The Greenest Event of them all, Part 1: Olympic News From the Trenches

Hello, and welcome blog readers! This summer I am working with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games (VANOC), located in – you guessed – Vancouver, British Columbia, home to the modest slogan “the best place on earth”. I will be reporting weekly on sustainability issues as they relate to the Olympic Games and large event planning in general, covering topics ranging from carbon emissions and accounting to procurement, energy use, food and waste control, and more.

This first section focuses on the carbon emission profile of the 2010 Games and historical attempts to go “Carbon Neutral” in previous Games.

1992 was the year that introduced the abstract concept “sustainability” to the mainstream modern generation, with the Rio Declaration and new legions of devoted fans focusing on a “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental and social maximization. In 1994 the Lillehammer Games ran with this growing movement and became the first “ecological” Games. Looking back however, environmental planning for a town of 25,000 is far from what would be sustainable for most modest-sized cities, not to mention carbon was left off the table.

It wasn’t until 2000 that Sydney, in a brilliant contribution to modern vocabulary, unveiled the “Green Games” strategy, which, among other things, focused on a low-carbon profile. Now that carbon had become a measurable factor, host countries quickly followed to compete. Salt Lake promised a carbon neutral Games in 2002, although a questionable tree-planting initiative left many wondering about the validity of the “offsets”. Four years later, Turin broke ground with Italy’s first comprehensive Strategic Environmental Assessment. Although Turin reported that its carbon mitigation and reduction strategy was a success, no post-Games validation of this claim has appeared. And the simple lack of reporting for Beijing last summer made many question if carbon had become reduced to a token consideration. (Note, however, Beijing dealt with many other pressing environmental concerns.)

These were the challenges Vancouver and London faced when bidding to host the first “Sustainable Games” in 2010 and 2012, a title that encompasses both social and environmental legacies, and recognizes the necessity of independent verification and comprehensive pre and post-event planning. For Vancouver, this means tracking VANOC’s carbon footprint from Day 1 – winning the bid in 2003 – until the Games are finished in March 2010.

How much carbon is there? The David Suzuki Foundation, a Canada-based consultancy, estimated a carbon footprint of 300,000 tonnes CO2e for the Vancouver Games (this compares to 500,000 tonnes CO2e for Salt Lake and 3,500,000 tonnes CO2e for London), which will be partially mitigated by increased efficiency, reductions in energy use, and purchases of carbon offsets.

As with everything new, the move towards a unified carbon standard is slow. While most analysts now use “greenhouse gas scope” measurements – and in fact London will be tracking emissions based on GHG Scope 1, 2, and 3 – Vancouver has classified emissions as Direct and Indirect. These loosely correspond to Scope 1 and 2 for Direct and Scope 3 for Indirect. Additionally, emissions from infrastructure construction in Vancouver – construction which unlike London is managed by a separate corporation – are outside either Direct or Indirect classifications.

The most notable aspect of VANOC’s carbon reduction plan, however, is the commitment to purchase verified, secure carbon offsets that will be transparent and verifiable by third parties and the general public. On June 3rd, VANOC announced a first-ever sponsorship agreement with Offsetters, a BC-based corporation which will provide official carbon offsets to the Olympic Games and Olympic Games Sponsors.

This new relationship brings many questions. Having an offset sponsor for other sponsors is similar to asking McDonald’s be the official Happy Meal® supplier not just to the Games themselves, but to GM, GE and Coca-Cola as well. The coming weeks will see the questions surrounding sponsorship and branding rights ironed out in legal agreements. For now, however, Vancouver 2010 looks set to make new inroads in sustainability.

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