"Greenest Olympics Ever" May Not Mean Much

When the Vancouver Organizing Committee was born in 2003, it set a lofty goal: make the 2010 Winter Olympics the greenest Games in history. While calling the Games the "greenest ever" might lead one to believe that the net effect will be similar to planting thousands of acres of Amazonian rainforest, the reality is that the Olympics are going to do some damage to the environment. When you bring hundreds of thousands of people together for an event as massive as the Olympic Games, an enormous carbon footprint is almost inevitable, even with VANOC's efforts to mitigate it.

VANOC believes it is on target to achieve a 15 percent reduction in its direct carbon footprint over what would be normally produced in these types of events. The reduction measures involve small steps, like including bus fares in the price of Olympic tickets and not providing public parking at events (to encourage spectators to use public transportation), and larger efforts, like construction of venues to LEED standards for green building. Especially state of the art are the community energy systems that use recovered heat from sewage or wastewater to produce heat and hot water for the Olympic villages in Vancouver and Whistler. Additionally, 90 percent of the power supplied for the Games will be renewable (from hydroelectric sources), and even backup power will be mostly supplied over the grid, requiring fewer diesel backup generators than at prior Olympics.

But even with VANOC's efforts to reduce, the Games will still produce 268,000 tons of carbon emissions, roughly equivalent to the emissions of 55,000 midsize cars over the course of a year. More than half of these projected emissions—150,000 tons—will come from the travel of spectators, sponsors, and partners to the Games, and the other 118,000 tons will come from VANOC's operations.

That's a lot of carbon. VANOC does have plans to offset at least a portion of it and, as a result, the Vancouver Games is the first to have an official carbon offset sponsor. This company, Offsetters, has committed to offset all 118,000 tons of VANOC's direct emissions from Olympic operations—44 percent of the total Olympic footprint—with carbon reductions from clean-energy projects in British Colombia (allowing VANOC to claim carbon neutrality). As for the remaining 150,000 tons of indirect emissions—the remainder of the Olympic footprint—Offsetters has set up a voluntary program that will allow spectators and sponsors to calculate their carbon footprint from their travels to and from the Games and purchase offsets to cover their environmental impact, at a cost of about $25 per ton of emissions. "It's all about everyone taking some personal responsibility," says Linda Coady, VANOC's vice president for sustainability. "We want to use the spotlight of the Games to make people more aware of their carbon footprint."

Judging by past initiatives, however, people don't really care about their carbon footprint. As a result, there might not be enough participation in the voluntary component of the offset program. This is a big deal: 150,000 tons of carbon (from travel to the Games) are at stake, equivalent to the emissions from 28,000 midsize cars over a year. According to Deborah Carlson, a climate-change campaigner at the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental nonprofit, there has typically been only a 5 percent participation rate in similar voluntary offset programs sponsored by airlines. (The Suzuki Foundation, which initially worked with VANOC after the city was awarded the games, recently gave their gave the Vancouver Games a bronze rating for environmental performance to date – admirable, but lacking in certain key areas). Of course, there's the chance the Olympic program might surpass that—as Offsetters CEO James Tansey points out, it's easy to skip over the check box that lets you offset your emissions on an airline Web site, but there will be lots of publicity and advertising to encourage spectators to offset at the Olympics. Tansey says that corporate sponsors of the Olympics have already agreed to offset 75 percent of the emissions from their travel, which is encouraging, although it's unclear how spectators will respond to the program (both Coady and Tansey are optimistic).

Another big question is whether VANOC will manage to come out of the Games at or below their projected 118,000 tons of direct carbon emissions. Coady is confident that the Committee won't surpass the projection, even with added emissions from choppers and dump trucks bringing in the extra snow required for the Olympic events as a result of the unseasonably warm temperatures in Vancouver. As of Feb. 9, more than 170 truckloads of snow from 200 miles away had been dumped on Cypress Mountain. Coady says there is a contingency of a few percentage points built into the projections. "Even if we flew helicopters every day until the 28th of February, it's only about a 1 percent variation in the forecast," she says. "But if it goes up, it will be reflected in the final numbers, reported after the Games."

The bottom line is that whether or not the emissions from the Games exceed VANOC projections, the Committee's final report will present the most comprehensive measurement to date of an Olympic Games's climate impact. Since VANOC is the first organizing committee to measure its full carbon footprint (both direct and indirect emissions), this may arguably be the greatest environmental contribution of the Vancouver Olympics going forward. "As future decisions are taken about hosting these mega-events, we can now take the climate impact into consideration when making these decisions," Carlson says. Furthermore, VANOC's efforts will help provide a baseline and a means of comparing the environmental successes of different Olympics, which is nearly impossible to do quantitatively at this point.

While it's too early to tell whether VANOC's initiatives will be a game changer for the Olympic movement, VANOC's pioneering step of measuring its climate impact in great detail could set a clear environmental bar for future Olympics to attain and, hopefully, surpass. And that would be a worthwhile legacy.