EXPLAINER: The Olympics show the complexity of sustainability claims | Economic news


By CANDICE CHOI and KELVIN CHAN, Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — To bring the Winter Games to the Chinese capital, organizers have embarked on an extensive public works campaign, constructing new venues and funneling millions of gallons of water into the surrounding arid mountains to create fake snow for ski competitions.

And then they proclaimed it to be the most enduring Olympics in history.

How can these two things be true?

The seeming contradiction shows the difficulties of sorting out the spin from the real achievements as countries and companies seek to restore their environmental credentials.

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Even as organizations make notable progress in reducing the adverse effects of their operations, experts say sustainability claims can be overstated and mask underlying issues. In China, verifying claims can be particularly difficult due to the lack of transparency.

An overview of what sustainability claims can and cannot tell us.


Sustainability is a broad term generally referring to environmental, economic and social effects. But experts say a lack of clear and consistent measurements can make it difficult to know whether to trust claims around the term.

In the early 2000s, the International Olympic Committee sought to create a comprehensive assessment to help track organizers’ progress on sustainability goals, according to research published last year. But the effort was ultimately abandoned by the host cities, in part because gathering all the necessary information was too cumbersome, the report notes.

The researchers sought to create their own method to assess the sustainability of the Games using publicly available information. Comparisons were difficult due to the lack of consistent data, but they found that sustainability had actually declined with the recent Olympics due to factors such as event growth. The Beijing 2022 Games were not included in the study.


As organizations face pressure to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming, one measure of sustainability that is gaining more attention is the carbon footprint.

The IOC, for example, says the Beijing Olympics will be carbon neutral and future games will be carbon positive. This may seem to defy logic given the massive scale of events. But groups can claim carbon neutrality by paying to offset the emissions they create, often with planting trees.

Experts say offsets can be problematic because there is no guarantee they will reduce emissions. Trees can be wiped out by forest fires or extreme weather conditions.

“Reforestation projects literally go up in smoke,” said Daniel Scott, a climate researcher at the University of Waterloo.

Many organizations are making significant changes to reduce their footprint. But the simplicity of carbon neutrality claims can make it hard to know what they really mean, said Harry Fearnehough, a policy analyst at the NewClimate Institute, which fights global warming.

“It’s almost impossible for consumers – but also for regulators, shareholders, investors – to digest this easily,” he said, adding that government guidelines could guide people.

The Beijing organizers note the many measures they have taken to reduce the impact of the Games. Several arenas from the city’s 2008 Summer Games are being repurposed for this month’s competitions, and venues are being powered by renewable energy. Most vehicles transporting participants between venues will also be fuel efficient.

But to achieve carbon neutrality, organizers still rely on carbon offsets.

Marie Sallois, IOC sustainability director, noted the challenges of reducing emissions and that organizers are striving to keep improving.


The focus on carbon footprints in recent years could mask other environmental and social issues, such as the use of natural resources and the displacement of local residents for construction.

“We can get carbon blinders,” said Rob Jackson, a climate researcher at Stanford University.

In a sustainability report last month, Beijing organizers touched on some of the Games’ other impacts. To build the ski jumping venue and Olympic village in Hebei province, for example, they said about 1,500 villagers who were to be relocated had the choice of new apartments or cash.

To ensure that fake snow production does not stress regional water supplies, the report cites measures such as recycling wastewater and using reservoirs to collect rain and snowmelt. This week, organizers also noted that fake snow has become common at ski resorts. Experts say the practice could become more common as climate change puts winter sports at risk.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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