Winter Olympics 2014: a missed opportunity to advance sustainability

Sochi Winter Olympics sustainability

The Sochi Winter Olympics, which opens 7 February, was meant to be the greenest Olympics ever. The budget was certainly there: Russia has doled out more than $51bn, an all-time record, to make the event happen.

Yet reports of serious environmental problems have been piling up for months. The UN and World Wildlife Fund have called out Russia overconstruction practices that damaged the region’s pristine natural ecosystems.

And in October, the Associated Press reported it had found mountains of construction debris in an unlicensed landfill, indicating Russia had broken its promise to make the games zero waste. And, ominously, environmental activists have reported being harassed by officials. It’s a discouraging prelude to the games.

Yet I wondered if there might be a silver lining to be found amid the sustainability commitments made by the game’s corporate sponsors.

After all, while the credibility of the Russian organizers’ on these issues has all but melted away, the corps of 10 worldwide sponsors includes major global brands, many of which have made deep, long-standing commitments to sustainability.

My findings? With one dramatic exception, the games’ deep-pocketed sponsors have done too little to promote sustainability as an element of their efforts at Sochi.

The games’ worldwide sponsors are a familiar lot, including six iconic US brands, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, General Electric, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Visa; two Asian electronics giants, Japan’s Panasonic and South Korea’s Samsung; and two European companies, France’s Atos and Omega from Switzerland.

This top-tier level of sponsorship, rumored to cost at least $100m per four-year cycle, is far from trivial. And given the International Olympic Committee’s growing emphasis on sustainability – the past two games in London 2012 and Vancouver 2010 are considered the greenest ever – these sponsorships seem an ideal platform in which to mix a high-profile sustainability push.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be happening. For this exercise, I mined online press material and related documentation and emailed each company. Only Dow replied with detailed information. Here’s what I found:

Dow: Sochi’s «official carbon partner”

In a first for the games, chemicals giant Dow has pledged to offset the organizing committee’s entire direct carbon footprint – including greenhouse gas emissions from operating the games’ venues, as well as from travel and lodging for all athletes, staff and volunteers – as well as the estimated travel footprint of all spectators and media attending the Olympic events and the Paralympic Games, scheduled for March.

Dow estimates it will offset emissions equivalent to 360,000 metric tons of carbon-dioxide for the organizing committee, plus 160,000 metric tons for spectators and media. For perspective, the total estimated 520,000 metric tons is equivalent to removing approximately 102,000 cars from US roads, or neutralizing a year’s worth of direct and indirect emissions from 10,800 US homes.

Dow is offsetting these emissions with a mix of completed and ongoing projects, principally in Russia, but also in Brazil and South Korea, which will host the next two Olympics, and other regions. These include farming enhancements, such as low-till farming methods; building efficiency gains via better insulation and other technologies; and industrial upgrades. In the US, Dow is deploying a share of the verified offsets generated from capturing and recycling methane at a waste dump in Georgia.

The broad portfolio of projects, Dow claims, meets international standards and the International Carbon Offset and Reduction Alliance Code of Practice, the global benchmark for offsets. “Dow’s initiative represents a significant step forward in terms of sustainability for one of the world’s main sporting event,” according to a company statement.

GE and turbine power

The only other sponsor with a clear environmental angle to its Olympics pledge is GE. The conglomerate is supplying two very high efficiency“aero-derivative” gas turbines to help power the games. The units, which will provide both base load and peak load power to the Olympics village and venues, feature GE’s latest emissions technology.

Evolved from airplane jet engines, the model is designed to ramp up and down in less than 10 minutes, which makes it well suited to pair with the variable output of wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable energy systems.

That’s not to say that renewable energy will be powering Sochi. Despite early estimates of promising potential for geothermal, solar, hydro and wind and some building-level projects, there is scant evidence that any substantial new renewables capacity has been built.

Everyone else

From there, evidence of sustainability efforts by other corporate sponsors tapers off sharply. For their part, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, both long-time Olympic sponsors, have focused on health – but details are scant. Coca-Cola Russia said it plans to launch a traveling showcase of activities promoting an active, healthy lifestyle during the Winter Olympics.

A survey of news and press materials of the remaining half dozen top-tier sponsors (Atos, Omega, Panasonic, P&G, Samsung, and Visa) turned up no explicit sustainability goals in their Sochi commitments.

To be sure, I hope there are other sustainability efforts afoot that I missed. I welcome information on other programs in the comments below.

Big platform, big responsibility

But the overall direction of the Sochi games is discouraging. It’s a pity that more companies aren’t using the Olympics to up their sustainability efforts, not least because the event offers such far-reaching visibility.

As the Natural Resource Defense Council’s eco-sports guru Allen Herskowitz says, only about a tenth of the public follow sciences, but nearly two-thirds follow sports. This means that sustainability actions in sporting arenas have supersized potential to normalize greener practices.

And, lest we forget, lurking beneath the immediate question of sustainability is a deeper worry about climate change, particularly as it impacts the viability of future winter sports.

In winter playgrounds around the world, climate change is already degrading the seasonal conditions that skiers, boarders and others depend on. In Vancouver 2010, unseasonably warm weather forced the games to resort to extreme measures, such as hauling in stored snow.

Sochi 2014 also has been stashing snow, and is ready to deploy an army of energy-intensive earth-movers and snow-making systems to make ready for the games. It’s good to know Sochi is prepared for a potential shortage of the white stuff.

Still, it would be better to know the games and their partners are working today to avoid climate troubles and warmer winters tomorrow.

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Date / Fecha: 18/02/14

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