The Alpine region - Transport, Climate change and Tourism

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Transport is a particularly crucial issue in the Alps, as the transport system has to fulfil different functions and services:[1]

  • an internal function: to allow inhabitants to perform their daily activities and to supply them with regional goods and public and private services;
  • an exchange function: to provide inhabitants with goods from outside the region and to export Alpine goods and services, as well as allowing tourists access to and from the Alps;
  • a transit function: to transport passengers and freight owing to the Alps’ central geographical position.

About 190 million tonnes of freight crossed the Alps in 2012, and of this about 102 million tonnes was Alpine-crossing transit transport (i.e. between Germany and southern Italy).[2]

Transport is a major source of emissions. In the EU the transport sector is responsible for 57 % of the nitrogen oxides (NOx), 16 % of the particulate matter with a diameter of 10 μm or less (PM10), 25 % of the PM2.5 and 24.3 % of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Apart from international shipping — which is less relevant to the Alps — road transport plays the biggest role in these emissions. However, it should be noted that there is a decreasing trend in transport sector emissions, except for the aviation sector.[3] Shifting traffic towards more eco- and climate-friendly means of transport is a key objective.[4] In 2012, about 33 % of freight was transported by rail, with significant differences between the Alpine crossings considered.[5] Not to be forgotten is the impact of passenger traffic, for both residents and tourists: for example, heavy goods vehicle traffic is responsible for less than 40 % of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at the Gotthard crossing and for about 50 % at the Brenner crossing.[6] Overall, tourists’ modal choice of transport in the Alps is the private car, with more than 80 % of the modal split.[7]

Transport systems in the Alpine region are also very fragile. Natural events or accidents causing, for example, the closure of tunnels or passes for weeks, months or years can have a big impact on the whole system. Moreover, the transport network may be more prone to the negative effects of natural events as a consequence of climate change.[8]

Climate change

In the last 150 years, the Alps have experienced an increase in temperature greater than the global average: for example, since 1880 the temperature in Austria has risen by nearly 2 °C, compared with a global increase of 0.85 °C,[9] whereas, since 1901, the increase in temperature in the Alpine areas of Germany was 1.5 °C, compared with an average for Germany of 0.9 °C. Moreover, despite a level of uncertainty in the models, precipitation is likely to increase in winter and to decrease in summer.[10] Concerning snowfall, the increase in temperature is likely to be associated with an increase in the snow line (150 m for each 1° C [11]). All in all, more variable precipitation will be associated with greater exposure to extreme weather events, natural risks, new threats such as forest fires, glacier melt and changes in the landscape and ecosystems. In some cases, climate change may also have positive consequences, at least for local economies, for example in agriculture, although the impact will vary from region to region. In parts of the Alps, the average yield is likely to increase and there may be new opportunities for some crop species to grow in areas to which they would have not been adapted before, for example grapevine culture in some northern valleys of the Alps.


Tourism represents one of the main sources of income for local populations, and it is both challenged by environmental changes and contributes to environmental pressures. The overall volume of Alpine tourism cannot be measured precisely, mainly due to national discrepancies in the definition of tourist accommodation in the Alps and the resulting heterogeneity of statistical data. Overnight stays in hotels and similar establishments[12] account for 34 % of the overall overnight stays generated in the Alpine region; estimates point to an overall demand of more than 464 000 000 overnight stays.[13] The Alpine regions are thus among the most intensively visited tourist areas in Europe, along with the coastal zones and some cities.[14] 

The pressures arising from tourism are manifold. First of all, the heterogeneous concentration of Alpine tourism in space and time, with 45 % of the overall available bed places in only 5% of Alpine municipalities and a seasonal concentration,[15]   results in a spatial and temporal concentration of environmental impacts. Moreover, the mobility of tourists is heavily reliant on the use of private cars, thus contributing not only to the overall CO2 and noise emissions in the Alpine area but also to the consumption of land for the related infrastructure. Finally, Alpine tourism is characterised by a low average occupation of available beds, which, along with second homes, also has an impact on land consumption.

On the other hand, Alpine tourism is also subject to pressures arising from climate change. Alpine-wide analyses[16] have estimated that, assuming an increase of 2 °C (by the year 2050), only 61 % of Alpine skiing areas could be considered naturally snow reliable. This implies a need to further diversify Alpine tourism. Climate change is also likely to have an impact on summer tourism in both positive and negative ways with, on the one hand, a revival of ‘summer cools’ as a tourist attraction, and, on the other, potentially higher risks for activities such as trekking and hiking owing to the increased occurrence of natural hazards.

The content above was developed together with the Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention


[1] Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention (2007), Transport and mobility in the Alps, Report on the state of the Alps, Alpine signals, special edition 1, accessed 28 July 2015.

[2] Swiss Federal Transport Office (2012), Annual report 2012, accessed 28 September 2015.

[3] European Environment Agency (2014), Focusing on environmental pressures from long-distance transport — TERM 2014, accessed 29 July 2015.

[4] Alpine Convention (2009), Transport protocol, accessed 22 September 2015.

[5] DG MOVE and Swiss Federal Transport Office, Annual report 2013, accessed 28 September 2015.

[6] Zurich Process, EnvALP, accessed 28 September 2015.

[7] Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention (2014), Sustainable tourism in the Alps, Report on the state of the Alps, Alpine signals, special edition 4, accessed 22 September 2015.

[8] Alpine Convention (2014), Guidelines for climate change adaptation at the local level in the Alps, accessed 28 September 2015.

[9] APCC (2014), Austrian Assessment Report 2014, accessed 24 September 2015.

[10] BMU (2007), Climate change in the Alps — Facts — Impacts — Adaptation, Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Berlin, Germany.

[11] IPCC (1997), The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability, Cambridge University Press.

[12] The definition of the establishments in this category varies according to the national classifications; for a detailed overview, see Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention, 2014, p. 62.

[13] BAKBASEL (2011), Benchmarking du tourisme — Le secteur suisse du tourisme en comparaison internationale, report for the SECO Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, accessed 22 September 2015.

[14] Eurostat (2014), Eurostat regional yearbook 2014, Tourism, accessed 22 September 2015.

[15] Price, M., Borowski, D., Macleod, C., Rudaz, G. and Debarbieux, B. (2011), ALPS — Rio + 20 report, Sustainable mountain development in the Alps, from Rio 1992 to Rio 2012 and beyond, Swiss Federal Office for Spatial Development, Bern, Switzerland.

[16] Agrawala, S. (ed.) (2007), Climate change in the European Alps: Adapting winter tourism and natural hazards management, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris.


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