Green Promises

As the two-year anniversary of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics approaches (February 12, 2010), we are reminded that the Summer Games are almost upon us.

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    Green Olympics? Olympic Park Parklands design during Games time (ODA, London 2012 Image Library)

    As the two-year anniversary of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics approaches (February 12, 2010), we are reminded that the Summer Games are almost upon us. Over one year before the 2012 Games, we looked at what the London Organising Committee of the Olympic & Paralympic Games (LOCOG) was planning in terms of delivering the first sustainable Games. LOCOG has conveniently packaged its “green promise” in a comprehensive sustainability plan, which has evolved from the original bid proposal and been updated throughout the planning and implementation stages.

    What did the organizers promise, and have they stepped up to the plate? Less than six months out from the XXX Olympiad in London, we evaluate progress on three key aspects of London 2012′s sustainability pledge. When we considered the plan’s probability of success in July 2011, we established that two factors would be major determinants: the organizers’ leadership and their ability to see the plan through (for each detailed element to be implemented). Where are we today? Let’s see…

    The Promise: Lower carbon emissions and an offset programme

    A durable carbon management strategy to minimise the environmental impact of the Games

    First, the carbon offset portion of the plan (part of the original bid) has been scrapped. Hmmm, off to a rough start? Last August, LOCOG announced that carbon offsets would no longer be part of the plan. Why? Organizers realized that carbon offsetting might not be truly beneficial to local environmental and economic needs. For example, official offsets would have to be done overseas – so planting more trees in England would not have counted. Should the Games focus on local initiatives only? If the objective is to counter the negative effects of climate change, shouldn’t the contribution to environmental projects abroad be given equal weight and priority? Granted, the true value of carbon offsets is still up for debate – many stating that this just makes pollution expensive, instead of diminishing it. Conversely, maybe the cost of offsetting and saving of £2.7 million tipped the scale in favour of nixing this part of the commitment. Therefore, how can we evaluate this?

    Unfortunately, we can’t. Because carbon offsets are sometimes seen as just a way to tax polluters – instead of drivers for environmental change – an organization’s decision not to subscribe to them cannot be appraised as either a ‘’good’’ or a ‘’bad’’ move. However, the very fact that LOCOG changed its tune on this aspect of its sustainability plan is reason to question its commitment.

    The Promise: Games-time renewable energy

    Replacing (as much as possible) Games-necessary energy sources with renewable alternatives (for example: electricity instead of petrol)

    We now come to the second pillar of the plan: using renewable energy. Interestingly, BP is a major sponsor of the Games. Is this oxymoronic for a sustainably minded project? Maybe not: BP is apparently positioning itself to be part of a non-petroleum future. Also, we cannot knock on LOCOG for taking them on as a partner. The Games will need fuel, and until technological advancements give us an abundant, accessible, and affordable source of energy, petrol is the logical choice. However, will alternative sources be widely used during the Games? It remains to be seen…

    So how is BP helping? How else: by trying to establish a world record for the most people (to attend an event) and offset their carbon footprint. In the video below, British broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis gives an excellent explanation of how carbon offsetting works, and how BP’s Target Neutral scheme.

    It’s a cute idea. But is it impactful and how does it fit into the sustainability plan? Yes, the amount of Co2 that will be generated by the totality of spectators is worth trying to diminish. Yes, BP paying (and not making any direct profit) from this scheme constitutes a great ‘’eco-gesture’’. Also, doing this at the world’s largest event makes this a wide-reaching initiative. However, it seems a little too simple. Asking people to ‘’cut down’’ on their own gas-guzzling and recording it.

    And who will the offsets benefit? Interesting fact: apparently, BP’s intention is to fund far-away projects like ‘’creating landfill gas from waste in Mamak in Turkey and renewable electricity from dairy farming in Wisconsin in the US’’. Wait a minute…isn’t the distance of offsetting projects the reason why the overall Games carbon offsetting was eighty-sixed in August? So what’s it going to be? Carbon offsets equal good? Or are they not truly part of the solution? Maybe we were asking too much from our friends at BP and this is as good as it’s going to get. We can harp on this a little more as we approach the Games – for now, let’s move on…

    The Promise: Sustainability in the community

    A major selling point for bringing the Olympics to the UK

    Part of the benefit of hosting the world-class event entails building infrastructure that will create a legacy in London and spruce up otherwise run-down areas of the city (example: London’s east side). In the past, some Olympic projects have attempted to do the same – with mixed results. For instance, Montreal in 1976 missed the mark in this area, building an Olympic Stadium in a residential location with hopes of bringing economic prosperity and a walk-about atmosphere (it didn’t).

    Are the new Olympic venues helping establish long-term community resources and revitalize certain London neighbourhoods? What is being done to ensure that these facilities are well maintained and fuel some type of local prosperity? What are the residents saying? What do those that most need the social support think? Are they being consulted and allowed to have a say? I am afraid that these questions will only be answered long after the closing ceremonies take place…

    This clever graphic from MSNBC uses satellite images to show the major changes to the East London landscape in the lead-up to the Olympics (click image for slider).

    East London’s looking a little different these days (Source: MSNBC)

    Conclusions

    What London 2012 can do is be as sustainable as possible and pass the torch (pun intended) to Sochi (2014) and Rio (2016), putting pressure on them to have an even smaller environmental impact.

    So, what can we say about LOCOG’S sustainability plan now? Can the tweaking of the plan be interpreted as backing out and selling out on their green commitments? What responsibility do large events like this one have in leading the change for a greener world? The problem is that there is no real standard. No authority or framework to follow because the idea of the eco-event is still in its infancy. All LOCOG has to compare itself to are previous Games. And as technology and times change, being greener than an event that occurred two years earlier isn’t (and shouldn’t be) difficult.

    Maybe the problem is the initial promise of being ‘’the first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games’’. A noble objective and exactly what the world needs now – but it might have been a little lofty. Nevertheless, there is still time (169 days to be exact) for London to show the world it can stay true to its word.

    More in this series:

    Do you know your Olympics?

    What’s London doing to get set for the Games?