Chamonix: the necessary transition towards alternative activities

Beneath the traces of planes, the valley of Chamonix in France. Source: Carnet des Escapades

Corinne Saltzmann is a consultant in sustainable development and lives at the foot of the Mont Blanc in the French Alps. She worked for many years within the public administration of the Chamonix Valley, developing and then implementing the Climate Plan adopted in 2010, the first in France for a mountain resort.

Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

Originally a lawyer and associate lecturer, I became aware of global warming and its consequences during a long journey that led me to hike across different mountain ranges around the world (Patagonia, Andes, Himalaya, Karakorum...). I then chose to train in environmental and sustainable development and to specialize in the issues related to climate change in mountain areas. Since then, I’ve accompanied public or private structures in the implementation of their strategies and projects.

It is in this context that I have been working with the Chamonix Valley since 2009. At the time, it was a question of setting up a Territorial Climate Energy Plan. This global approach aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt the territory to climate change.

The Chamonix Valley was the first mountain resort to undertake such planning, usually reserved for urban areas. After a diagnosis of greenhouse gas emissions and a broad consultation with the actors of the territory, a plan of 182 actions was drawn up around 5 major themes: transport and mobility, energy and habitat, tourism, consumption and waste, biodiversity, agriculture, and forests.

Beyond the scientific observation of the effects of global warming in the Alps, what needs to be done to meet the challenge?

The issue of climate change is complex and there is no single answer. Each territory must find its own solutions. We won't do the same things in Zermatt or Evolène, in Les Gets or Chamonix. The right policy is therefore first of all one that adapts to the environmental, human, and economic context of the territory, that respects its history and capacities.

The solutions to climate change involve the dual necessity of reducing our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and adapting our territories to future changes. One cannot be achieved without the other, and the two must be carried out in parallel. This implies a prior quantitative inventory of GHG emissions, followed by regular measurements to verify that the reduction objectives are being met. This is still little being done.

The effectiveness of public policies depends on their overall coherence. It is not exemplary action that will make the difference, but a global, cross-cutting and long-term approach. These approaches, which are less attractive but much more serious and effective, should be publicised in the media.

In what way do the solutions in mountain areas differ from other territories?

Mountain territories face exacerbated challenges: global warming is twice as fast (+2°C in the Alps) and the ecosystems, which are more fragile, have difficulty adapting.

Natural risks — landslides, avalanches, others — are increasing and taking on new forms: landslides linked to the melting of permafrost in high mountains, forest fires... All this is costing communities dearly, and they must be vigilant to ensure the safety of their inhabitants and the sustainability of their activities.

On the other hand, economic means are often lower and centred on tourism almost exclusively. The demanding topography and the seasonality of economic activities mean that solutions have to be adapted to this double constraint.

On the question of mobility, for example, the electric bus may be a good solution in cities on flat terrain but will not technically be adapted to mountainous terrain. Furthermore, how can an alternative travel plan to the private car be organised to meet the needs of both permanent residents and tourists? And how can a bus fleet be calibrated when the population goes from 15,000 in low season to 100,000 in high season?

This example shows that it is not possible to apply city solutions in the mountains and that each solution requires a reflection specific to the geographical, social and economic context of the place.

Inhabitants of mountain territories have often had to find original solutions to adapt to the strong constraints of their territories. Let's be that once again — mountain dwellers who will be able to innovate.

With today's economy entirely dependent on tourism, shouldn't change be better anticipated? What innovative initiatives - here or elsewhere - inspire you?

Of course, all mountain resorts are asking themselves the question of their future and diversifying their economy, but the equation is complex. Some are trying to change their tourism strategy with more activities: from sport to well-being, from all skiing to multi-activity, from two-season to four seasons. Others are modifying their practices towards "green", "sustainable" or "eco-responsible" tourism.

All these actions are relevant but insufficient in the long term. The question of economic diversification is central. It will enable territories to be less dependent on external constraints, climate change, or seasonality.

In the Canton of Graubünden, the village of Davos, for example, has just opened a new research centre which will be home to scientists working on climate-related issues but also to start-ups working all year round on environmental solutions.

We have to take the liberty of radically inventing new ways of living in the mountains.

The recent increase in teleworking is one possibility. Mountain territories could welcome urban dwellers looking for cooler and greener horizons, all for a relatively low investment and impact.

Original financial mechanisms such as local carbon offsetting could be imagined so that today's tourism would finance this transition towards projects geared for the future.

As a specialist in sustainable development, you are also interested in neuroscience. Why is that?

Faced with the importance and urgency of the questions raised by global warming, I wonder: why don't we act more and better?

For more than 50 years, scientists have published hundreds of converging reports on the environmental, social and economic risks associated with global warming. Yet we still do little. Why such a cognitive dissonance between what we know and what we do?

Obviously, it is difficult to project ourselves into a future that we do not know, everything has to be invented. All in all, it is by being in action that we will move forward. We may make mistakes, but we can also find solutions. Neuroscience may have tools to help us move from shock to resilience, from denial to reality, from apathy to action.