The title and headline I suggested for this piece was, “The Sustainable Olympics?: 2010 Winter Games organizers go for green, get tarnished bronze.” It is the longest Green.view I’ve written and the first to feature an inconspicuously embedded link to my previous reporting. (Check out the link below on “metal salvaged.”) Because it will be hidden behind a paywall soon, I’ve pasted the whole column under the photo. Before then, you can recommend my piece and respond to my favorite comment.
UPDATE: This column is the top science story featured on the “Online highlights” page of the February 27th issue of The Economist!
The 2010 Winter Olympics
THE record-breaking warmth experienced in Vancouver over the weeks running up to the Winter Olympics left the ski slopes slushy and bumpy, with many of the world’s best skiers tumbling like novices on a double black diamond. It also put something of a dent in the attempts by Vanoc, the organising committee for the 2010 Winter Olympics, to make its games greener than any that have come before. The poor conditions have required the shipping in of snow (more like slush by the time it gets there) from further north, using lorries and helicopters, and the application of a lot of extra effort into tending what snow there is naturally.
It is a measure of the amount of energy that such games require, though, that the dent made in the games’ carbon budget by all those lorries, helicopters and all-night snowcat operations has been, in relative terms, remarkably small. “If we used helicopters every day from this point until the end of February for eight hours a day, it would increase our carbon footprint by less than one percent,” Linda Coady, vice-president of sustainability for Vanoc, told reporters at the beginning of the month.
Though most sports fans may have missed the fact, since 1994 “sustainability” has been the official “third pillar” of the Olympic movement, the other two being sport and culture. In its commitment to this ideal, Vanoc has tried to produce a greener Olympics than any seen before. Leaving the problems of unseasonable warmth aside, how well has it done?
Once the games are over, Vanoc thinks 118,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions will have been generated by its seven-year effort to stage them. By comparison, the 2006 Winter Games in Turin produced about 160,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the course of the 17-days of the Olympiad alone. Salt Lake City spewed out 248,000 tonnes during the same period four years earlier. The significantly lower carbon cost of the Vancouver Olympics is in part due to their easy access to hydroelectric power. Turin’s organisers burned 8m litres of fuel in some 600 diesel generators to ensure the lights stayed on. Vanoc says it is on track to cut such generator emissions by up to 90%.
The Vancouver games also seem to have done well on the question of green buildings. The athletes’ villages and eight of the nine new venues were built to qualify for the United States’ Green Building Council’s “silver” level of energy-efficient design, with some going for gold. One example is the Richmond Oval, a speed-skating rink, which boasts a 26,000-square-metre roof built from trees that had already been killed by pine-beetle infestation, rainwater tanks for the flushing of its toilets, and a system that puts the waste heat from its refrigeration system to good use, among other smart, green design features.
GoodWoodWatch, a collaboration of local environmental groups and the Canadian branches of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, has praised Vanoc for using renewable, local lumber in place of building materials like steel, aluminium and plastic, which have much higher carbon costs. When such materials could not be avoided, recycled stuff was used wherever possible. Indeed, the games’ very medals all include metal salvaged from the circuit boards of electronic devices.
The facilities will themselves be reused, too. The problem of building things without an afterlife, and thus wasting resources and effort, is a perennial one for the Olympics. Only one of the 22 venues built for the 2004 Athens Olympics remains in active public use. Since there is already a world-class speed-skating rink in the neighbouring province of Alberta, the Richmond rink was designed to be converted into a multipurpose community centre after the festivities conclude. There are plans to refit many of the other buildings, too.
On other environmental measures the games have performed less well. Greens would have liked to see Vancouver linked to Whistler—the site of the downhill events, 124km (78 miles) to the north—by a high-speed railway line. Instead, the government of British Columbia widened the road between the sites. This was cheaper, at C$600m ($580m) compared with over C$1 billion for the railway, but the road is thought likely to encourage more urban sprawl than a rail link would have done. On top of that, in what looks like an ill-thought-through gesture, the national and provincial governments paid C$90m for 20 fuel-cell-powered buses to provide transport within Whistler. The problem was that the hydrogen needed to power these buses had to be brought in from Quebec.
Overall, the David Suzuki Foundation, a prominent Canadian environmental organisation, has awarded the Vancouver games a symbolic bronze medal for its green achievements. Among the reasons for not giving it gold is a sense that Vanoc has not lived up to its own lofty aspirations. At the World Conference on Sport and the Environment in March 2009, Vanoc announced a “target to neutralise up to 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from the games”. Now the committee is promising to offset only the 118,000 tonnes it calculates have been generated by its own operations. The Suzuki foundation thinks an organisation that spent nearly C$40m on the opening ceremony alone could afford pay the additional C$5m it would take to offset the 150,000 tonnes of carbon that will be produced by sponsors and spectators, too.
The foundation also worries that Vanoc has failed “to reach out to Canadians or even Vancouverites about climate solutions”. Other environmental organisations see a splash of greenwash. Friends of the Earth considers the fact that the games’ national partner,Petro Canada, its official natural gas supplier, TransCanada, and some of its other sponsors have investments in Canada’s tar sands, a bane of environmental activists, to be “the dirty truth behind the Olympics”.
On balance, though, the Vancouver Olympics probably deserves its tarnished bronze. It has raised the bar for staging responsible, if not yet truly sustainable, international events. How high that bar is now set for the 2012 Summer Games in London will not be clear until the end of 2010, when the United Nations Environmental Programme is due to release a full assessment of the Vancouver games.
Photo credit: ecstaticist (via Flickr)