White slopes and green goals: How Laax became one of Switzerland's greenest ski resorts
Our partnership with Weisse Arena Group, which manages the ski resort of Laax in the Swiss Alps, is now in its second year. So we caught up with their Sustainability Officer, Reto Fry, to talk green goals and how to keep our slopes white in the face of climate change.
As the sun hits the snow-covered mountains of the Vorab glacier, winter sports enthusiasts make their way to the slopes surrounding Swiss ski resort Laax, sitting at a lofty altitude of 3000 meters (9842 feet). The mountain peaks are frosted in white, but in the valley, snow has given way to an ever more present green.
Just twenty years ago, it was still possible to ski and snowboard on the Vorab glacier in summer, but now the ice is melting at a rapid pace and is expected to disappear by the middle of this century. Reto Fry approaches the issue of the diminishing snow with a level of pragmatism. "Almost three-quarters of our pistes are above 2000 meters (6561 feet) and therefore very snow-sure. But this will change rapidly in the coming years," he tells us. Fry suspects that within about ten years, natural snow will only rarely be found below the tree line, which is the edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing.
Making sustainability a key business priority
Given the impact of climate change on their business, Weisse Arena is making climate action a key priority in their business model. "Winter is crucial for our existence up here. So who, if not us, should set ourselves ambitious climate goals," says Fry, explaining the drivers for Greenstyle, Laax's sustainability program. "Indeed, we need snow, but right now the snow needs us."
The company's response to the climate challenges and loss of biodiversity in the area is underpinned by a sustainability program they've dubbed Greenstyle, which came into effect in 2010. As part of the program, they focus on energy, water, waste, food production, consumption and biodiversity, with a view to becoming CO2 neutral no later than 2030.
Investing in green
Beyond being a positive force for the climate, Weisse Arena hopes that the Greenstyle program will create jobs and bring about new opportunities for the surrounding communities. "Up here, the consequences of global warming are clearly visible, but you can also see the incredible possibilities for energy production that mountain nature offers. This further motivates us to get invested in green practices," Fry enthuses.
The company believes energy storage and efficiency hold tremendous potential for the business, aiming to transform the ski destination from being fossil-fuel reliant to becoming a producer of regional renewable energy. This, in turn, is expected to create local jobs, make the company independent of energy imports and price fluctuations, and even allow them to supply energy to others.
Solar panels on the resort's roofs will also play a major role in the future. So will building and renovating with sustainable materials and heating, the use of photovoltaics, hydro and wind power, and effective energy storage. "But the focus is on efficiency," explains Fry, "because the best energy is that which is not needed in the first place."
The impact on wildlife
The impact on the area's wildlife is often overlooked when discussing tourism and the inhabitants of nature. This is especially true when it comes to the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, notes Fry. It is important that the energy turnaround does not happen at the expense of other species living in the area. "That is why I am a big fan of solar on building roofs and facades without causing damage to nature and its habitants," he says. "It is our obligation to protect nature and wildlife."
Pioneering sustainable mobility
Electric mobility has long been an integral part of the Greenstyle program. With an expanding infrastructure that currently consists of more than 50 charging stations throughout the Flims Laax Falera region, there has been a considerable uptick in electric cars on the roads.
This is where Polestar comes in. As part of the partnership with Laax, Polestar vehicles are being used as e-shuttles for food deliveries and car sharing in the area. Visitors and locals can also rent a Polestar 2 on site to test it in winter conditions or on the winding mountain roads.
"The partnership with Weisse Arena is a perfect match," says Sascha Heiniger, Managing Director of Polestar Switzerland. "We both pursue very ambitious climate goals and do so with the same passion. In addition, we also want to bring the topic of sustainability closer to our customers not as a renunciation, but as an added value. Just like Weisse Arena, we rely on innovative technologies and bold ideas."
Uber of the mountains – introducing gondolas on demand
Weisse Arena has recently broadened the concept of sustainable mobility to include gondolas. Introducing the FlemXpress, a demand-driven and energy-efficient way of exploring the unique landscape of UNESCO World Heritage-protected Sardona.
The old gondolas in the region will be replaced with a new system that features a world-first rope taxi concept for cable cars. With FlemXpress, visitors will soon be able to travel the mountains on demand, by calling a cable car to a designated pick-up station. It's almost like calling an Uber, but for cable cars.
Compared to conventional gondola systems, where 90% of the cabins travel empty, the new on-demand system is excepted to reduce unnecessary runs and reduce the need for maintenance. This, in turn, is expected to lower energy consumption by 50%, according to the company's estimations.
Greenstyle aims to inspire
Reto Fry and his team are not the only ones interested in greener ways. According to Fry, visitors and locals have become increasingly engaged in sustainability issues in the past years. The Greenstyle program therefore focuses on open communication. "We don't communicate to greenwash or to boast about our projects, but to give the topic the space it deserves," he says.
By leading the way, Weisse Arena's goal is to make Greenstyle a movement that inspires communities, tourists, and businesses to become part of the climate solution. "Only by working together can we turn these destinations into places where we in the future can enjoy our leisure time with a clear conscience," summarizes Fry, looking up towards the snow-covered mountain peaks of the Vorab glacier.
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