Can the Olympics boost sustainability?

Despite promises to spend billions on sustainable development projects, Rio has failed to take advantage of the Olympic opportunity for urban resilience.

The International Olympic Committee in 1996 made protecting the environment a priority when it named the environment the third dimension of "Olympism," alongside sport and culture. But the actual sustainability of the games remains dubious at best.

Every four years, billions of dollars are poured into massive construction projects — sometimes displacing entire communities — only to have many buildings fall into disuse shortly after the games conclude. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people travel from all over the world, mostly by air, to descend upon a single location for a short period of time.

In recent years, sustainable development and urban resilience have become almost necessary components of successful Olympic bids. As part of its winning Olympic bid in 2009, Rio de Janeiro promised to host "Green Games for a Blue Planet," claiming that it would use clean energy, clear the city's clogged streets, preserve its natural spaces and upgrade its "favelas" — slums devoid of reliable infrastructure — to more urbanized areas with functioning utilities, public transportation and other services.

But Rio, like many Olympic host cities before it, has failed to follow through on these lofty promises. With few exceptions, host cities have shown that they are more interested in talking about sustainability than following through on it — and so fumble the chance to turn the games from a social and environmental liability to gold opportunity to promote urban resilience.

Rio’s unmet resilience record

Blame it on an unforeseen crippling recession, a lack of political will or an abundance of corruption, Rio has failed to follow through on its sustainability pledges. Cost overruns and construction problems either delayed or scuttled most of its scheduled projects.

Despite delays and cost overruns, Rio’s new 10-mile rail line became operational just in time for the Aug. 8 opening ceremony. While this is meant to be the biggest positive Olympic legacy for Rio, who knows if the city will continue to invest in the new system once the eyes of the world have moved on.

While much of the water-related public attention was focused on one of the Olympic pools' turning green, due to a chemical mistake by maintenance staff, Rio’s waterways remain contaminated. Trash, raw sewage and even body parts have been present at water sport venues. Speaking of which, Brazil also has one of the highest death toll of environmental activists in the world, according to Global Witness, a human rights nonprofit.

And on the social justice front, Rio followed in the footsteps of Beijing in forcibly removing citizens from their homes near the stadium construction site. In Vila Autódromo, a favela community on the edge of the Olympic Park, hundreds of people were coerced to vacate their homes, either through financial compensation or through brute force. Many of these people understandably didn’t want to give up their homes of many years for a mega-event that lasts only two weeks.

Progress in carbon neutrality

It’s important to give credit where it’s due: the Olympics have gotten better about addressing macro-climate impacts through carbon offsetting. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi became the first to be declared "carbon neutral," thanks to a partnership with Dow to implement energy-efficient technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in key areas of the Russian economy.

This was a milestone, after the 2010 games in Vancouver aimed for carbon neutrality and ultimately fell short, and the 2012 summer games in London began with the same goal but soon amended it, aiming instead for zero waste to landfill.

In Rio, Dow again is the official carbon partner, which has set out to make the event carbon neutral by offsetting the expected 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide generated by construction projects, spectators and operations.

Dow has committed to offsetting 2 million tons by implementing programs such as a fuel switch at power installations in its plants in Brazil. The company also will calculate the reductions achieved with the use of some of its products in the agriculture and the food processing sectors in the country.

Meanwhile, Rio has pledged to offset the remainder through a reforestation program for degraded areas of the Atlantic Rainforest.

A resilience boost every four years

The Olympic opportunity for urban resilience is making sure host cities walk the talk on their promises for investing in public infrastructure. But more important, host cities must start taking a more people-centric approach to their proposals. Like most successful urban resilience initiatives we’ve seen around the world, public engagement and buy-in is critical.

Future host cities should take a page out of London’s book in using the Olympics to inject a booster of urban renewal into neglected neighborhoods. In 2012, London successfully revived its struggly eastern regions through smart and strategic development projects.

Granted, taking advantage of this opportunity may be easier for wealthier countries such as the United Kingdom than for developing ones such as Brazil. But this doesn’t mean we can let developing countries hosting the Olympics off the hook — these are the areas where improved urban resilience are needed most.

The spirit of sustainability and the Olympic Creed

Despite its operational shortfalls, the spirit of sustainability seems to have infected the Olympic Games in Rio. There have been reports of athletes from different nationalities stopping to help one another.

German twins with no hope of landing a medal held hands in solidarity as they crossed the finish line — much to the dismay of many of their countrymen. That warm feeling these stories give us might just be our sense of common humanity — the same that forms the foundations of the Olympic Creed:

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

And it’s that same spirit we’ll need to maintain if we hope to follow up on COP21’s ambitious Paris Agreement — not to mention address the world’s pressing social and environmental sustainability challenges.