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sustainability Archives - FreedomLab

Artificial winter wonderlands

What happened?

Climate change is affecting winter sports regions as they can no longer count on the snow to fall in early December and last until the end of the traditional skiing season. Some areas have lost as much as 40% of their average snow depth over the last decades and at least 60% of slopes worldwide are lined with snow cannons to make up for too warm or too dry winters. In the coming years, these cannons, of which larger resorts need hundreds, will drive up costs significantly as their energy (and water) bill will continue to rise with climate change. At some point, however, these machines will not suffice anymore (they can only produce snow at temperatures close to 0oC) and resorts will either have to switch to even more expensive and energyconsuming methods, or, when this is no longer feasible, limit operations to a couple of months per year.

What does this mean?

In the United States, several lowerlying resorts have already shut down due to disappointing winters and investments are concentrating on high altitude resorts that are more futureproof. A further shakeout is likely in the coming two decades and, internationally, investors (e.g. in real estate) are also eying the highest of regions. Obviously, as snow becomes a scarce good,these regions will benefit from their unique position, but the entire industry will experience a decline; rising costs are already discouraging people from going on winter holidays (e.g. in the Netherlands) and, over time, skiing is bound to become a luxury only the wealthiest households will be able to afford once again.

What’s next?

Apart from rising costs, the environmental impact of winter sports is also growing and skiing could very well be among the next consumer practices that fall prey to the “shame” trend. In the short term, this will mostly relate to the direct impact of skiing resorts in the form of deforestation and exorbitant energy and water usage. In the longer term, people will likely travel farther to reach snow sure areas (e.g. in Canada or Japan), thus further enlarging their environmental footprint with their vacation. To prevent all too heavy backlash, most ski resort are trying to reduce the environmental impact of their operations, e.g. by using renewable energy, but their efforts are unlikely to prevent groups of consumers from developing skiing shame in the (near) future.

When greening your business isn’t really an option

What happened?

For some companies, there’s a clear path towards more sustainable processes and products, but for others, the call for sustainability poses more existential problems. That is, car makers can switch to electric vehicles and clothing companies can treat their workers better, but companies in sectors such as coal mining and the oil and gas sector don’t have such clear options. They find themselves in a tight spot; they cannot overhaul their core business, at least not fast enough, neither can they say this out loud without antagonizing society and losing their societal “license to operate”. A recent paper uses the case of Big Oil to shed light on the rhetorical strategies, or “myths” that such companies employ to avoid both taking meaningful action as well as facing societal backlash.

What does this mean?

The paper’s analysis shows that oil majors use three “myths” to avoid, divert and project blame with regard to sustainability. The first is the promise of “techno-fixes”; eventually new technology will enable society to fix the climate problem without making any significant sacrifices and without any immediate and drastic action by the oil company. The second is what the researchers call “promethean oil man”; oil majors present themselves as the noble upholders of modern civilizations and draw on ideographs such as progress and prosperity to construct a trade-off between welfare and sustainability and, as such, divert responsibility to society as a whole. The third is “climate partnership”; companies claim to be working together with other stakeholders, from NGOs to governments, in order to project (part of) the blame for inaction onto others (e.g. government failing to introduce meaningful regulation).

What’s next?

Looking ahead, the situation for these companies is unlikely to become any easier. As other companies continue to improve their practices, oil companies are likely to fall farther behind and receive even more blame. Moreover, even when they engage in sustainable (side)projects as Shell does (e.g. EV-charging or investments in offshore wind parks), they are still frowned upon and accused of merely greenwashing their unsustainable core business. Over time, they will have to develop a credible pathway towards a fully sustainable business model. As of yet, this would mostly appeal to societal stakeholders, but eventually that story will also have to convince shareholders to prevent more investors from dumping their stocks. Interestingly, Big Tech might find itself in a similar position in the future as and would be well advised to play close attention.