Are the Games Really Green?

The Vancouver Winter Olympics" Search for Sustainability

The halfpipe at Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver cost .7 million.© Photos: Vanoc/Covan

Since Salt Lake City staged the first carbon-neutral Winter Olympics in 2002, every subsequent Olympics has claimed to be the next "greenest"—Athens 2004, Torino 2006, Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010, London 2012. Each Olympics requires the building of mega-sized Games venues. And the resulting thousands of tons of waste, greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions and ecosystem damage present an internationally embarrassing problem that Olympic hosts rush to correct.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) now urges all Olympic Games hosts to "harness the power of sport for change." The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) works with committees on everything from emissions tracking to legacy uses of competition venues. Understandably, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) has committed to create the most "sustainable" Winter Olympics ever.

"The most sustainable Olympics would be no Olympics," says Kathryn Molloy, principal of The Molloy Group, Vancouver, British Columbia. As executive director of B.C.’s Sierra Club, she served on a team that helped advise VANOC on sustainability performance. She hopes VANOC’s high-profile actions will "outweigh the environmental negatives associated with mounting the Games."

Those negatives include about 330,000 tons of GhG emissions, ecosystem and habitat damage, and serious waste generation, according to a David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) analysis that VANOC commissioned. A separate DSF report warns that unchecked climate change could eliminate ice skating, cross-country skiing, and low-elevation downhill skiing by 2050.

Vancouver"s speed skating venue, the Richmond Olympic Oval, cost 8 million.

That the Games" GhG emissions contribute to their own demise, says VANOC’s Vice President of Sustainability Linda Coady, challenges organizers to "reduce our carbon footprints, and to raise awareness about the need for action on climate change."

Coady is up against a business perspective, where environmental health "does not even rank among the top 10 priorities," says Vancouver Sun political columnist Von Palmer. Ahead of it come budgets and costs, revenue generation, site and infrastructure development, after-Olympics (legacy) site uses, security, operations and event management, international and local politics, and public relations.

Regardless, says DSF climate change campaigner Paul Lingl, "Certified environmental performance should be incorporated as an IOC requirement. It should not be an option that only wealthy countries do."

"Ideally, you’d put the Games where infrastructure and offset potential already exist," says Steve Olson, director of finance and operations for Leonardo Academy, Inc., the company that worked with the nonprofit Carbon Neutral Network to quantify and certify the 330,000 tons of GhG emissions, and 500,000 tons" worth of offsets for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. "Ideally, the IOC would designate one locale each for Winter and Summer Games and the world’s athletes would compete there in perpetuity."

A scene from the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay.

The latest report shows the total hosting cost may hit $6 billion, nearly 10 times" VANOC’s original estimate. But the Olympics bring such feverish excitement, international prestige and economic benefit to a host region that cities line up to bid for the honor.

Given that the Games will go on, Coady and her sustainability team are taking a novel mitigation approach. They will be the first organizing committee to:

" Assess all Games-related impacts, environmental, social and economic, over the seven years from winning bid (Fall 2003) to end of Games (May 2010);
" Integrate this "triple bottom line" into all levels of VANOC management and operations and post progress every few months in public Sustainability Reports;
" Secure an Official Supplier of Carbon Offsets, B.C.-based Offsetters, for the first 100,000 tons of carbon emissions, using B.C.-based clean technologies and International Gold Standard offset credits. How VANOC will offset the remaining 220,000 GhG tons is still being negotiated.

VANOC is emphasizing sustainable purchasing and ethical sourcing, working with power supplier BC Hydro to reduce its energy generation footprint, including using waste heat from refrigeration to heat several venues and rainwater to irrigate grounds. To further control GhG emissions, VANOC will remodel and use existing facilities for opening and closing ceremonies and six out of 10 competition venues, and build the remaining venues and two athlete villages on previously used sites. All construction will be certified to minimum LEED Silver standards, and after the Games, modular housing units will be given to homeless communities.

All urban areas damage their environments; the question is how much more the Winter Olympics will contribute to metro Vancouver and the resort municipality of Whistler, population 2.3 million. VANOC’s website notes that the 4,530 tons of solid waste generated during the Games" operational phase (September 2009 to May 2010) is "equivalent to 0.00145% of the annual waste generated," and that 85% of it will be diverted from landfills. The Games" 330,000 tons of GhG emissions over seven years amount to 3/100th of what the hosts emit every year (11.05 million tons). Even the Games" quarter- to half-million expected participants and spectators amount to fewer than 5% of the area’s annual 8.9 million visitors.

Snowboarding at Cypress Mountain.

That doesn’t mean all the environmental critics are happy—particularly those who have fought, unsuccessfully, the expanding of the "Sea to Sky Highway" between Vancouver and Whistler to accommodate Olympic visitors. The documentary film Five Ring Circus, based on a book by the same name, highlights the Canadian activists who fought to protect sensitive habitat on Eagleridge Bluffs from road expansion.

One such demonstrator, 71-year-old Native American grandmother Harriet Nehanee, was jailed for 14 days and died of complications from pneumonia shortly after her release. "Let them have the Olympic Games," Nehanee said in the film. "But why do they have to chop down all the trees? I’m here because I want to protect this land for future generations."

MARTIN WESTERMAN is an environmental author and sustainable business specialist.