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Winter Olympics 2014: a missed opportunity to advance sustainability

 
Sochi Winter Olympics

Are the corporate sponsors of the Sochi Winter Olympics missing a big opportunity to advance sustainability globally? Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Winter Olympics 2014: a missed opportunity to advance sustainability” was written by Adam Aston, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 4th February 2014 17.30 UTC

The Sochi Winter Olympics, which opens 7 February, was meant to be the greenest Olympics ever. The budget was certainly there: Russia has doled out more than $51bn, an all-time record, to make the event happen.

Yet reports of serious environmental problems have been piling up for months. The UN and World Wildlife Fund have called out Russia over construction practices that damaged the region’s pristine natural ecosystems.

And in October, the Associated Press reported it had found mountains of construction debris in an unlicensed landfill, indicating Russia had broken its promise to make the games zero waste. And, ominously, environmental activists have reported being harassed by officials. It’s a discouraging prelude to the games.

Yet I wondered if there might be a silver lining to be found amid the sustainability commitments made by the game’s corporate sponsors.

After all, while the credibility of the Russian organizers’ on these issues has all but melted away, the corps of 10 worldwide sponsors includes major global brands, many of which have made deep, long-standing commitments to sustainability.

My findings? With one dramatic exception, the games’ deep-pocketed sponsors have done too little to promote sustainability as an element of their efforts at Sochi.

The games’ worldwide sponsors are a familiar lot, including six iconic US brands, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, General Electric, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Visa; two Asian electronics giants, Japan’s Panasonic and South Korea’s Samsung; and two European companies, France’s Atos and Omega from Switzerland.

This top-tier level of sponsorship, rumored to cost at least $100m per four-year cycle, is far from trivial. And given the International Olympic Committee’s growing emphasis on sustainability – the past two games in London 2012 and Vancouver 2010 are considered the greenest ever – these sponsorships seem an ideal platform in which to mix a high-profile sustainability push.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be happening. For this exercise, I mined online press material and related documentation and emailed each company. Only Dow replied with detailed information. Here’s what I found:

Dow: Sochi’s “official carbon partner”

In a first for the games, chemicals giant Dow has pledged to offset the organizing committee’s entire direct carbon footprint – including greenhouse gas emissions from operating the games’ venues, as well as from travel and lodging for all athletes, staff and volunteers – as well as the estimated travel footprint of all spectators and media attending the Olympic events and the Paralympic Games, scheduled for March.

Dow estimates it will offset emissions equivalent to 360,000 metric tons of carbon-dioxide for the organizing committee, plus 160,000 metric tons for spectators and media. For perspective, the total estimated 520,000 metric tons is equivalent to removing approximately 102,000 cars from US roads, or neutralizing a year’s worth of direct and indirect emissions from 10,800 US homes.

Dow is offsetting these emissions with a mix of completed and ongoing projects, principally in Russia, but also in Brazil and South Korea, which will host the next two Olympics, and other regions. These include farming enhancements, such as low-till farming methods; building efficiency gains via better insulation and other technologies; and industrial upgrades. In the US, Dow is deploying a share of the verified offsets generated from capturing and recycling methane at a waste dump in Georgia.

The broad portfolio of projects, Dow claims, meets international standards and the International Carbon Offset and Reduction Alliance Code of Practice, the global benchmark for offsets. “Dow’s initiative represents a significant step forward in terms of sustainability for one of the world’s main sporting event,” according to a company statement.

GE and turbine power

The only other sponsor with a clear environmental angle to its Olympics pledge is GE. The conglomerate is supplying two very high efficiency “aero-derivative” gas turbines to help power the games. The units, which will provide both base load and peak load power to the Olympics village and venues, feature GE’s latest emissions technology.

 

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