Greenhouse gases, global warming, climate change, flooding, drought, cyclones and tsunamis. The effect human activity is having on the planet hits the headlines every day.
Yes, you separate your recycling. Of course you don’t leave the tap running when you brush your teeth. You might have even bought a hybrid car, grown your own vegetables and covered your roof with solar panels. But have you thought about the environmental impact of your winter sports holiday?
A ski resort might not seem so bad; it’s just a small town in the mountains after all. But when you consider the power and water usage of the chalets and hotels, the energy consumption of the lifts, the diesel in the piste bashers, tourist cars, transfer minibuses and coaches, the aviation fuel from all those Easyjetters (15,000 people flying into Geneva on the Saturday before Christmas), road clearers, medical helicopters, sewerage output from thousands of bathrooms… it all adds up. That doesn’t even include the environmental costs of building the resort in the first place – and most sprung up back in the 1960s when no-one had ever heard the phrase ‘eco-friendly’.
Serious Environmental Damage
Now multiply that by the number of resorts in France (over 300), and you’re starting to get one incredibly large carbon footprint. Scale it up to cover the rest of the world’s ski resorts and you’re looking at a serious level of environmental damage.
You can see why the forecast is so dire: If nothing changes, in 50 years’ time the French mountains could have lost 40% of their snow at altitudes below 1400m. Wildlife and plantlife is also at risk and some endangered species could die out.
Mountain Riders is the organisation behind the excellent Eco Guide To Ski Resorts. You can download the guide at mountain-riders.org to find out the effect ski areas are having on the environment and how everyone can make a difference. It also shows how resorts rank, with the Haute Tarentaise coming out in the middle of the table at around 50% eco-friendly. The group warns: “It’s urgent we act on transportation and building renovation. Today 57% of greenhouse gases come from the movement of people to and from the resort and 27% of energy consumption comes from public and private buildings.”
New Snow Cannons
Fortunately our resorts are already trying to clean up their act.
Tignes and Val d’Isere are bringing in electric cars – Tignes has a shiny new fleet of 40 Twizys, equipped with snow tyres and ski carriers, available for car share this winter. Both have cut down their use of salt on the roads – over 1million tonnes is spread annually in France, which can harm animals and plants and get into our drinking water. The oil used in Tignes’ machines like piste bashers is 100% biodegradable and the resort doesn’t use pesticides. Snow cannons can use a huge amount of energy to create artificial snow. This year Val d’Isere has invested in a state-of-the-art 1,000sqm underground snow creation facility at the bottom of the Bellevarde – slashing its power usage at the same time as creating even more of the white stuff!
Old buildings pose a much greater problem. Val d’Isere is in the midst of a project to modernise and insulate all its public buildings – schools, leisure centres, Mairie, gendarmerie – after thermal imaging cameras showed a worrying picture. “It was very clear what was built in the 60s and 70s and what was built recently,” mayor Marc Bauer told us. “You could see the old buildings evaporating heat; they have hardly any insulation. We are trying to set a good example and hope private property owners will follow our lead.”
Energy Efficient Homes
Tignes has already invested in renewable energy – its new social housing developments have ground source heat pumps, drastically reducing the cost of supplying hot water and heating. And now that the government has wised up it’s recently brought in tough laws to make sure all new builds have as little impact on the environment as possible.
These laws have forced developers to look for modern alternatives to the usual high-carbon footprint concrete method of construction – leading to a building revolution across the Alps. They’re turning to state-of-the-art, sustainable timber-frame Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPS), which can create homes so energy efficient they hardly need heating – even in ski resorts! They’re much kinder to the planet in construction too. The lightweight panels are precision cut in factories off-site, minimising waste. They can be put up within weeks rather than several seasons, cutting down on transport and labour – and lowering costs.
Architect Steve Downs, of Tignes-based ECSUS (Ecological & Sustainable) Design, which specialises in the panels, explains: “For decades everything in the mountains has been built with reinforced concrete – but thanks to the new regulations and programmes like Grand Designs, we’re seeing a surge in ‘green’ methods of construction. People’s perception was that it’s expensive and difficult, but actually it’s more simple to construct and you save in labour, time and waste. The long-term savings on heating bills are huge and you’re also doing your bit for the planet.”
So we’re going in the right direction, but there’s much more that can be done. Respect The Mountains, a group that promotes sustainable tourism, has come up with 7 ways you can help to protect the Alps while on holiday:
1 Book Smart
Research resorts that have eco credentials – you might find a hidden gem! Travel at low season if you can, for less impact on the mountain.
2 Travel Wise
Try to use lower carbon transportation methods. For example, instead of flying take a bus, train or carpool with friends. When at the resort, use public transport; walk, hike, bike to get around.
3 Support Eco-friendly Businesses
There are lots of businesses that are actively supporting sustainable development – look out for and choose those skiwear brands, hotels, adventure companies, travel services.
Buy locally grown produce whilst at the resorts and look out for businesses using renewable energy like solar panels.
4 Be a Respectful & Responsible Mountain Tourist
You may only be here a week but if you want to come back year after year everyone needs to look after the environment like it was their own home. If you see anyone disrespecting it – tell them, too.
Always do your research on weather forecasts, routes and equipment before venturing into the mountains. Expensive search and rescue operations can be avoided with some thought.
5 ‘Leave no trace’
Stay on designated paths – they’re there to protect you as well as the flora, fauna and wildlife. Take all your picnic rubbish away – a plastic bottle dropped can have unforeseen consequences for an animal that might find it later.
6 Reduce, Reuse, Recycle & Upcycle
Recycling is not something we can take a holiday from. Remember to keep reusing items and taking advantage of recycling facilities.
7 Spread the word
We all love the mountains – if you’re a regular visitor why not start your own Respect the Mountains group? Get together, try to make a positive difference, lobby for change and be rewarded with results that will benefit the environment for future generations.