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Olympics Planners Ignored Environmental Measures

by Sanjay Suri

Greenest Olympics Games Ever? Not! (2002)

(IPS) ATHENS -- The scorching sun of Athens would suggest this might be more the place to think of global warming than Salt Lake City where the winter Olympics of 2002 were held. It has turned out to be just the other way round.

For the first time, the environmental cost of holding an Olympics event was calculated at Salt Lake City in the United States and more than compensated. But such a move has not even been considered in Athens within a European Union regarded as far more progressive than the United States in matters environmental. This too has been a move the other way round.

Environment groups had figured that the winter Olympics would generate about 120,000 tonnes of carbon, mainly through travel to and from the Games for the visitors and the athletes, and the energy consumption at the events. The organizers sought out environment groups and worked with several companies for donation of emissions cuts that added up to more than 300,000 tonnes.

These cuts meant that the companies took demonstrable measures to cut use of fossil fuels or to save energy that would lead to a reduction of the 300,000 tonnes or so of carbon into the atmosphere. The methods of cutting emissions and measuring the cuts are in some dispute. But allowing even for wide margins of error, the organizers seemed to have basis to claim that those were the first carbon neutral Games.

The Athens organizing committee did not even think of doing anything like this. "Carbon? You mean like carbon at the Games?" an Olympics spokeswoman at the media center in Athens asked. She had not heard of such a thing. It was clearly not a matter that the organizers had felt the need to brief their spokespersons about.

"Clearly this should have been done," Anthony Fields from the environment group WWF told IPS. An emissions compensations package should have been a part of the Olympics Games, he said.

WWF produced a report recently showing how the Olympics had failed to keep its declared commitment to the environment through the Games and preparing for them. On most counts it found the Greek performance "very disappointing." WWF did not rate the Athens Olympics on emissions because this was a track the Greeks never said they would step onto.

Taking the Salt Lake Olympics as a yardstick, the emissions from the Athens Olympics are likely to be far higher. There is a much larger participation, for very many more events, and athletes and visitors will be covering far bigger distances. Heavy use of airconditioning in temperatures around 35 degrees C will also mean a higher release of hydrofluorocarbons, which are proportionate to volume far more harming and warming than carbon emissions.

A simple calculation offered by the environment group Future Forests suggests that an athlete travelling from New York to Athens and back will cover 15,854 km and burn 1.74 tonnes of carbon dioxide as his or her share of emissions in the course of the flight. The athlete should plant two trees or supply two energy saving bulbs to someone in a developing country to make his or her share of the flight carbon neutral.

The Athens Olympics are expected to draw well over a million visitors, including many thousands of journalists. Emissions arising from domestic travel will be fewer. But the Olympics mark the largest international gathering and carbon neutral Games would make for a strong symbolic and substantial statement.

By contrast the Beijing Organizing Committee of Olympic Games which is arranging the 2008 Olympics has declared that it is "committed to a zero net emissions Games, where Beijing will minimize emissions of air pollution associated with hosting the Olympics, and obtain offsetting emissions reductions in sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and other pollutants from projects and programs in China as well as through emissions trading markets around the world."

The Beijing Games are engaging several U.S. companies for building green designs and energy systems into designs for the next Olympics. As a member of the EU, Greece is committed to the Kyoto Protocol under which specific steps have been agreed to reduce emission of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, that cause global warming. But China which is also a party to the Kyoto protocol seems to be taking it far more seriously.

The U.S. efforts at Salt Lake City and again for the Beijing Olympics coupled with the Greek failure to observe the Kyoto protocol at the Olympics have only strengthened the arguments of the Bush administration that steps can be taken in the cause of the environment without having to sign the protocol.

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Albion Monitor August 10, 2004 (

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