel rooms it needs to sell holidays worldwide, flying in guests from Australia and Europe, while the local airstrip is stretched coping with all the private jets.
The local Aspen Daily News has reported that this winter the resort will be following up its green campaign of last season, but also running separate advertisements aimed at bolstering its airport, following negative media coverage resulting from snarl-ups earlier in the year.
There are plenty of excellent initiatives out there. In August, a 125m-high wind turbine opened at Jiminy Peak ski resort in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. The resort is a heavy power-user for snowmaking and the turbine will cover up to half of the power the resort requires. St Moritz, which has already placed solar panels up the side of its funicular railway line and branded its own locally generated green energy, was actually the world's first user of green power in a ski resort. Johannes Badrutt, the gentleman already credited with starting winter sports holidays in 1864, when he won a bet with some English summer tourists that they'd enjoy sunny St Moritz in winter more than grimy London, also had plenty of ideas up his sleeve. In 1878, he visited the Universial Exposition in Paris, saw electric lighting for the first time, and by Christmas had installed the first lights in his Kulm Hotel's dining room, powered by the Brattas stream above the hotel.
Badrutt's son, Casper, had accompanied his father to the Exhibition and later went on to establish the magnificent Badrutt's Palace Hotel, which stands in a commanding position above the resort's famous lake. This freezes so thick each winter that horse races, polo matches and cross-country races attracting thousands of fans onto the ice are staged each winter. While these events are not under immediate threat due to climate change, the resort has quietly noted that these days the ice freezes a little later and thaws a little earlier than records indicate that it did a century ago.
The ingenious solution is a geothermal heat pump, installed recently, which takes cool water from the lake, extracts heat from it to warm Badrutt's Palace, and then sends colder water back to the lake. The process brings the temperature of the lake down by 3 per cent, helping it freeze sooner and longer, actually reversing the effects of global warming. As a result of the initiative, Badrutt's Palace uses half-a-million fewer litres of heating oil (which were previously all brought up the mountains in tankers) and pumps out 1,200 tonnes less carbon dioxide. It's a rare win-win situation in the climate change battle and one of several similar innovative initiatives by the Swiss resort which, like Aspen, has a nearby airport used by private jets.
It seems unlikely that even the most forward-thinking resorts, again like the rest of us, will fully grasp the nettle unless legislation and/or costs force us to make greener travel decisions. So it is that today several ski resorts are edging closer to becoming some of the first communities in the world to be virtually carbon-neutral, but getting to them remains the problem. Unless, that is, you are comfortable with the easy carbon offset that more and more airlines now offer.
To limit the damage, the obvious answer is rail-accessible France, which already has two-fifths of the UK market. Although Eurostar is majoring on its low CO2 credentials, the French ski industry as a whole is yet to make a concerted effort to point out the simple maths that, if resorts are not so far away, you're probably going to generate less CO2 getting to them (especially if you go by train). Even by air, a quick five minutes with the carbon offset calculator at climatecare.org indicates that a London to Geneva return flight comes in at 0.19 tonnes to offset, whereas London to Vancouver generates 2.14 tonnes – more than 11 times as much. This long-haul flight represents 95 per cent of the CO2 emissions your ski holiday involves, compared with nearer 50 per cent if you fly to Western Europe.
Overall, the media appears to be driving the agenda. This puts pressure on resorts to do all they can, but focuses less on our personal responsibilities to do our bit. The reported shortage of snow in the Alps last winter is an example of this; by February some Opinion columns were reporting it as, more or less, the wrath of God brought down on evil skiers for their destruction of the planet. The ski industry became the cause rather than the victim of climate change.
A story in spring that the small French resort of Abondance had decided against forking out a small fortune to upgrade its archaic lift system was flashed around the world by news agencies under the banner: "The beginning of the end for skiing." No one considered that small businesses tend to go bust regularly in all walks of life, and that Abondance was one of dozens of marginal ski resorts that had taken the same decision, or that new ski resorts are opening still in countries where the economic conditions are right, such as China and Russia.
Many resorts are already projecting record summer business and all are spending on diversified leisure choices such as indoor water parks, casinos and ever more luxurious spas. These all tie in with our evolving holiday needs – climate change or not.
*Badrutt's Palace (00 41 81 837 1000; www.badruttspalace.com)
*Climate Care (www.climatecare.org)
*Jiminy Peak (001 617 7385500; www.jiminypeak.com)
*Megeve (00 33 450 212728; www.ecofriendly-megeve.com)
*Rail Europe (08708 304 932; www.raileurope.co.uk)
*Respect the Mountain (020 8410 2000; www.respectthemountain.co.uk)
*St Moritz (00 41 81 8373333; www.stmoritz.ch)
*Vail Resorts (001 970 4765601; www.snow.com)
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