Taking into account transportation infrastructure, venues, operations, and spectators, this summer's London Games are expected to generate some 3.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (CO2e), according to the London 2012 Carbon Footprint Study. That figure compares in order of magnitude to the annual carbon footprint of a small country, say Iceland or Malawi. With that much carbon already gone, reviewing Olympic conservation measures can feel like reviewing a barn door with too many horses on the wrong side of it.
And yet, according to the mission statement of the Sport and Environment Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), "The IOC has acknowledged its particular responsibility in terms of promoting sustainable development, and regards the environment as the third dimension of Olympism, alongside sport and culture." From an environmental perspective, says Richard Cashman, director of the Australian Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, the Olympic movement is "further ahead than a lot of governments."
Since the IOC constituted environmentalism as the third pillar of Olympism in 1995, four summer Olympic hosts have taken on the mandate: Sydney, Athens, Beijing, and now London. With one exception, they define a green trajectory that's rising fast.
Sydney's Olympic construction broke new ground in resource conservation nearly twenty years ago with respect to the planning and development of innovative technologies to rehabilitate an industrially contaminated site at Homebush Bay. The athletes' village used certified sustainable timber and rooftop photovoltaics, recycled wastewater, and morphed post-Games into market housing. Sports venues made significant use of recycled materials, and collected rainwater for irrigation. And if the most sustainable building is the one already built, Sydney gets points for using existing facilities for yachting, swimming, and soccer events.
For some years after the Games, Sydney's Olympic Park was condemned as a white elephant that had conferred little lasting benefit on its host city. It turns out the park was just a late bloomer: Its transition, according to Cashman, was poorly planned. In recent years, use of the site has increased rapidly; events at the stadium are on the rise, the Olympic Village—now a residential neighborhood—has tripled in size, 685 new apartments are being completed this year, office buildings are attracting quality long-term tenants, and parklands continue to be developed in sensitive ways. "Sydney Olympic Park has become a place within the broader community," says Cashman.
The 2004 Games in Athens, alas, dropped the torch. The most significant of the few environmental gains from the Athens Olympics is an improved public transit system. Apart from that, "Athens is well behind Sydney regarding the environmental performance of the Games," Nikos Charalambides, executive director of Greenpeace Greece, reported at the time. "The distance from environmental excellence and sustainability is so vast that Athens is disqualified from this race."
According to reports from another monitoring organization, the World Wide Fund for Nature, construction of Athens's rowing center caused irreversible damage to wetlands and coastal habitats, new roads laid natural mountain areas open for future housing development, water and waste management showed no improvement over conventional practice, and construction technologies showed no environmental innovation. Surprisingly for a country that markets its sunshine, green energy at the Athens games totaled close to zero. And eight years later, the Helliniko Olympic Complex and Agios Kosmas Olympic Sailing Center are front runners in the white elephant category.
With the Beijing Olympics, the green curve resumed its rise. When the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) conducted an independent evaluation, it concluded that Beijing had achieved, if not exceeded, many of its impressive bid commitments, and that, in addition, "a lasting environmental legacy has been left in terms of new energy-efficient and eco-friendly buildings and venues."
Notably, the Beijing athletes' village achieved LEED Gold certification under the USGBC's Neighborhood Development pilot program, creating what UNEP calls a "people-oriented, healthy, comfortable, and energy-saving environment." But the legacy of the sports venues is less clear. PTW Architect's award-winning Water Cube, which retains 90 percent of its solar energy to heat the pool and building, has become the Happy Magic Water Park, a family playground and tourist attraction. Herzog and de Meuron's iconic Bird's Nest boasts photovoltaic arrays and rainwater collectors, but it also deploys vast quantities of structural steel to do nothing but stand about looking pretty. If handsome is as handsome does, a building with so much embodied energy needs to do a lot, but for now the Bird's Nest's post-Olympic responsibilities seem little more than hosting tourists and off-season soccer teams. The Sydney experience suggests we will need to wait and see.
And so on to London. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has certainly done its homework, with more environmentally focused planning and measuring than we've seen at any summer Olympics yet. For the first time, an independent body, the Commission for a Sustainable London (CSL), has been appointed to monitor the commitments and achievements of the Olympic delivery organizations, and to report its findings to the Olympic Board. Additionally, "excellent" ratings under the BREEAM building assessment system are mandated for all permanent buildings.