Will we be forced to stop skiing for the sake of the climate?

Olle Torpman

Olle holds a Phd in practical philosophy, is a researcher and author of the book “Miljöetik: från problem till lösning” (Environmental ethics: from problems to solutions). He’s an associate of Stockholm University, and the think tank Institute for Future Studies. Olle’s primary research interest is how climate change and our moral obligations interconnect.

No matter what we do, our actions have impacts on the climate. This is true for skiing, too. The skiing itself is largely unproblematic, but the connected activities often create a climatic imprint, not least in the cases where we fly or drive a petrol-fuelled car to our destination. With this said one can ponder if those of us who ski ought to feel “ski shame” along the lines of the talk of those that fly ought to feel “flight shame”, and that those that have children ought to feel “child shame”. Perhaps we must stop skiing completely for the sake of the climate?

The short answer to this is: no. Firstly, generally speaking, it’s very dubious if shaming is an effective tool in order to create a more sustainable world. There are better methods available to us if the aim is to get people to live more climate sustainable lives. Secondly — and the point I’m focusing on here — it’s perfectly possible to make your skiing more sustainable. Naturally, this isn’t about changing the stance on your skis, but to consider more carefully how we plan our ski trips.

To give a few examples, clearly it’s better to take longer, but fewer ski trips, than more, shorter ones. In other words, a continuous two-week trip is better than several long weekends over the season. Additionally, taking the train to the destination is better than flying, and to favour destinations closer to you, rather than more remote. Hence, a train journey to Åre or the Alps is better than a flight to Canada or Iceland. It’s of course also more sustainable to purchase small amounts of second-hand equipment than to get large amounts of new stuff. These points may appear self-evident. The question remains how far you need to take this. Is it sufficient for me to adhere to some of these suggestions? How can you make climate-smart decisions around your skiing?

According to calculations done by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Earth’s atmosphere can absorb around 11 billion tons of greenhouse gasses annually. This is the amount we can generate without jeopardising the Earth’s climate. This means that we can generate between 1 and 2 tons of greenhouse gasses per person per year. We can reasonably assert that it’s up to each and one of us exactly how we choose to spend our personal carbon dioxide budget. The climate won’t care how you release your greenhouse gasses or how they’re generated. In terms of the climate, the only thing that matters is that we stay within the boundaries defined by what volumes can be absorbed naturally by the system. This means that we can counteract the extra volumes generated by our ski trips by reducing volumes generated by other activities. Those that reduce their flying generally, reduce their meat consumption, have fewer children, refrain from driving a petrol or Diesel car (or refrain from driving a car completely), or simply consume less, in a more sustainable way, will be able to spend more of their personal carbon dioxide budget on activities they find interesting.

Those familiar with the climate figures will likely still feel downbeat by this line of reasoning. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to stay within the carbon dioxide budget that our Earth dictates. Even those that stop eating meat, stop flying and stop driving etc will most likely still exceed their allocated quota. Simply living in a welfare state, in an industrialised nation implies considerable emissions. However, there is a small light at the end of this tunnel. It is still the case that those that make an effort to curb their emissions in general will exceed their carbon quota less than those that don’t. Perhaps you wonder how this is at all relevant. Why does it matter if I reduce my emissions if in the end I will still exceed my carbon budget more than what morals allow? There are two simple responses to this question. Firstly, it’s more morally defensible to do less wrong than more wrong. This is simply a matter of the wrong acts having different consequences in terms of suffering and damage. This holds true also for climate issues. By doing our best to reduce our climate impact we contribute to pushing the climate change effects forward in time. Hopefully this can buy us time to innovate or research techniques and solutions to both capture already emitted carbon volumes, and to ensure that we no longer need to emit carbon into the atmosphere in the first place. It can also give us time to adapt to living with the climate change we have already caused.

Secondly, thankfully it’s possible to compensate for our emissions in a more traditional manner. Through various methods it’s possible to absorb some of the unavoidable carbon emissions. Examples of this are through the planting of trees and through technology transfer. When it comes to tree planting, this is less about you being out planting seedlings yourself, and more about engaging established professional outfits that can do this on a more industrial scale. When it comes to technology transfer, this is about replacing for example coal-, wood- or oil-fired power and heat generation with greener alternatives such as solar or wind.

Climate compensation as an industry has had to face strong criticism lately, and it’s certainly true that it’s not entirely unproblematic. If not done correctly it can create injustices and even miss out on the climate advantages which was its primary objective. But the criticism isn’t always that relevant. Just because climate compensation becomes problematic if the Swedish state (or Swedish corporations) buy up land for tree planting in Uganda, it doesn’t follow that it’s therefore also problematic if we do the same in our own backyard. We have ample space available for national reforestation. And even if tree planting abroad can be problematic, it doesn’t follow that technology transfer abroad is problematic in the same way. Donating photovoltaic facilities to villages in Africa, for example, means that families there no longer have to be out collecting firewood in order to be able to cook, and will also provide evening time illumination. This, in turn, makes it easier for children to do their homework in the evenings. Such forms of climate compensation are anything but problematic.

All in all it’s therefore not an impossibility to stay within the carbon emission budget. It still requires us all to reduce our climate unfriendly activities, and that we climate compensate for the emissions we cannot avoid. Those that do so can carry on skiing without shame.

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