Many people reading this article will have been inundated with information about the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. You may have seen the crashes, the successes and felt offended by how sporty people our age can be. In and amongst this you may or may not have noticed that the UK does rather poorly in the Winter Olympics compared to our summer performances. I’m glad we suck.
If the UK was good at winter sports people might get the crazy idea to take up one of them and go on holidays in the mountains. The impact of this would be huge, as I’m about to argue. Now, a brief interlude for disclosure before I get to my point, I have been on ski holidays, I rather enjoy the sport and understand why people go to hit the slopes. I am not someone who wishes to shame those who do winter sports, but maybe it’s time to make your next ski holiday your last.
Getting there is the first environmental problem. Many people will fly to a ski holiday in continental Europe, in particular the Alps. A quick search on carbon calculators will tell you a direct economy return flight from London to Geneva will release 0.24 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. You may say, I’m not going to fly, I’ll take a coach or car the 728 miles driving distance it is to the French Alps from London. A coach would only produce 0.06 tonnes of CO₂ for this journey, but a medium petrol car will produce more emissions than a plane at 0.48 tonnes for the round trip. The Carbon Trust has estimated individuals produce nearly 11 tonnes of CO₂ a year and that this figure needs to be reduced by a significant degree to reduce global warming. None of these figures are meant to be authoritative, but clearly cutting out the travel to ski holidays in Europe, never mind further afield, has a significant impact on personal emissions.
“Okay,” you say, “I will travel by coach and offset” or “my impact is already much lower, so I can afford to emit here” but stop, emissions from the travel are not the only environmental impact of winter sports. There is a huge biodiversity impact of winter resorts, in the form of the razing of trees and plants to make way for slopes. Alongside this you have the loss of forest habitats for animals which lived within them, and the impact the loud and disruptive resort has on animal welfare. Even in Scottish ski slopes, where the emissions from UK travellers are clearly their lowest, they have seen declines in animal populations at least partly attributable to the development of winter sports resorts.
Finally, you have the resource usage by such resorts. With amounts of snow reducing and becoming increasingly irregular, the reliance on artificial snow is growing. Thousands of gallons of water per minute are needed to ensure this amount of snow can be produced, an unacceptable usage considering the increasing scarcity of water. The use of energy to run ski lifts and power the hotels is incredibly high and the emissions from slope maintenance vehicles are high due to their heavy-duty nature. In short, these locations are resource black holes.
Now, you may turn to me and point to all the resorts using renewable energy, or conservation measures and tell me that it is improving. In fact a brief search online will show a lot of such endeavours. But that assumes that the activity is something we need, that being shipped halfway up a slope to go down it again is somehow a necessity. Whether the impact is increasing or decreasing, it ignores the fact that increased reliance on winter sports as a holiday activity is an unnecessary luxury.
So what now? Again, this isn’t intended to be an attack on those that partake in the sport, many students of this university and others organise such trips, but a call for thought. A call to refuse to partake in an industry that causes so much environmental damage when alternative holidays are possible. Next time you are tempted to take part in a winter sports trip, stop and think, “Is it worth it?”
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.