A ‘Green and Clean’ 2022 Olympics?
As China undertook the multifaceted challenge of hosting the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games upon the slopes surrounding the megacity of Beijing, the sporting world and global spectators were assured Beijing 2022 would be a ‘green and clean’[i] event. This follows the continued drive from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ensure sustainability is a priority of future Olympic and Paralympic Games, as sport globally is adapting to increasingly uncertain futures resulting from global climate change. Beijing 2022’s pre-games sustainability report illustrated measures to ensure the games remained low-carbon, implementing procedures to reduce and compensate for carbon emissions associated with both hosting representatives of competing nations and facilitating each event. The report also emphasised a drive to protect native species through strict conservation in competition zones, whilst integrating sustainability requirements into resource sourcing procedures and processes, and guaranteeing Olympic venues would be powered exclusively by energy from renewable sources. In addition, Beijing 2022 committed to using five existing ‘legacy venues’ from Beijing 2008, therefore only constructing two new venues which prioritised sustainability in both construction and subsequent operation. To further emphasise Beijing’s commitment to being ‘the greenest games ever’, a ‘micro-flame’, termed by the games’ creative director Zhang Yimou, replaced the Olympic flame’s usual fiery cauldron, reinforcing the notion of Beijing 2022 being a low-carbon, environmentally friendly games.
Despite such optimistic sustainability goals and practices, an inherently unsustainable process grabbed the headlines of the 2022 games, the generation of artificial snow to account for the lack of precipitation in the Beijing region. Reports state 100% of the snow competed on throughout both the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games was artificially created, increasing from 80% used in Sochi (2014) and 98% in PyeongChang (2018)[ii], explicitly illustrating an ever-increasing reliance on man-made snow to allow the games to take place unhindered. Declining availability of natural snow is not limited to regions hosting the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, as snowsport hotspots across the globe are experiencing declines in snowfall and increased snow melt correlating with increasing global temperatures resulting from the effects of climate change. Although artificial snow solves the issue of reduced snow availability in the short-term, the production of such snow generates a longer lasting climatic impact and wider sustainability concerns. Such sustainability concerns are emphasised by the approximate 49 million gallons of water needed to create the artificial snow required to support Beijing 2022[iii], a scarce resource in a region already tackling water shortages[iv]. The process of transforming this water into snow is also an incredibly energy intensive process, employing the use of 130 fan driven snow-generators[v] working around the clock to produce and cool the desired surface, although powered by renewable energy sources this still generates a vast energy demand. Once created artificial snow also entails negative consequences for soil, through compaction, ice layer creation and delay in plant decomposition, and negative impacts on vegetation, predominantly relating to changes regarding inputs of water and chemical ions[vi]. A further environmental issue that drew significant attention during Beijing 2022 was the relocation of a Chinese forest in order to create space for artificial ski slopes, bobsleigh, luge and skeleton runs. The location of this infrastructure, in the middle of Songshan nature reserve in Yanqing, required the displacement of approximately 20,000 trees[vii]. The Beijing Olympic Committee assured onlookers that these trees would be transplanted into a mountainous area north of the city. However, biologists argue constructing ski slopes in this region violates environmental protection laws created by the government[viii], whilst damaging biodiversity by severing deep interconnections within the forest ecosystem, plus removing or altering habitats of protected species, including that of the golden eagle. Moreover, Dr Carmen de Jong explained to BBC News[ix] that the removal of topsoil also increases the risk of erosion, landslides, and water pollution. However, Professor John Mackay from the University of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences said the initiatives enacted by the Chinese government were ‘much better’ than usual outcomes when nature and development intersect which is often to ‘do nothing’, with further experts arguing if forest transplanting on this scale is successful significant lessons can be learned[x] for the future of sports venue and wider infrastructure construction.
Beijing 2022 in many ways has shown progress in global sporting events prioritising sustainability, through committing to low-carbon initiatives, putting an emphasis on carbon offsetting, promoting the use of ‘legacy venues’ and protecting flora and fauna in host cities. However, Beijing 2022 also offers a glimpse at the future of snowsports and subsequent Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, becoming reliant on energy intensive artificial snow creation to ensure suitable surfaces, resulting from uncertainty regarding snowfall and snowmelt as a result of climate change. As such, the global community must come together with a community-dedicated mindset exemplified within the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games to collaborate in addressing and tackling the very issue that threatens winter sports, global climate change, by building a sustainable future both within sports and for sports.
Written by Will Gregory, Royal Holloway, University of London, MSc Sustainability and Management Student.
[i] International Olympic Committee (2019) Beijing 2022 Committed to Hosting “Green, Inclusive, Open and Clean” Games. Available at: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/beijing-2022-committed-to-hosting-green-inclusive-open-and-clean-games
[ii] De Guzman, C. (2022) ‘What Artificial Snow at the 2022 Olympics Means for the Future of Winter Games’, Time, 8 February [online]. Available at: https://time.com/6146039/artificial-snow-2022-olympics-beijing/
[iii] Ungoed-Thomas, J. (2021) ‘Mounting Concern Over Environmental Cost of Fake Snow for Olympics’, The Guardian, 6 November [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/06/mounting-concern-over-environmental-cost-of-fake-snow-for-olympics
[iv] Wang, L. Gao, J. Zou, C. Wang, Y. and Lin, N. (2017) ‘Water Scarcity in Beijing and Counter measures to Solve the Problem at River Basins Scale’, Earth and Environmental Science, 94, pp.1-8.
[v] Edaward, D. (2022) Why Artificial Snow at Beijing’s Winter Olympic Could Have a Chilling Environmental Impact. Available at: https://www.itv.com/news/2022-01-28/why-artificial-snow-at-beijing-olympics-could-have-chilling-environmental-impact
[vi] Rixen, C. Stoeckli, V. and Ammann, W. (2003) ‘Does Artificial Snow Production Affect Soil and Vegetation of Ski Pistes? A Review’, Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 5(4), pp.219-230.
[viii] Cyranoski,D. (2015) ‘Chinese Biologists Lead Olympics Outcry’, Nature, 524, pp.278-279.
[x] The Independent (2022) ‘Winter Olympics: Is Moving Trees a Viable Solution in Making Space for New Venues?, 28 January [online]. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/beijing-winter-olympics-trees-ski-b2002210.html#comments-area