What is the carbon impact of skiing and other snow sports?

I love skiing; it’s one of my favorite ways to be outside. Checking on snow conditions also makes me highly attuned to the levels of snow in the mountains I visit, and extra aware of the consistent decrease year over year in snowpack and skiing conditions. I’ve also worried about the climate impacts of being a skier; how much do ski resorts contribute to global warming? And how guilty should I feel when I head up to the mountains?

The ski industry is hyper-aware of how climate change is affecting their business model; the welfare of the entire industry is intimately tied to the snowpack each year. Thus, ski resorts have a strong incentive to both modify their practices to produce fewer carbon emissions, and to lobby for environmental action at the state and federal level, and they have done so with vigor.

While the ski industry is large, and contributes disproportionately to the revenue of states like Colorado, it is important to note that it is exceedingly small relative to the larger US economy, and even to the broader hospitality industry. A report from Vail estimated that the ski industry in Colorado generates about $5 billion in revenue a year; the size of the US economy is around $20 trillion. According to the EPA, “industry” contributes about 22% of carbon emissions, and transportation another 28% of emissions. I assume that the hospitality industry falls somewhat under both categories (at least based on how emissions categories are broken down by the EPA). A study released in Nature Climate Change in 2018 estimated that the tourism industry contributes about 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. This includes emissions related to flying in particular, which is the major contributor to the emission totals. So, while the ski industry is sizable, it’s important to keep in mind that its relative contribution to global warming, and therefore its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is limited. (That’s not to say it’s not important- every slice does count!- just that a ski resort going to zero emissions isn’t going to fix global warming in one fell swoop.)

Bearing all of that in mind, the ski industry overall is doing an impressive job of working towards climate solutions. The ski industry was early to acknowledged that global warming is real, and has vocally promoted this reality. I remember seeing a Warren Miller film easily 8 or 10 years ago that had a sub-story about climate change and glaciers shrinking; the company has taken an active stance to bring awareness to climate change. The National Ski Areas Association publishes an annual report tracking sustainability efforts in the ski industry, outlining which resorts participate and what specific actions they have taken to reduce their environmental impact. As part of the NSAA’s efforts, ski resorts endorsed the “We Are Still In” letter, pledging support to the Paris Climate Agreement, and have worked with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby to push legislation that puts a price on carbon emissions.

Thanks to the efforts of NSAA as well as other factors, the vast majority of ski areas have some kind of conservation measures in place. The NSAA 2018 report states that out of its members: “76% have water conservation measures in place, with 42% saving 100K gallons or more annually;  81% have energy efficiency measures in place, with 19% saving 500K kWh/yr or more annually; 52% are supporting renewable energy in some way (through on site generation, purchases, educating guests, etc.); 88% have waste reduction and recycling programs in place, with 26% diverting 20% or more of their waste from a landfill.” Aspen has been working on sustainability efforts since 1997, and in 2004, built a methane recapture plant, which captures methane from a nearby coal mine, and uses it to generate energy at the resort. Alta Resort has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 20% by the year 2020; Jiminy Peak, a small resort in Massachusetts, was the first ski resort to install a wind turbine, which provides up to half of the resort’s power supply.

Most significant is Vail Resorts’ efforts to mitigate their environmental impact at their resorts. Vail has committed to the “EpicPromise”, committing to zero impact by 2030. While some of their zero-waste efforts rely on switching to compostable disposals (which are still wasteful relative to reuseable serviceware), I understand why this is necessary. BUT, Vail is doing a lot to buy more of their energy from renewable sources (via a power purchase agreement or PPA), which they recently negotiated with the Plum Creek Wind Project; essentially, Vail is committing funds to the wind project, ensuring that it will happen and produce equivalent power to what Vail uses. (I learned in researching the electrical grid, that while mechanisms don’t mean that the electrons that provide electricity to Vail Resorts will come from wind power, it does provide funding for the project, and helps ensure that there is a market for this kind of power). The full report on Vail’s plans and current efforts can be found here; I honestly think this is very cool, and makes Vail an industry leader in efforts to mitigate climate change. And because Vail has become such a major player in the industry (gobbling up new resorts every year), they have the market power to really make changes happen at a large scale in their resorts.

In addition to conservation efforts at individual ski resorts, the Protect Our Winters advocacy group (POW) has worked to give a voice to outdoor enthusiasts, lobbying for action on climate change at both a state and federal level. They publish a report every year tracking the economic impacts of climate change on the ski industry, and work on a variety of policy issues related to carbon pricing, solar power and transportation. For example, POW (along with Aspen resort and Alterra) advocated for Xcel energy’s project to close down two coal powered plants and replace them with wind and solar power that we learned about back in our electricity grid series! (Advocacy can get stuff done!! Woohoo!)

So, what does this all mean for you as a skier? Skiing definitely has an environmental impact; it’s been suggested that skiing can disturb wildlife and disrupt fragile alpine and sub-alpine habitats, and can decrease species diversity in the areas surrounding resorts. But, I would argue this likely true for most human activities; so, while it’s a concern, I don’t think it’s more than we should have for things like building roads and houses. And overall, I think the ski industry is more environmentally conscientious than many other industries, given their strong incentives to both preserve the attractiveness of the resort area and mitigate carbon emissions as much as possible.

As a skier, your individual responsibility includes making all the obvious choices that you can to limit your carbon emissions; carpooling to the mountain whenever possible, avoiding flights (prioritizing your local mountain over flying somewhere far away; and if you must travel, choosing resorts that are a shorter flight rather than a longer one) and packing your lunch in a reusable container.

I’m planning to explore the hospitality and travel industry in another post (or couple of posts) to learn about how choices we make in lodging and transportation affect the carbon footprint of travel, so let me know if you have specific questions you’d like answered!

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