FIS President urges Greenpeace to engage ‘constructively’ after criticism of federation’s ‘absurd’ climate positive claims

May 04 2023

International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) President Johan Eliasch has expressed defiance after Greenpeace became the latest organisation to detail its criticisms of the governing body’s approach to sustainability.

FIS President urges Greenpeace to engage ‘constructively’ after criticism of federation’s ‘absurd’ climate positive claims

Eliasch responded last week to an open letter from the campaigning organisation to the FIS President and Council Members with an open letter of his own in which he staunchly defended his international federation’s approach to protecting the environment.

Eliasch, who stated that FIS remains “fully committed” to a mission “to make snow sports the most sustainable sport on Earth”, said in his letter: “Climate protection is a cause I have been personally passionate about for thirty years. Progress will be made through practical actions that are rooted in climate justice and research on what works. 

“Let me repeat: I share your anxieties about the effect that climate change is having – and will have – on us all. I am determined that we at FIS will do our part to help avert climate disaster. Equally, Greenpeace should do its part in engaging constructively in an educated and fact-based manner with those seeking to affect genuine change and respecting the rights of indigenous people.”

Points of contention

Eliasch hit back at several points of contention raised in Greenpeace’s letter, several of which were concerns raised by hundreds of FIS athletes in an open letter to the FIS President and Council Members earlier this year.

The scrutiny of FIS’s actions from athletes and Greenpeace comes after numerous ski resorts in the Alps had to close pistes in December and January due to a lack of snowfall. 

Greenpeace stated in its letter, signed by Interim International Executive Director Mads Flarup Christensen: “Over 500 professional winter sports athletes have addressed their concerns about the lack of climate action by FIS, including calls for halving emissions by 2030 in line with science and full transparency. We see little action to date that these concerns are being addressed with the urgency they require. 

“Whilst it is promising to hear that a strategy on how to decrease emissions is in the works and that an – albeit methodologically questionable – estimation of FIS emissions has been published on the website, the reference to FIS as being climate positive is, quite frankly, absurd and blatant greenwashing. Rather than take real climate action and steps to reduce the emissions of FIS and the sport, as so many of your athletes demand, offsetting emissions in a non-transparent way is no answer to the climate crisis.

“On the contrary, the Alpine skiing calendar now foresees athletes as well as their teams and equipment to travel across the Atlantic not once, but twice per season, significantly increasing the negative climate impact of the world cup. Greenpeace therefore calls upon the FIS President and Council Members to respond to the demands of so many professional athletes and the climate crisis which, left unchecked, threatens the very existence of winter sports.”

Calendar call

Greenpeace went on to say that the FIS should adjust its calendar to ensure travel-related emissions are minimised and should put forward a “credible plan” to halve emissions by 2030 and reduce emissions “as close as possible to real zero, that is without offsetting, by 2040”.

The FIS should also, according to Greenpeace, refrain from referring to the federation as climate positive or climate neutral and also refrain from offsetting emissions. “This does not preclude FIS from supporting projects such as rainforest protection, which is a good and useful thing to be doing, albeit as additional to and not as a substitute for reducing own emissions and not under the title of carbon offsetting, CO2 compensation, climate neutrality/positivity or comparable terms,” the letter added.

Eliasch’s response made it clear that he did not agree with Greenpeace’s assessment of FIS’s actions as he insisted: “We are proud that FIS is able to describe itself as climate positive.” 

He added: “Climate change presents an existential threat to our sports, and threatens far, far worse impacts on hundreds of millions of people around the world. That is why FIS put together a plan to be climate positive. 

“Cuts to emissions must start at home. FIS will continue to take strenuous action to reduce its footprint. But responsible organisations must seek to make change beyond reducing their own emissions. As they do, they should recognise a simple fact: the effects of the crisis are already being felt in communities whose environments are devastated by extreme weather.”

"Greenpeace therefore calls upon the FIS President and Council Members to respond to the demands of so many professional athletes and the climate crisis which, left unchecked, threatens the very existence of winter sports.” Greenpeace

Cool Earth

Eliasch went on to discuss the plight of indigenous people and local communities who live in rainforests – and their unique perspective on the sustainability challenges facing Earth.

“Though they often suffer the effects of drought, typhoons, habitat desiccation and species loss, they also have an unrivalled record of conserving the forest they live in,” he added.

“This is why – in addition to reducing its own footprint – FIS is committed to being climate positive by directly supporting indigenous communities in Peru. Cool Earth is the NGO we have chosen to partner with because they help to put local people in control of their forest and stick by their promises to indigenous communities. They are an organisation that has never treated the beliefs and the land of indigenous people with contempt.”

Eliasch is the Chair and Co-Founder of Cool Earth, which delivers “no-strings cash to the people fighting deforestation” in various countries worldwide, including Peru.

Eliasch’s unapologetic tone tallies with his response to critical athletes earlier this year when he insisted that sustainability is “a priority in everything FIS does”. 

The athletes had presented FIS’s leadership with a four-point plan, including a target of net-zero carbon emissions for all FIS operations and events by 2035, after accusing the governing body of “insufficient” sustainability efforts and a lack of transparency.

Following Eliasch’s response, a new open letter on behalf of the athletes was published. Whilst welcoming the FIS President’s broader statements on climate and sustainability, as well as claims of wishing to work with all stakeholders, the letter suggested that such a stance was meaningless without concrete and visible action.

The letter also called for clarification on when “FIS’s much-vaunted sustainability strategy will be published” and insisted that the details of the federation’s carbon footprint assessments and offsetting projects be made public.

Offsetting debate

Several weeks after the athletes’ letter and Eliasch’s response were published, FIS updated the sustainability section of its website at the start of March to include a number of sustainability-related documents, including an executive summary of FIS carbon footprint estimates dating back to October 2021. There remain few details on the FIS website about the FIS Rainforest Initiative, aside from a link to the Cool Earth website, as well as FIS’s offsetting programme.

However, in his latest letter to Greenpeace, Eliasch insisted that FIS does “not simply buy and retire carbon credits” and instead follows the guidance of the United Nations in going “further and faster in taking action”.

He added: “Your letter also suggests that our work on sustainability begins and ends with supporting rainforest communities. This is not the case. As signatories to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, we have set ourselves the goal of halving our carbon footprint by 2030, an aim which will force us to keep striving to make our activities more sustainable.”

FIS originally joined the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework in September 2019 and the federation is recorded on the United Nations list of Signatories to the ‘Race to Zero’. 

Eliasch also highlighted the 2023 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Slovenia as “a great example of what can be achieved” through energy self-sufficient buildings and spectators who are incentivised to walk or cycle. 

“We are determined that all our events must aim for such high standards, and soon,” he added. “That is why we are creating the toolkit for our member federations, and the reward programme to recognize FIS Organisers that make the biggest strides in reducing their carbon footprint.”

Whether such an approach will be sufficient to silence the dissenting voices within and outside the sport, though, remains to be seen.

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