The grandeur of the Olympic Games awes the world every two years. However, achieving the environment the Games are known for makes a huge negative environmental impact.
Emily Carr is a master’s student at the University of California (UC) Berkeley in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department and part of the Energy, Civil Infrastructure and Climate program. She co-authored a report focusing on the sustainability of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, in which they “… [critiqued the Games’] methodology and how they reported what they did related to sustainability.” During their semester of research, the team reviewed the impact reports published by the London and Vancouver Games. These reports consist of five reports covering the sustainability of the host cities at five points leading up to, during, and after the Games.
An absence of standardization in the measurement of sustainability between these complex reports, done by local universities or committees put together by the host city, makes it difficult to decipher the true environmental impact of each Games, and if cities met their sustainability goals. Dr. Sven Daniel Wolfe, an urban and political geographer in the Department of Geography and Sustainability at the University of Lausanne, co-authored an article on the sustainability of the Olympic Games from 1992 to 2020. He affirmed that the complexity of these reports and the onerous process to complete them does not motivate host countries to make sustainability the priority at these events. Vancouver was the only host city to ever complete all five reports, but neither London nor Vancouver met their sustainability goals.
“What are they going to do? They’re not going to cancel the Olympics if you don’t meet your sustainability goals,” Carr remarked. In their report, she and colleagues suggested the International Olympic Committee appoint a research team dedicated to crunching the numbers every year. That way, a standardized system would be developed. Clear communication is the first step on the way to accurate action.
There are many more moving parts to factor in. One of the most difficult issues to solve is that of transportation. In Vancouver, transportation accounted for 87.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the Games — though 22 percent of energy consumption — simply because athletes, trainers, and spectators need to be brought to one place, and therefore these emissions appear hard to avoid.
“With international prestige and billions of dollars on the line, it becomes extremely challenging, if not impossible, to mitigate all harm. Harm mitigation is not the priority. Pulling off the Games is the priority,” Wolfe said. For the current Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, this meant diverting water from an important reservoir into a dried-up riverbed to provide the Olympic facilities with enough water to manufacture the necessary snow.
However, harm reduction is essential, and another idea sustainability experts have to lessen the energy consumption of each Games is to reduce the number of locations where the Games are held. “When you look at the life cycle of a building, a lot of energy is going into building at the beginning, and if you’re just using it for one year, all of the initial impacts are only divided over one year,” Carr explained. “The longer a building is used, the smaller its overall impact.” Wolfe gave a suggestion: “We could rotate the Games among the same host cities, so we don’t have to build new infrastructure. You could even have different cultural and infrastructural hosts, so Guatemala could host in London, for instance, or Cameroon in Athens. The important bit is not to build anew.”