How damaging is ski tourism to the climate?

How damaging is ski tourism to the climate?

The ski industry is criticized far too much, says Cable Car Chief Franz Hörl. However, it is clear that emissions must be reduced, also in Austrian tourism. The biggest levers lie in arrivals and departures and in the expansion of renewable energies.

Narrow white bands amid green mountain landscapes: These images have recently fueled criticism of ski tourism once again. Cable car boss and ÖVP tourism spokesman Franz Hörl has had enough: all too often, winter tourism in Austria is criticized – unfairly, he believes. After all, cable cars emit much less CO2 than air travel or cruises, for example. Hörl is now calling for special taxes or a ban on advertising.

His statements in a fact check.

How much CO2 does skiing cause?

Stefan Gössling of Linné University in Sweden, who researches the impact of tourism on the climate, quotes a report that puts the energy balance for a day’s skiing in Finland at 20 kilowatt hours per person per day. This includes electricity for snowmaking, lifts and lighting. If you take the Austrian electricity mix, you get four kilograms of CO2 per person per day, .

The figures come from the industry itself, but Gössling considers them quite plausible. According to figures from the Austrian Federal Environment Agency, all cable cars in Austria consume 953 gigawatt hours, plus around 250 gigawatt hours for snowmaking systems, according to an estimate by the cable car association. Divided by the 55 million “skier days” estimated by the Alpine Association, this comes to around 22 kilowatt hours per skier day – which almost matches the figures from Finland.

That’s little compared to the rest of the emissions generated during a ski vacation. For example, just one burger at the lodge generates two kilograms of CO2. Even when heating the apartment, you don’t get far with 20 kilowatt hours. Compared to a flight, the CO2 balance is also low.

“Basically, the comparison with air travel is of little use,” says Robert Steiger, who conducts research on sustainable tourism development at the University of Innsbruck. “We have to come down with our emissions. Also in domestic tourism.” Above all, that means covering the electricity needs of ski operations as well as accommodation with renewable energies.

And if the slope is prepared with artificial snow?

Hörl criticizes the fact that snow guns are often portrayed as energy guzzlers. In fact, snowmakers are quite energy-intensive. According to the Austrian Cable Car Association, for example, it takes 15,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year to make snow for one hectare of piste. “Extrapolated to Austria, that adds up to around 250 gigawatt hours,” says Steiger. Other sources speak of even much higher consumption, he adds.

Exactly how many snow guns there are in Austria is not known. Estimates are in excess of 30,000. How climate-friendly they are therefore depends, on the one hand, on how the electricity is produced – and, on the other, on how long the cannons run. In more and more areas, artificial snow will soon no longer be profitable. “By 2050, 20 percent of ski areas in Austria will probably no longer be able to make snow,” says Steiger.

Hörl calls the arrival and departure of guests the “only weak point” in his industry. What are the figures on this?

A 2018 study by the Federal Environment Agency proves Hörl right: around half of the emissions for a skiing vacation in Austria are generated by travel to and from the resort, 32 percent by accommodation and only 18 percent by the skiing operation itself.

The ratio is even more drastic for travelers from abroad, as a study from 2021 shows. Overall, 94 percent of emissions in Austrian tourism are attributable to transportation. The further the vacationers travel, the larger the transport-related footprint: for example, a person traveling from China causes around 6.7 tons of CO2, while vacationers from the Czech Republic cause only 70 kilograms – almost 100 times less. However, the figures refer to tourism in general, not just skiing vacations.

On a global average, the tourism sector is more energy- and CO2-intensive than other industries because of high transport emissions. “Austria is an exception here,” says Gössling. Because of its central location in Europe, Austria also attracts many tourists from nearby countries that produce few emissions.

The longer vacationers stay in a place, the lower the climate impact, he says. “In Austria, however, there is a fatal tendency for the average length of stay to keep falling,” says Gössling. Travelers from overseas in particular would spend less time in Austria, as they would divide their travel time among several European countries – and leave less money in Austria in the process. Nevertheless, tourism associations would also court Austria vacationers in faraway countries. “This is advertising to a very unprofitable target group,” says Gössling.

How can winter tourism become more sustainable?

Skiing vacations are a very energy-intensive type of tourism, Gössling says. “But if the energy comes from sustainable sources, ski tourism is basically in a good position.” But: every kilowatt hour of green energy is missing somewhere else. Therefore, it is necessary to set priorities – especially because the ski industry needs more and more energy to produce snow due to rising temperatures. Travel to and from the resort is also crucial. “This is where the biggest leverage lies,” Steiger said. “Train travel for winter vacations has to become easier.”

(Alicia Prager, Philip Pramer, Jan. 10, 2022)

Source: Der Standard – Photo: Pixabay

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