Skiing is undeniably great fun but the bad news is that there's a price to pay for your annual adrenalin rush, and it's the environment that's picking up the bill. From energy-guzzling resorts to the bulldozing of fragile Alpine slopes in order to create red runs, the reality is that skiing is one of the most environmentally destructive sports on the planet.
The good news, though, is that a growing number of Alpine resorts are now waking up to the sport's negative impact and working hard to reduce the environmental fallout. For most resorts, a pristine environment is crucial for their economic survival. “We have to protect our mountains: this is what our tourists and skiers come for,” says Eric Fournier, mayor of Chamonix, the French town that sits at the foot of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain.
In 2010 Chamonix became one of the first Alpine resorts to launch its own pioneering climate and energy action plan, with a target of slashing its carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020. “If we're going to be able to ski in the future then we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Fournier.
With an ambitious programme of energy- saving projects and an extensive public transport system – the centrepiece of which is a free train for skiers – Chamonix is emerging as a frontrunner in the move towards greener skiing. “Climate change isn't an opinion,” says ski instructor and former pro-skier Stéphane Lagarde, “it's a fact.”
Having grown up in Chamonix, Lagarde has witnessed the changes that a warming climate is having in his own backyard, with rapidly retreating glaciers and increasingly erratic snowfall. Such is his concern about the long-term danger that climate change poses to skiing – and in turn his own livelihood – that in 2009 Lagarde launched the groundbreaking Ecorider, a ski school with an eye on global warming.As well as letting his clients know that climate change could send the ski industry downhill, Lagarde is now helping to offset Ecorider's emissions by planting hundreds of trees in the Peruvian Amazon.
In recognition of its environmental work, Chamonix has become one of only three Alpine resorts to be awarded the Flocon Vert – the green snowflake – a label certifying sustainability awarded by Mountain Riders, a France-based group that campaigns for a more sustainable winter sports industry. “We rate resorts on over 40 different environmental and social criteria, from transport infrastructure to use of renewable energy,” explains Laurent Burget, director of Mountain Riders, which also publishes an online guide to the green track record of 250 ski resorts around the world.
“The aim of the Flocon Vert is to make it easier for skiers and boarders to choose a more environmentally responsible resort and encourage other resorts to raise their environmental game,” says Burget.
One of the other two Flocon Vert resorts is Villars in Switzerland. Situated at the relatively low height of 1,300m, pocket-sized Villars is aware it's in the climate change firing line, following predictions that by 2050 ski resorts below 1,500m would struggle with snow cover. In response, the resort has been working on a wide range of sustainability projects over the past five years, including introducing a fleet of hybrid buses to ferry skiers about, investing in low-energy snow-making systems and fitting solar panels on the village's public buildings.
While sustainability projects are good news for the local environment, they're also good for local businesses, says Sebastien Angelini, chair of the committee that co-ordinates sustainability projects in Villars, and co-owner of the Hotel du Golf, the first in the region to undergo an extensive environment-focused upgrade.
“There's a clear commercial advantage in being the first hotel to become more sustainable,” says Angelini, who has reduced the hotel's annual electricity use by a third since installing solar panels. “Tour operators are increasingly expecting the hotels that they work with to have environmental credentials.”
And it's not just European ski resorts that are recognising the need to improve their performance; leading the charge on sustainability and climate action in North American is Aspen. The Colorado resort is now on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 from 2000 levels, through increased use of renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.
Aspen's work has been given the thumbs up by Protect Our Winters, a US-based group that leads the American snow sports community in the fight against climate change. “There's no one doing it any better,” says Chris Steinkamp from Protect Our Winters. “Aspen realises that real change has to come at the policy level so it's mobilising its customers to take real action to force change in Washington.”
How can consumers reduce their environmental impact? “It's now accepted that 75 per cent of carbon emissions from winter sports can be attributed to the transport in getting to your resort whether that be by car or plane,” says Laurent Burget. “Taking the train to your resort can cut your carbon emissions by up to 90 per cent.”
Does this mean European skiers shouldn't be hopping on plane to North America? “Yes,” is the stark answer from Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Ski Company, adding, “If a skier really cares about the climate issue then they have to demand that their ski resorts are engaged in both progressive operational practices and climate policy lobbying. Unless I'm missing something, I haven't seen European resorts speaking up, even though they're getting hammered by warming temperatures.”
Voyages-SNCF (0844 848 5848; voyages-sncf.com) offers rail tickets from London St Pancras to Chamonix from £149 return, and to Villars from £150 return.
Simon Birch was a guest of La Chaumière in Chamonix (00 33 4 50 53 13 25; chaumierelodge.com). Double rooms start at £66, including breakfast. He also stayed at Hotel du Golf in Villars (00 41 24 496 38 38; hoteldugolf.ch) Doubles from £104, b&b.
Ecorider (00 33 6 36 66 48 10; ecorider.org) in Chamonix offers ski lessons from £150.
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