Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Has the London Olympics really gone green, and what can the Gold Coast Games gain?

For seven years, the London Olympics Organising Committee has been striving to live up to the sustainability vision it set itself. It’s been a long, honest fight. On the eve of the Games, how well have…

Green innovation: the upper compression ring of the Olympic Stadium main roof truss is made from 2,600 tonnes of surplus gas pipes. London 2012

For seven years, the London Olympics Organising Committee has been striving to live up to the sustainability vision it set itself. It’s been a long, honest fight. On the eve of the Games, how well have they done?

The case was made for a sustainable London games and Paralympics back in 2005, based on WWF’s Vision of a One Planet Olympics.

The London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) has tried to instill sustainability into every facet of construction and delivery. The Committee set sustainability objectives, standards and tools. There is even a powerful watchdog on the LOCOG — the Commission for a Sustainable London (CSL).

It’s not easy being green

Despite the commitment, failures in delivery have already attracted a good deal of attention. The most conspicuous is in energy, where the CSL criticises the lack of an effective plan. The renewable energy target will not be met, because a wind energy project was cancelled, and the carbon footprint will not be reduced by much.

London does not meet all EU air quality standards. This together with the need to cut greenhouse emissions prompted the development of impressive public transport infrastructure and links. However, diluting this is the provision of 4,000 cars to transport the “Olympic family”; and congestion on an ageing road network could still pose a problem. Rail transport from Europe is being encouraged. But the greenhouse emissions of international travellers are not accounted for and will be only marginally ameliorated by carbon taxes and airline offsets.

Sustainable fuels such as biogas could have been used much more for combined heating and cooling. Instead, fossil fuels will be prominent; 169,000 litres of diesel be used in power generators. The indirect energy consumption of offices and operational sites will be around 25 million kWh, sufficient for town of about 160,000, drawn mainly from the grid.

Materials reuse is very low. While nothing reaches the dump, recycling isn’t a perfect solution: it costs money and uses energy.

Some PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which contains the dangerous pollutants cadmium, lead and phthalates, is still being used on site; and some cooling systems still use HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), a powerful greenhouse gas. LOGOC makes the point that that future event organisers need to engage suppliers early to ensure safe alternatives are available.

The sustainability of Olympics sponsors is one of the trickiest “green Games” issues. Sanjeev Gupta/EPA

CSL has also criticised the sustainability of merchandise. By last month only one games partner, Adidas, had disclosed the location of its factories. And the consequences of appointing the Dow Chemical Company as an Olympic Partner have rebounded and continue to dog games organisers, taking the focus off achievements.

Delivering a physical legacy for some purpose built venues may be a headache. How will they attract users and revenues?

Games’ green achievements

It is inevitable that in a project of such ambition and scale there will be failures; but when measured against the impressive successes they seem relatively minor.

Some parts of the Olympic complex have been very well planned. The block that housed the construction offices is to be taken over by games administration; then post-games it will become commercial. The games village will become sustainable housing. And a 20-year programme will follow to deliver new homes and development to the precinct.

A hundred hectares of the Lower Lea River Valley, once a degraded industrial area, will be transformed to parkland, with an emphasis on encouraging the return of biodiversity.

But perhaps the most impressive of the green initiatives is the commitment to sustainably-sourced supplies. Sea freight and delivery by rail and water are mandated. Paper consumption is minimised. No food packaging will go to landfill and all food waste is to be composted. Water reclaimed from sewage is used for irrigation and toilet flushing. Moreover, all timber used in construction was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Much food will be from certified sources. The fish with your chips — whether from ocean, river or ponds — will be Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified; London became the first “sustainable fish city”.

Facilities built in the Lea Valley are planned to benefit the community in the long-term. London 2012

There are no less than 100,000 contractors involved in supplying the games, and all of them are subject to sustainability standards and tests. Innovations wrought among suppliers are expected to have a lasting effect.

Socio-economic implications

An outstanding feature of the games planning and execution is the integration of physical with social and cultural objectives. The lower Lea Valley is being regenerated not just physically, but socially and economically.

There has been an alarming rise in obesity and an increase in inactivity in the UK. Thanks to the Olympics, local people now have facilities on their doorstep. Schools and communities are being encouraged to participate in physical activity and sport.

Thirty thousand out-of-work Londoners have been assisted into jobs. Targets for employment, with hiring free of discrimination, have been largely achieved. The training the unemployed receive should help them get post-games jobs.

But is the outlay of £9.3 billion (add blowouts and legacy costs) worth it? While good for business, it’s the taxpayer who’ll bear most of the burden.

The real cost is the opportunity cost. What else could £9.3 billion plus buy? What would have been the benefits if the money had been invested directly in the renewal of east London and lifestyle programs across the UK? Such autonomous programs would not have the added appeal of the olympics — a positive externality — nor would there have been the boost to tourism revenues. It will be fascinating to see the results of retrospective economic analyses.

Challenges for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games

What are the implications of London for other major events? The Rio Olympics in 2016 is confronted by a high bar; but more comparable with London is the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018. However, the Gold Coast’s games bid is more about the Gold Coast being open for business than about sustainability.

Such a sunny city: with a focus on renewable energy, the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games could outdo London 2012 for sustainability. Patrick Hamilton/AAP Image

Environmental targets are mentioned in Gold Coast’s bid, but none are actually specified. Motherhood rules, rather than standards and tools; the One Planet Principals are simply stated to be “very relevant”. When it comes to renewable energy there is no games target, simply a reference to the existing Australian government’s objective (20% of electricity from renewables by 2020).

Yet the delivery of renewable energy presents an ideal opportunity to outdo London. The Gold Coast boasts 287 days of sunshine a year, has good wind, and there is plenty of time to organise the production of biofuels.

Another obvious opening is to make sure the millions of meals to be served by licensed vendors are sustainable. As in London, all eggs, poultry and pork could be sourced from RSPCA certified farms. Furthermore, the Gold Coast could grasp the opportunity to become Australia’s first sustainable fish city. Such innovations would make for good publicity — as well as leaving a lasting legacy.

But does the Gold Coast have the vision?

Join the conversation

16 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    'Sustainable' food and transport for a two-week event? What exactly does 'sustainable' mean here?

    Is there a possibility the term - like 'terrorist' or 'rights' - has lost potency through overuse?

    report
    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James,
      There is a lot of food consumed and toing and froing in the period of the games. I don't know how many visitors the Gold Coast Games will get but the London Olympics expects 10 million. I reckon this will mean at the very least 10 million meals and huge people miles.
      The RSPCA has set its sustainability criteria and is certifying farms in Australia. Many more will be certified by Games time. Likewise it will be good to know we are not eating shark with our chips.
      Sustainable transport means cutting greenhouse gas emission and reducing congestion through developing public transport, and the use of biofuels where appropriate. A good move is that the light rail extension will be up and running on the Gold Coast in the not too distant future. These kind of intitiatives have lasting benefits.

      report
    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Colin Hunt

      Thanks for the considered response Colin!

      I'm just trying to get a handle on the term 'sustainable'. Does it mean the environment 'lasts longer' in some sense - and can this be pinned down? Does it entail balancing the needs of humans against the needs of the environment? (So although the use of biofuels may have a negative impact on food supply, this is a price we have to pay?)

      report
    3. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James,
      You ask very apt questions.
      The word 'sustainable' has been much abused.
      I prefer to define what I mean every case, if I have the room. 'Ecologically sustainable' is likely very different from 'economically sustainable'. Again, its necessary to look at the externalities of ecologically sustainable initiatives. For example, the subsidy on ethanol in the US has had negative socio-economic impacts.

      report
  2. Bruce Moon

    Bystander!

    Colin

    I appreciated the 'green' overview of the London Games your offered.

    I am less impressed with the link to the Gold Coast.

    Both you and I know that there is no possible way that either the State or Gold Coast City Council (GCCC) will foster environmental attributes. As you rightly point out, the Commonwealth Games are about profiting from spectacle.

    As a Gold Coast resident, and having spent many years in conflict with GCCC over environmental issues, I can say with much experience…

    Read more
    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Bruce Moon

      Bruce,
      I take your advice on light rail versus buses.
      But I guess the buses would be using fossil fules too.
      And light rail will still move a lot more people per tonne of CO2 than cars, and reduce congestion costs, and that's something.

      report
    2. Bruce Moon

      Bystander!

      In reply to Colin Hunt

      Colin

      Actually NO.

      If one assesses just the use of fuel to transport X people, then the most fuel efficient mode wins.

      However, if instead one assesses the energy cost needed to get the fuel to the mode of transport, then the outcome can be quite different.

      And, further, if one also factors in the energy embedded in the mode of transport 'regime' - that is the rolling stock, the structures & equipment needed to enable the rolling stock to move, and the maintenance of same - the outcome can be quite different altogether.

      Irrespective of whether the base fuel is coal or refined crude, the energy lost to produce electricity is significant. The network grid 'loss' to transport same is also quite high. The corrosion caused by rail fines is often overlooked. The only real benefit of light rail is that it does not produce harmful emissions in the urban area. Instead, smokestack emissions mean that non urban society takes the brunt.

      Cheers

      report
  3. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    It is wonderful that we have come so far that sustainability has a seat at the table, and even better that cruelty gets a mention ... without actually getting a mention. RSPCA is concerned with cruelty first and foremost.

    But it's a little depressing that the way the term sustainability has been butchered. Anything is sustainable if hardly anybody does it including shark fin souple and blue whale stew. Without specifying a quantity, categorising a method of production as sustainable is misleading…

    Read more
    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff,

      The debate on sustainability could be very lengthy indeed.

      Meanwhile, we have a Gold Coast Games, and my aim is to encourage the Organising Committee to adopt a green vision now and follow up soon with green targets.

      The benefits and enjoyment of the Games will certainly be eroded by a business as usual approach.

      report
    2. Geoff Russell

      Computer Programmer, Author

      In reply to Colin Hunt

      All credit to you for trying.

      But sustainability can tend to focus on problems in inverse proportion to their importance. E.g., food miles. Run the numbers, its not hard to calculats that I can eat vegan food air freighted from any where on the planet and have a lower greenhouse gas footprint than a person eating beef grazed and slaughtered in their back yard. Similarly with plastic bags. One in every so many million plastic bags ends up in a sea animals guts ... obviously bad. But if you carry a million fish in a million plastic bags, then for each and every so and so many fish, there will be bycatch with a rate not infrequently 1 to 1. ie., what's in the bag counts far more than the bag.

      Most of our planetary impact is determined by WHAT we eat, that's the big issue, the small issue is how it is produced or transported.

      report
    3. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Robert,
      I am sure many share your cynicism.
      However, one can be circumspect about not just the Olympics but our resource and evironmentally hungry lifestyles and supporting economies.
      At least the Olympics has set some green examples and if these are taken up by the wider community then we will better off than if no attempts been made.

      report
    4. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      Geoff,
      Your comments highlight the need to examine "sustainability" claims in the widest sense. What are the postitive and negative externalities, long term and short term?
      Fish is a good example. Our state and commonwealth authorities are just beinning to address the issues of bycatch in their assessments of "sustainable" fisheries.

      report
  4. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    The whole idea of a green Olympics games is absurd. A cynical exercise is marketing, relying in illusions of goodwill and patriotism, to sell some of the most wasteful products. A drive for spectating over participation, to watch athletes who call themselves heroes in their greed quest for 'gold' as a marketing potential to sell more wasteful products.
    The Olympics has become as black and wasteful as it possibly can be and not amount of green washing will change that.
    Honestly if you want green sporting events, then the push should be for local participation, with the focus on enjoying the game, not on winning and on on marketing.
    The cheer of the modern athlete, "it's not lying it's acting" when they put their names to the most wasteful products in pursuit of money. The Olympics died sometime last century, want to make it greener, then bury the zombified marketing machine that it has become.

    report
    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      Robert,
      I am sure many share your cynicism.
      However, one can be extremely circumspect about not just the Olympics but our resource and evironmentally-hungry lifestyles and supporting economies.
      But the Games and large events are going to happen.
      At least this Olympics started with a vision and set some green targets, and if these are taken up by other events and the wider community then we will better off than if no attempts to modify environmental impacts had been made.

      report
  5. Michael Maloney

    Supercheap Self Storage at Supercheap Storage Gold Coast

    I was in London last year during the Olypmics and I was able to catch some of the games all over the place. It was so timely since I have a friend who moved from the Gold Coast to London the year before. He managed to secure tickets for us in almost all of the games. We found it exhilarating to be in the crowd cheering, even some games we were not that interested. It is just the vibe of being in the crowd cheering and looking at die hard fans jumping and down if their favorite player or team has scored points. I was also observing on how the committee organized the entire event – human traffic flow, storage of sports equipment, and the like. It is very interesting to view it from a spectator’s point of view. An experience for me!

    report