Is a ski holiday a climate sin?

The more comfortable, the more harmful to the climate

Snow cannons, cable cars, arriving by car: is a skiing holiday a climate sin?

The mild weather of the past few days in the Swiss Alps has disrupted operations in the alpine ski areas below 2200 meters above sea level – some ski areas have even had to pause or postpone the season.

Actually, many skiers and snowboarders would be out and about in numerous ski areas in Switzerland, Bavaria and Austria. Because winter is the typical ski season in the Alps. But in view of the warm temperatures of around ten degrees Celsius, some ski areas have had to pause or postpone their ski season. Because with such temperatures, many slopes are green instead of white – and even for artificial snow it’s just too warm at the moment.

Skiing on purely natural snow has become a rarity in the Alps anyway. When it is too warm for snow, snow cannons are used: they give the mountains a thick coat of snow, which one would otherwise not see so often due to the consequences of the climate crisis. Climate change is threatening ski areas, and at the same time ski holidays are considered ecologically reprehensible.

“With today’s skiing, you can clearly see how energy-intensive our leisure time behavior has become,” says Werner Bätzing, alpine researcher and professor emeritus for cultural geography at the Institute for Geography at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Energy-intensive snow cannons that use a lot of water are now an integral part of ski tourism – just like other modern technologies that make ski holidays as comfortable as drag lifts or aerial and funicular railways. Without them, holidaymakers would have to laboriously climb the mountains on foot.

18 kilowatt hours per person and day of skiing

Last year, the Association of German Cable Cars and T-bar Lifts reported an average energy consumption of 18 kilowatt hours per person and day on skis – about as much as working on a laptop for 900 hours and cooking 18 meals for four people. The Oberstdorf Kleinwalstertal mountain railways, which on their site list how this number is composed. Snowmaking is responsible for more than a third of the energy consumption, and the lifts for almost 3.4 kilowatt hours.

It is striking that the association, the company and other cable car operators compare these figures with flights, car journeys or the total energy consumption of a country – according to Bätzing, this is a popular strategy. “But this statement is inappropriate because you have to look at skiing holidays as well as climate change in a very complex overall context,” he says. After all, global warming is not only made up of the big causes, but also of countless small ones – and that includes the cable cars and snow cannons.

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Arrivals and departures make skiing holidays particularly harmful to the climate

In addition, the figures only deal with the direct effects of skiing on climate change, which are made up of, among other things, the energy consumption of snow cannons and lifts. However, the indirect effects are much more serious – the energy-intensive urbanization of ski tourism centers, for example, as Bätzing explains. According to climate protector Thomas Frey from Bund Naturschutz, “the main cause of the climate damage of skiing holidays” is the arrival and departure. “Approximately 75 percent of the CO₂ emissions in alpine tourism comes from traffic,” he says.

The problem is that many people travel by car – sometimes even several times in winter for just one day trip. A calculation by the environmental foundation WWF shows how energy-intensive this can be: For a 700-kilometer car journey from Dresden to Lech in Austria, a person traveling alone causes 296 kilograms of CO₂. Together with the return journey, he would have already reached more than five percent of the annual per capita emissions of a German, which according to the Federal Environment Agency causes an average of 11.2 tons of CO₂.

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Getting there and back could further worsen the carbon footprint of ski holidays in the future if ski tourism centers welcomed more and more guests from Asia, as has been assumed. In China, skiing was very popular, especially before the Corona crisis, during the Winter Olympics in Beijing last February. The government announced that 300 million Chinese will be excited about winter sports by 2025, aiming to be the world’s largest market for the industry. “Then skiing will be much more harmful to the climate because people have to fly halfway around the world to do it,” says Alpine researcher Bätzing.

Snow cannons: Millions of liters of water are needed per hectare of slopes

In addition to the energy and emissions, climate protectors are also concerned about the water and land use for the snow cannons. Frey criticizes that snow cannons are still subsidized by the state in Bavaria. “That’s absurd in times of energy crisis,” he says. In order to be able to supply the snow cannons with plenty of water, huge reservoirs are created that require a lot of space – in the case of the Panorama reservoir in Ötztal it has a capacity of 415,000 cubic meters, i.e. as much as 166 Olympic swimming pools. The Austrian Chamber of Commerce states that the equivalent of three million liters of water are needed per hectare of slopes. It is true that the entire slope area of ​​the ski regions does not usually have to be covered with snow, but in view of the almost 50,000 hectares in Austria, Switzerland and Bavaria alone, countless liters of water are still needed per season.

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Climate protection: In 20 to 30 years, skiing will end in the Bavarian Alps

According to Bätzing, the current form of skiing holidays cannot be made climate-neutral. The usual arrival by car and all the other technical aids for the descent and snowmaking made this impossible. After all, according to Frey, vacationers could “significantly reduce their ecological footprint by traveling by bus and train and not just making day trips to the mountains, but rather staying in the place longer”. In addition, when looking for a hotel or other place to stay, you can make sure that it is as climate-friendly as possible.

“When skiing is no longer worthwhile, these areas should be made available again for hikers and nature recreation. I believe that this is the future of Alpine tourism.”

Thomas Frey, climate protector

But even if more people opt for a more climate-friendly trip, ski fans will have to say goodbye to skiing holidays in the Alps in the not too distant future, for better or worse, due to climate change. “In the Bavarian Alps, the vast majority of ski areas will no longer be guaranteed snow in 20 to 30 years because the artificial snow will continue to melt away,” says Frey.

Even if the central Alps are likely to be good as ski areas for a little longer, skiing will simply become too expensive for many people in the long run due to the rising costs for snowmaking and the like. The climate protector hopes that the Alps will become what they stand for in the long term: a natural landscape in which one can find peace and relaxation. “When skiing is no longer worthwhile, these areas should be made available again for hikers and nature recreation. I believe that this is the future of Alpine tourism.”

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