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Why London’s green Olympics might be outpaced in 2016

<p>A look at how host cities compete for the gold in green -- and how Rio is gunning to overtake London for the sustainability gold.</p>

Editor's Note: To learn more about the role of technology systems in developing campuses and cities, check out VERGE@Greenbuild, November 12-13, in San Francisco.


Planners in London set out to create “the world’s first truly sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games,” and it is shaping up as the greenest Olympics ever -- at least until 2016, when Olympic host city Rio de Janeiro hopes to take the gold medal for being green.

Sustainability has become a more important concept with almost every Olympics host city over the past two decades, and there is little doubt that the trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

In its bid to be a host city, London created the “One Planet Olympics” concept, using the world stage to showcase its model for global sustainable communities. The plan’s holistic goals covered energy¸ carbon, water and waste reduction; biodiversity; access and inclusion; health and employment.

And the city has delivered on its plan. Although the energy used by the Olympics from renewable sources ended up being cut nearly in half, planners still managed to reduce overall carbon emissions by 20 percent over the past two years through efficiency strategies. Olympic venues are designed to use 40 percent less drinkable water and athlete housing 30 percent less than standard. And the original plan to reclaim and reuse 90 percent of demolition waste has been exceeded, with 98 percent of demolition waste reclaimed.

Planners have set up an effective governance structure that includes a strong focus on sustainability, including participation by the London 2012 Senior Responsible Officers Group, the London 2012 Sustainability Group, and the appointment of The Commission for Sustainable London as an auditing body since the outset of the project. The Athlete’s Village and elements of Stratford City participate in the BREEAM Communities pilot program, commercial buildings were designed to BREEAM Very Good or Excellent, and all residential buildings were designed to Ecohomes Excellent/Code for Sustainable Homes Level 3 or 4. (BREEAM is a design and assessment method used for sustainable buildings).

In short, London set a high bar for sustainability and has done an admirable job of meeting its goals; however, it is not the first time that Olympic host cities have tried to be green. In looking back over recent decades, it’s easy to see the evolution of sustainability in Olympic cities.

Photo of sprinter provided by mezzotint via Shutterstock

It should be noted that the term “sustainability” can be applied not only to environmental concerns but also to economic viability that stems from long-term thinking. Environmental and economic sustainability are highly connected concepts -- a city with environmental problems such as water shortages or intense air pollution will not be able to attract the type of residents or businesses that it needs for sustainable economic growth. Talented professionals gravitate to sustainable cities -- with green space, clean air and water, good mass transit system and so on -- and businesses that want those professionals know where to find them.

The connections between environmental and economic development extend to the Olympics as well. The millions of dollars a city must spend to build an Olympic Village can’t easily be recaptured during the event. What happens at the site after the Games are over determines the financial success of the venture. Thus, Olympic Villages are designed to be converted to permanent residences, and other venues are developed with re-use or easily disassembly in mind. These strategies may focus on economics but it is also environmentally responsible, since the majority of energy and carbon used throughout a building’s life cycle occurs during its construction and demolition

The idea that the Olympics can be an economic failure came into focus with the 1976 Montreal Games, where a $310 million estimated cost ballooned into a $1.5 billion nightmare saddled with debt that took decades to repay. The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles avoided Montreal’s fate by using mostly existing facilities. Then in 1994, the International Olympic Committee added “Environment” to “Sport” and “Culture” as a guiding principle, and the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta marked the first time that serious consideration was given to sustainable re-use of new Olympic construction after the Games. 

Atlanta’s Olympic Village and Centennial Olympic Park revitalized a run-down area of the city.  Dormitories in the Olympic Village were converted to college student housing after the Games, and the park is now one of Atlanta’s most-visited destinations. The 1996 Olympics utilized landmarks such as the Georgia World Congress Center and Georgia Dome, and set the stage for developments such as Georgia Aquarium and the New World of Coca-Cola.  Even the newly-built Olympic Stadium was designed to become a new home for baseball’s Atlanta Braves, now known as Turner Field.

The 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney were considered not only a global coming-out party for the city “down under,” but also a showcase for world-leading sustainability efforts.  From an industrial brownfield with a brickworks, slaughterhouse and eight garbage dumps, Sydney built an Olympic Village with the world’s largest solar powered settlement, comprising 2,000 residences powered by 19,000 solar collectors capable of producing 160,000 kilowatt hours.  Many of the competition venues generated their own clean power. After the festivities, the site became the Sydney suburb of Newington, with a comprehensive sustainable plan for its next 30 years of growth.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics may be remembered for its abysmal air quality, causing some athletes to drop out of competition. But many people familiar with China’s dismal environmental record during its 30 years of nearly double-digit annual economic growth were surprised by the progress made toward sustainability in the years leading up to the Olympics. The number of “blue sky” days—with an Air Pollution Index of 100 or below—rose from less than 180 days in 2000 to 274 days in 2008

Between 2001 and 2008, an estimated $17 billion was spent to on 20 key environmental improvements. Renewable energy supplied more than 20 percent of power to the Beijing Olympics, including a 130-kilowatt solar array to light the National Stadium, and a geothermal system deployed for heating and air conditioning at the Olympic Green Tennis Center.  A 126-kilometer ring of trees was planted around Beijing to prevent pollution from entering the city, and 720 acres or green space—three times the size of New York’s Central Park—were cleared and planted with more than 30 million trees and rosebushes.

If London has surpassed these previous efforts, Rio de Janeiro seems poised to outpace this year’s Olympics. The city’s bid for the 2016 Games focused on a strong environmental theme, “Green Games for a Blue Planet,” and Brazil starts with a key advantage -- 45 percent of the country’s energy already comes from hydroelectric and renewable sources. Rio’s goal is to power 100 percent of its public transportation with clean biodiesel ethanol by 2016 and to create a network of bike paths connecting all Olympic facilities. And the Olympic Village is designed to be a green paradise of flora and fauna meant to emulate the Amazon rainforest, although critics note that deforestation of the actual rainforest in Brazil is a serious environmental problem.

One thing is clear:  Regardless of who wins the individual events at London, Rio and beyond, it seems that the Olympic Games will permanently encourage a gold medal performance for sustainability.

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