Are the Games Really Green? the Vancouver Winter Olympics' Search for Sustainability

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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.

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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.

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."

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"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."

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. …