With this year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit set to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark un environmental conference in 1992, John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, looks for the Olympic Review at how the Olympic Movement has proactively responded to environmental challenges over the last two decades.
The epic United Nations (UN) Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 had a major impact on the Olympic Movement and, over time, changed how the Olympic Games were planned and staged. That meeting of world leaders in Rio was the largest the world had ever known. Nearly every country took part and everyone pledged to act to protect the oceans, the air and the forests. It set a new global agenda and it changed the way we all now think about the economic development that protects the environment and the non-renewable resources of the planet.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) changed too. It set up a Sport and Environment Commission following the Olympic Congress in 1994. Two years later, a binding commitment to environmental responsibility was made by amending the Olympic Charter, making the environment the third “pillar” of the Olympic Movement, alongside sport and culture. In addition, in the early 1990s the IOC incorporated environmental questions into its candidature documentation for cities bidding to host an Olympic Games. Potential hosts were asked to provide information on the meteorological conditions of their city, together with information on how environmental protection would be managed. Then, in 1999, the IOC set its own “Agenda 21” for sport and sustainability, in response to the invitation that the Earth Summit organisers addressed to all government and non-government organisations. The IOC’s Agenda 21 laid out the general principles for the Olympic Movement’s policies and programmes associated with sport, sports events and environment-related initiatives.
"Green Games" in Sydney
As concern for the world’s resources and biodiversity continues to grow, so the bar is set higher every year and cities introduce more and more sustainable and environmentally-friendly initiatives. When Sydney, Australia, was awarded the 2000 Summer Games, it pledged to host “green Games”. Its solar-powered Olympic Village was the world’s largest solar suburb at the time, and was later sold as public housing. The organizers also reduced and recycled water in the Village, reduced their carbon emissions and improved public transport in the cit y.
These, and many other environmental initiatives implemented by the Sydney organisers, became the benchmark upon which future organisers would work to ensure that their Games would be as environmentally-friendly as possible.
The 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, built upon the work of Sydney, with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) widely applauding the regional government’s measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, minimize water use in snow-making and promote eco-friendly hotels.
Beijing improved public transport
In the lead-up to the 2008 Games in Beijing, the city spent over USD12billion on public transport initiatives, scrapped 50,000 polluting old taxis and 10,000 buses, planted 30 million trees and bushes, and invested in revolutionary new waste water treatment works. Over 200 factories switched to cleaner production systems, and a large number of power plants and factories were relocated. The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada were an example of how respect for and commitment to the environment could be embraced and integrated into planning. New buildings were warmed by heat generated from raw sewage and rainwater was harvested to flush toilets.
More sustainable practices in Vancouver
Local communities were consulted regarding the post-Games usage of the venues and construction provided training opportunities and employment for indigenous persons and those struggling to obtain work. Although organisers did not manage to divert as much waste as they had hoped during the Games, the lengths to which they went to enshrine sustainable practices into their plan was recognised as setting a new standard for city development.
In addition to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, this year is also London’s turn to fly the Olympic flag and in 2005 it pledged to host “a truly sustainable Games”. The city won its bid partly on its commitment to regenerate one of the most deprived and heavily contaminated areas of Europe, recycling and reusing as much on-site waste material as possible, to create a new and vibrant part of the city with increased job opportunities, transport infrastructure, open parklands and accessible sporting venues.
London 2012 is on track
According to the Commission for a Sustainable London (CSL) 2012, the independent body set up to monitor delivery of a sustainable London Olympic Games, the organisers are on track in nearly every area. Ethical sourcing, social inclusion and diversity, professional training, community involvement and waste and water targets have all been met, in some cases spectacularly.
London’s Olympic Park is also recognised as an excellent example of sustainable construction. Nearly 1.4 million tonnes of contaminated soil have been cleaned and reused, carbon emissions from buildings in the park will be 50% below standard, and minimal waste materials from the site have been sent to landfill.
More than simply a two-week celebration of sport and culture
Building upon the achievements of previous Olympic organisers and the vision and long-term objectives formulated by the Host City, the Games are not simply a two-week celebration of sport and culture but rather a longer movement for sustainable responsibility and achievement.
To be successful, says the IOC, the staging of an Olympic Games must be used as a catalyst for change. The Games can change thinking and attitudes, inspire people and in particular the young people, be an example for other cities, set new standards and create a legacy of physical and social improvement – revitalised, and/or new and improved sites, enhanced infrastructure, increased environmental awareness, and improved environmental policies and practices.
Sport as a tool in pursuing the UN Millennium Development Goal
The official UN observer status granted to the IOC in 2009 offers an important platform for the IOC and the sporting community to use sport as a tool in pursuing the UN Millennium Development Goal 7, which refers to environmental sustainability.
This June, 20 years after the world leaders went to Rio and signed up to protect forests and reduce climate emissions, the heads of state will return to Brazil for what will be – outside the 2012 Olympic Games – one of the world’s biggest meetings this year. For the sporting world, this represents an opportunity to reiterate its commitment to promoting sustainable development through sport.