Are “carbon-neutral” Olympics possible?

How can countries break new environmental records at sporting events? Li Taige considers the lessons learned during the Beijing Games and sees progress emerging from the Olympics.

The Olympics have finally drawn to a close, but debate over the “Olympic legacy” continues. 

In an article for chinadialogue last year, I suggested that air quality during the Olympics would not be an issue because the Chinese government had both the desire and the means to implement any necessary measures at any price.  

In accordance with my predictions, during the Olympics air pollution reached a 10-year low. The International Olympic Committee lavished great praise on Beijing's green efforts. But all we want to know is if it will last. 

People are also asking whether or not the Beijing Olympics were “carbon neutral”. 

In terms of this point, it is useful to note that it is hard even to find an accepted definition of carbon neutrality. Nevertheless, for the Beijing Olympics we could say that it means taking a range of measures to cancel out the extra greenhouse-gas emissions created during the event.  

The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin and the 2006 World Cup in Germany already provided models of climate protection for large sporting events. 

According to an environmental assessment issued by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in November 2006, the Turin Winter Olympics caused the equivalent of 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) to be released, of which 70% were offset through investment in power-saving and renewable energy projects in Italy and tree-planting in Kenya.  

The organisers of the World Cup said the event emitted 92,000 tonnes of CO2, with 100,000 tonnes offset through clean energy projects in India and South Africa. This made it the first ever carbon-neutral World Cup.  

As a developing nation, China does not have the same obligation to reduce emissions as developed nations such as Italy or Germany. But the international community still hopes to see some action taken on climate protection from the Beijing Olympics.  

In October 2007 a UNEP report called for the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) “to openly declare a commitment on climate change and offsetting.” 

According to a report in Caijing magazine, BOCOG did not respond directly to this request. However, government authorities did subsequently calculate the carbon balance sheet for the games.  

The initial results of these carbon calculations were revealed by China's science and technology minister at a press conference of the State Council in May 2008. During the Games, he said, the equivalent of an extra 1.18 million tonnes of CO2 would be released. However, a range of “green Olympics” measures, including technological fixes, tree-planting and restrictions on vehicles, would reduce emissions by between 1 million and 1.29 million tonnes in order to make the Games more-or-less carbon neutral.  

Those calculations also showed that the single most effective emissions-reduction measure was the two-month long restriction on private vehicles on Beijing’s roads. This measure alone would cut carbon emissions by 850,000 tonnes. Technological solutions, such as the installation of solar panels at Olympic venues, were of relatively limited impact.  

It is still hard to say if the Games will actually be carbon-neutral. After all, large quantities of data cannot be confirmed until after the Paralympics have concluded. It will be several months before we have final environmental impact reports from the Chinese government and UNEP.  

There is also considerable disagreement over just how to calculate emissions, as well as which measures can be classified as offsetting carbon production.  

Interestingly, just after the Olympic Games, the British Embassy in Beijing issued a press release saying that the 2012 London Olympics would aim to be the first “sustainable” Olympics, setting new standards for reducing the impact on the the climate.  

This statement could be understood as saying that London does not consider the Beijing Olympics to have been “sustainable” and is not yet convinced that emissions have been offset.  

But carbon neutral or not, the 2008 Games will leave a valuable legacy, the benefits of which are not just limited to Beijing.   

As Greenpeace said in its report on the Games, After the Olympics: lessons from Beijing: “Many of Beijing’s environmental initiatives have set a good example for other Chinese cities to follow.” 

For instance, in a report in Energy Policy, Wu Lisong and colleagues at the Circular Economy Institute at Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University described the Olympics as having accelerated Beijing’s efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Indeed, between 2001 and 2006 the capital reduced emissions by a total of 80 million tonnes of CO2.  

The Olympics also have been accompanied by an increased awareness of climate change among both Chinese government officials and the public.  

Beijing’s neighbouring province of Hebei has shut down a number of energy-hungry and polluting factories and is pushing forward with the development of clean energy sources such as wind power. Ji Zhenhai, head of the provincial environmental protection agency, wrote in the Hebei Daily that these measures will both improve the air in Beijing and promote the reduction of carbon emissions, laying the foundation for a shift to a low-carbon economy.  

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) saw the Beijing Games as the ideal opportunity to promote issues of climate protection. The Environmental Defense Fund’s China office, the China Association for NGO Cooperation and BOCOG worked together on a “green travel” project encouraging the use of public transport and car-sharing. Using an online calculator, participants are able to calculate the CO2 they would save. 

In my opinion, all these changes are more important than the supposed carbon neutrality of the Games themselves.

Li Taige is a Beijing-based journalist. He obtained a master’s degree in engineering from Sichuan University in 1997 and was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003-04.

Homepage photo by guidofoc