The Alpine Convention is the organization created by an international treaty between the Alpine Countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia and Switzerland) as well as the EU, for the sustainable development and protection of the Alps. It was created in 1991 with the objective protecting the natural environment of the Alps while promoting its development . 25 years after its formation, the Alpine Convention finds itself grappling with the problem of global warming and its impact on the Alpine winter sports industry – a much bigger problem than the founding fathers had envisioned.
The Alps are extremely sensitive to climate change, and recent warming in the Alps has been over three times the global average. Currently, about 606 out of 666 (roughly 90%) of the ski areas in Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland can be considered as naturally snow-reliable. This number is expected to drop to 500 for a 1 degree celsius increase in temperature, 404 for a 2 degree celsius increase, and to 202 for a 4 degree celsius increase. The impact on the different Alpine countries are expected to be different – for example, Germany will be the most affected and only a 1 degree drop in temperature will lead to 60% decrease in the number of naturally snow-reliable ski areas. Switzerland, on the other hand, will be least affected .
Steps currently being taken – short-term & costly
The Alpine Convention commissioned a study in 2006 to understand the effects of climate change. In 2009, the Convention came up with an action plan listing down steps to be taken to tackle this climate change . Key steps that are being taken are:
- Moving ski areas to higher altitudes and glaciers
- Artificial snow-making
- Grooming of ski slopes
- Protecting against glacier melt with white plastic sheets
- Diversification of tourism revenues
- Use of insurance and weather derivatives
Most of these measures are reactive and are short-term quick fixes. They also come with their own costs and limitations. For example, snow making costs increase exponentially as the temperature increase and if ambient temperatures increase beyond a threshold, snow making will simply not be viable. Similarly, grooming of ski slopes can reduce the minimum depth of snow required for skiing by 10 or 20 cm. However, grooming will not be effective for a further decline or absence of snow cover. Plastic sheets can only cover so much of the glaciers and are not effective beyond a certain level of warming. Insurance can cover losses from occasional instances of snow-deficient winters but cannot protect against systematic long-term trend towards warm winters.
A more holistic approach is required
The Convention needs to recognize that the issue of global warming and especially its enhanced effects on the Alpine ecosystem involves many more stakeholders than the winter sport industry itself. Hence, it needs to partner with these stakeholders for a more well-rounded approach to solving this problem. This would include:
- Sustainable heating: Heating industry is a big contributor to CO2 emissions in the Alps. The Convention should work towards ensuring more sustainable heating solutions in and around the skiing areas by working with the local community and implementing strict regulation. For example, promote use of renewable sources of energy like biomass boilers, heat pumps for heating. It is important to note that solar radiations are more intense in the mountains so they should promote use of solar energy.
- Sustainable transport: Encourage regional and local authorities to reduce traffic impact on environment and climate. Some measures could be: discourage use of individual cars, develop international trans-Alpine rail network, promote use of cleaner transport (soft mobility) like cable cars
- Sustainable land planning: Draft regulations to preserve ecological balance, e.g. maintain natural carbon sinks, use advance bioclimatic planning (with the help of maps indicating solar exposure, winds etc.) for land planning
Around 120 million tourists visit the Alps every year and the tourism industry is a big part of the economy of the Alpine region . It is important that the Alpine Convention and other stakeholders adopt pro-active measures to rise to the challenge of climate change which threatens to disrupt this industry.
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