Air, Forest, Natural Resources, Oceans, Plastic Pollution, Public Lands, Sustainability

The Environmental Impact of Hosting the Olympic Games

Antonio Aguilera

ELR Staff Member ’23
(he/him)

Every 4 years, the Olympic games fill news coverage with the accomplishments of remarkable athletes from all over the world. Unfortunately, the environmental impact of these games often does not grab national attention, failing to bring awareness to one of our world’s biggest problems. Every four years, Olympic committees and organizers stress that protecting the environment is a top priority yet too often fail to live up to that guarantee. Two recent Olympics – Sochi and Pyeongchang – demonstrate how the pledge to keep the environment a priority can often go by the wayside.

PyeongChang

Significant environmental damage from Pyeongchang came from the deforestation needed to accommodate the games’ ski events which destroyed thousands of trees and displaced many protected animals. Also, Pyeongchang winters do not usually get snow, thus requiring artificial snow to host most events. Reports estimate that between 90-98% of the snow used at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was artificial. To produce artificial snow, large quantities of water and energy are needed, and the chemical composition of that snow can alter the environment and ecosystem where it is used. The South Korea Olympics’ environmental effects were severe, yet they were likely not as extreme as the Olympics in Russia four years prior.

Sochi

Sochi is another example of a host city that needed to build entirely new infrastructure to host the Olympics. The construction process led to illegal waste dumping into water conservation areas and the destruction of animal migration trails, as well as parts of the Sochi National Park. These practices have had detrimental effects on the communities surrounding Sochi, including their inability to get clean water. Furthermore, most of the venues built specifically for the winter games are sitting idle, rotting away.  These local environmental impacts from Sochi were devastating, and the global effects were not any better.

Global Effects

Climate Scientists do not think you can fully document all the carbon emissions from the Olympics – the games’ impact is far too large. For the Sochi Olympics, officials estimated the Olympic games would directly emit 360 kilotons of carbon dioxide, with another 160 kilotons of emissions coming from the travel of spectators and athletes. However, the emissions estimates did not consider the massive construction effort needed to allow Sochi to host the games. Estimates from PyeongChang Olympics believe the games emitted roughly 1,590 kilotons of greenhouse gases. The amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere is incalculable. Fortunately, it appears a new era of environmental accountability is upon us, although there are still significant flaws.

The Tokyo Olympics last July were the first to truly make the environment a legitimate priority. This effort included using sustainable materials in almost every facet of the event, including the procurement of 150% of the needed carbon credits (a permit allowing the holder to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide) to offset greenhouse gas emissions. However, critics argue that while carbon offsetting is welcomed, this idea generates a false sense of security because nothing is really being accomplished. The progress made by the carbon credit program is significantly slower than what is needed to mitigate the effects of climate change. Other environmental issues have also arisen. For example, it is reported that a significant portion of the wood in the new stadiums came from Indonesia through deforestation, and it is unclear whether that was factored into the Tokyo sustainability analysis. Issues like this failed to grab national headlines, which focused only on the positive steps taken by Tokyo to protect the environment, not the unwelcome environmental problems caused. Nevertheless, Tokyo will likely end up being “greener” than past Olympics and the effort to make the Tokyo Olympics green has been commendable.

Striving to improve further, the IOC has announced that by 2030, the Olympic games will be climate-positive, not just climate neutral. Organizing committees will be required to minimize and compensate for their direct and indirect emissions and implement zero-carbon solutions for the Olympic games and beyond. However, this leads to more questions and concerns. For one, there is no enforcement mechanism to make sure countries follow through on this pledge. Sochi has demonstrated that the pledge to be “green” can be hollow. Olympics locations are decided almost a decade in advance, and at that time, many countries do not have the infrastructure needed to host the games. The IOC has not laid out how it will ensure host cities meet the required steps mandated in their new plan. If a country fails, will the IOC cancel the Olympics? Not likely. Will the IOC move the Olympics? That would be a logistical nightmare. One solution would be to pick host cities with the necessary facilities to hold every event to eliminate the need to construct large new facilities. However, this would prevent many countries from showcasing themselves to the world.  So, while the announcement by the IOC Is welcome, skepticism remains about its likelihood of success.

Thus, the goal for people who care about the health of our planet should be to ensure that host countries keep the environment the main priority. It is then vital that each Olympics’ positive and negative effects on the environment are widely reported to ensure accountability from the IOC and selected host nations.