The real carbon cost of travel to the Alps
It is well documented that flying has a huge cost to the environment, but did you know that the way we travel for a ski holiday can contribute up to 95% of its carbon footprint?
But what are the alternatives to flying and how much exactly does taking the train or driving out to the Alps benefit the environment?
Abigail Butcher finds out more.
WE ALL LOVE SKIING, that’s why we’re here! British skiers head to the Alps in droves over the winter months and often choose to fly for both convenience and cost — particularly when travel is often part of package.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the cost to the environment of taking a flight far outweighs any benefit to our wallets. With travel accounting for such a huge proportion of the carbon footprint of your ski holiday, it’s time to think again.
“The single biggest way you can make a difference to the carbon footprint of your holiday is in how you choose to travel to resort,” says warns Iain Martin of Ski Flight Free (skiflightfree.org). “Typically this adds up to 50-70% of the total carbon cost of the holiday — simply because most people choose to fly. Travelling by train is best option — reducing your emissions to around 1/8 of flying — though if you can travel in a car with at least four people in it that also makes a significant difference.”
So while every mode of transport comes at a cost, it’s hard to work out the real difference between train/coach/driving and flying so we delved a little deeper to compare the carbon cost of ski holiday travel.
The results were not surprising but we think the stats are quite compelling. While reading this article, it’s worth bearing in mind that boiling just one litre of water in a kettle produces around 70g of carbon equivalent (CO2e).
Travel by air
While flying can often be the most cheapest financial way to get to the Alps, the cost to the environment is the highest.
A one-way trip from London to Tignes, flying to Geneva and taking a taxi transfer, produces 103.43kg CO2e per person (so, a return produces nearly 207kg CO2e). If you fly to North America, that flight counts for even more — some 95% of the overall. A return trip to Vail, Colorado, produces 2361kg CO2e.
Swiss Air has an online carbon footprint calculator with an option to offset your emissions which, while not ideal, is better than nothing. You can read more here about why we should use carbon offsetting wisely.
Travel by car
If you travel alone, or with one other friend, the carbon footprint of driving to the Alps in a petrol car is no different to flying. Even with three passengers it is negligible (about a 10% reduction to flying) but fill the car with a family of four or five and you cut the number of CO2e emissions by as much as two thirds — especially if you use Eurotunnel rather than the ferry.
Research by Antithesis Group showed that a return trip from London to Méribel by car, with four people using the Eurotunnel, produces 110kg CO2e per person.
If you take an electric vehicle, that number reduces even further. According to research by the Priestley International Centre for Climate, one person in an average petrol vehicle produces 66.2kg CO2e on a return journey to Chamonix, or boost that to five people in an electric car and you’re looking at around 13.2kg CO2e per person for the same trip.
Of course, taking your own car can significantly add to the flexibility of your holiday — there’s no constraints on luggage and cost for transporting skis, and if you’re self-catering you can take some kitchen essentials, too.
Ferry V Eurotunnel
According to Eurotunnel, taking the ferry produces 147kg CO2e per car, per crossing, whereas driving your car (filled with passengers) onto a Eurotunnel shuttle produces only 2kg CO2e (per car, per crossing).
To encourage electric vehicles, Eurotunnel offers free charging points at its Folkestone and Calais terminals — more information can be found here.
Travel by coach
The company Snow Express, which organises weekly return coach travel from the UK to the French Alps, says a return trip from London to Tignes produces 189.2kg of CO2e per passenger. There’s the added benefit that, thanks to overnight travel, taking the coach gives up to one and a half extra days on the slopes, with Saturday lunchtime arrivals in resort and Saturday evening departures back to the UK. That is if you manage to get some sleep on the way!
Travel by train
Research in July 2020 by Anthesis Group found that travelling from London by train to Tignes (including a taxi transfer from Bourg St Maurice) created 18.47kg of CO2e per person (so a return journey creates 36.94kg).
But taking the train can be far more than just a means to an end. While there are some direct links between London and the Alps, many involve a change of trains but you can reach most parts of the world, let alone Europe, by train travel alone and often the journey is a joy, too.
So says Daniel Elkan, founder of train travel website Snowcarbon.co.uk.
“Rail travel to the Alps makes sense regardless of the massive carbon savings. You are swapping airport faff or a massive drive for the ability to sit around with friends or family as the scenery glides by,” says Daniel.
“One tip I’d offer is to really embrace the indirect journey, too. Switching platform or even station is no big deal and it enables you to have far more options – and to a huge array of resorts in the Alps. Skiers that go for the familiar airport route are missing out, and the climate suffers in the process.”
Protect our Winters (POW) also points out that as well as the most environmentally-friendly way to get to the Alps, the train is also the safest of all land transport options, with a far lower accident rate with rail travel than on the roads.
To help skiers choose a low-carbon transport options for everyday travel as well as their ski holidays, POW has created brilliant Sustainable Transport Hub, too.
A more sustainable holiday
Of course while travel is a big part of the carbon footprint of a ski holiday, there are many other ways to reduce the impact of a trip further by choosing your resort, accommodation and ski kit wisely. You can read more in EcoSki’s article on how to take a more sustainable ski holiday.