Will the Olympics’ Green Makeover Have Lasting Effects?
By Warren Mabee
Every couple of years, billions of dollars flow into an Olympic host city and its environs for the construction of enormous stadiums, guest hotels and athlete accommodations.
In the past decade, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has emphasized the measures taken to make these projects—and the games themselves—sustainable.
But in a world where reducing carbon emissions is an overriding priority, is there still room for the Olympics?
Staging the Olympics comes with a huge environmental footprint. Flying an estimated 28,500 athletes and staff to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio generated more than 2,000 kilotonnes (kt) of greenhouse gases (GHG)—not to mention the 2,500 kt of GHGs associated with bringing in about half a million spectators.
What's worse is that the investments made for the Olympics often end up being wasted. After the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, training fields and pools, a beach volleyball court and a hockey stadium were all left to rot, and the Rio facilities look to be on the same track.
The Winter Olympics
The issue of environmental impacts is increasingly important to the Winter Games.
When researchers at the University of Waterloo used climate-change models to look at previous Winter Games locations and predictions of future winter weather, they found that only 12 of the 21 previous hosts could be relied upon to repeat the task in a warmer future.
Many of the places that once cheered on the skiers and bobsledders sliding across snow and ice may be too warm by mid-century to host another Winter Olympics. Reducing the environmental impact of the games—and greenhouse gases in particular—takes on a special significance when the very future of the event is at stake.
The 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver generated about 278 kt of greenhouse gases between 2005 and 2010. The vast majority, 87 percent, were associated with getting almost 2,800 athletes, 10,000 journalists and as many as half a million spectators to Vancouver and out to event venues.
In fact, Vancouver was touted as hosting one of the greenest games ever. Some of this had to do with smart planning and the relative concentration of event venues in Whistler and Vancouver. But keep in mind that the Winter Olympics host fewer medal events and thus involve less movement of people overall.
Pyeongchang, in comparison, is gushing GHGs. Organizers estimate about 1,590 kt will have been released by the end of the games. That huge increase in emissions may be due to the distance involved in moving athletes and spectators to the Korean peninsula—or simply because we have improved the way we calculate environmental footprints for large and complex events.
But we can be fairly certain that the increase in emissions for the Pyeongchang Games aren't due to an massive influx of spectators—in fact, one of the big concerns about Pyeongchang seems to be the low ticket sales.
The IOC has taken many positive steps in an attempt to "green" the games. Its comprehensive sustainability strategy leans on five strategic areas—infrastructure, material sourcing, mobility, workforce and climate—to reduce the environmental footprint associated with construction and transportation, and to leave the host city with better infrastructure.
Despite the guidance, it doesn't always work. For example, the organizers of the 2016 Rio Olympics promised to restore the city's waterways through investments in the sanitation system. Even with strong planning, the Olympics do not always meet their green potential.
One area where the Olympics have achieved some success is in the use of carbon offsets, which is, in essence, paying for emissions that can't be otherwise avoided.
But offsets aren't always guaranteed. The London 2012 Summer Olympics dropped its offset pledge when it could not find any carbon offset projects in the United Kingdom. The Sochi organizers claimed to have achieved their "carbon neutral" target for the 2014 Winter Games, but others have challenged that assertion, questioning whether emissions associated with construction in preparation for the games were included.
Pyeongchang 2018 is on track to achieve carbon neutrality through the use of Certified Emission Reduction (CER) credits—an internationally recognized offset mechanism. By September 2017, the Pyeongchang organizing committee had secured offsets to cover about 84 percent of the total emissions anticipated with hosting the games, and there are plans to crowdsource funds to purchase the remaining credits required.
The Olympics can leave behind important infrastructure legacies that promote urban sustainability over the long term. The Vancouver Games, for example, included a highway upgrade and the Canada Line—an extension of the city's rapid transit system that connects downtown with the airport and Richmond, part of the metro Vancouver area.
Getting people out of their cars and onto the Canada Line reduces GHG emissions by as much as 14 kt of greenhouse gases per year, suggesting that the entire impact of the Vancouver 2010 Games could be offset in 20 years.
Yet the Vancouver Games came with a $7 billion price tag. And others point out that if the entire amount had been spent on improving the city's public transit system, residents would have benefited from much more than the Canada Line.
Would funds have been available without the impetus of an international spectacle? It seems unlikely, but it's difficult to know for certain.
Olympics as a Showcase
At their best, the Olympics are a powerful movement that can effect change and act as a launchpad for new ideas.
Atlanta 1996 was one of the first games to stage new and innovative technologies in the areas of energy generation and efficiency. The infrastructure built for these games included large-scale solar panel installations and alternative energy vehicles, demonstrating that these technologies were ready for deployment on a broader scale.
Keep in mind that this was more than 20 years ago and nearly a decade before Elon Musk founded Tesla. These installations helped usher in an era of solar deployment and alternative fuel vehicles. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the development of dozens of new alternative energy programs in countries around the world.
Both Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 featured new "green" buildings that used the latest LEED standard building techniques and incorporated recovered materials in their design. Rio 2016 similarly benefited from new technologies such as LED lighting, which reduced costs and lowered greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet the movement to showcase new technologies may be running out of steam. Pyeongchang 2018 has embraced wind electricity—enough to power the entire games—and has ensured that each of the six major facilities built for the events have green building certifications, incorporating cutting-edge materials, systems and design to minimize energy and water consumption. All of these approaches help reduce the footprint of the games, but few can still be called innovative in 2018.
Despite the best efforts of both the IOC and corporate sponsors, however, the impact of the Olympics is hard to miss. With an estimated footprint of 1,590 kt of greenhouse gases, Pyeongchang 2018 will come at a high cost. Couple this with low ticket sales and the potential of abandoned venues in the future, and the games begin to look hopelessly out of step with the concerns of a world working to achieve a low-carbon future.
Perhaps it's time to call for a broader Olympics of sustainability: Ideas that can help us significantly move the needle towards greener living in an inclusive world.
Each Olympics could adopt an area—transport, construction, electricity, ecology—and showcase innovative ideas to inspire the world.
Some of the earlier attempts to green the Olympics have given us dramatic examples—the Richmond Oval, for instance, uses recycled materials to give us a soaring building that was designed not only for the games but for its future use.
The Olympics needs more of this sort of forward-looking thinking.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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