Greenwashing the Gold
It’s not the sports, obviously. The Olympics are not a major contributor of greenhouse gases (GHGs) or other pollutants. They are all about human-powered sporting activities, and how dirty can that be?
It’s about the five-ring circus that attends to the sports. The construction and operation of buildings and other infrastructure. Development and operation of highways and transit. The additional traffic that will use the Sea-to-Sky Highway. All the flights in and out of Vancouver from everywhere in the world, not just during the two week blitz in February 2010, but the decade before and for some period afterwards.
All those people: 7000 media, 6400 athletes and officials, 3000 sponsors, up to 30,000 volunteers, and up to half a million spectators in Vancouver and Whistler during the Games. They’ve all got to be moved around, housed, fed, entertained. The water and energy consumption, sewage, and other waste considerations are daunting.
The environmental impact of all the Olympic infrastructure development is hard to assess, but the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) did attempt to quantify the greenhouse gas impact of the Games, including all the flights into and out of Vancouver.
DSF estimates that total GHG emissions of the Games will be 328,485 tonnes. Air travel alone accounts for 226,500 tonnes. Local transportation: 32,800 tonnes; energy use: 29,900 tonnes; VANOC administration: 14,400 tonnes; accommodation: 7,700 tonnes; and construction: merely 4,000 tonnes. DSF calculates that the cost to offset all the emissions will be just under five million dollars, at a low $15 per tonne.
DSF recommends that “It is … more effective for the organizers to aggregate these [travel] emissions and take responsibility for ensuring that they are offset” than to hope that significant mitigation will take place by individual decisions. Offsetting all carbon emissions is the intention of the 2012 Summer Games in London.
So what is VANOC doing to reduce emissions and minimize the environmental impact of the Games? It takes a few clicks at the Vancouver2010.com website to find the word “environment” but under the heading “Environmental Stewardship and Impact Reduction,” we discover a “Performance Objective … to conserve natural environments and manage, mitigate and offset negative impacts.”
This statement is accompanied by a somewhat meaningless set of facts which refer to some commendable achievements: almost all waste diverted from landfills (not including land clearing debris); green building design under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification; low emission vehicles for half the fleet; public transit initiatives; zero infractions of environmental laws and regulations; and zero spills.
These metrics don’t tell us very much. Cancelling the Olympics is the only way to have no environmental impact and to ensure there are no carbon emissions. Nevertheless, these Olympics have made an effort to green themselves up. Some of the greening is substantive. Some is a distraction, and some is just spin.
But air travel, transportation, energy use – heating, lighting, ice and snow-making – at events, will all produce significant GHGs. And for these, VANOC has little or no response.
The “Hydrogen Highway” is a flagship of Premier Campbell’s fleet of climate change initiatives. Debunked by many as a high-tech cash hemorrhage funded by taxpayers, the Olympics will pay $89 million for 20 fuel-cell powered buses, or $4.45 million per bus (a comparable hybrid bus could cost $830,000, a conventional diesel bus, $343,000).
Even less impressive, the description of initiatives at the VANOC Vancouver offices reads like a fancy list of fashionable Gucci-Green rather than meaningful mitigation of environmental impacts: increased daylight, low-emitting carpets, showers and change rooms, shuttle to Skytrain, and even … a comprehensive recycling program!
Greenhouse gas reduction is a cornerstone of provincial government policy. The Premier’s Climate Action Plan, released in June 2008, states that “Overall, the games will be carbon neutral, using carbon trading to offset any emissions produced during construction or staging.” That sounds better than it is. The Climate Action Secretariat doesn’t actually know what’s included. But it definitely doesn’t include flights.
We’re leaving that to London, host of the 2012 Summer Games. After all, BC is already the Best Place on Earth. Can’t do better than that.