Photo: David Suzuki Foundation's Olympics campaign lives on in Rio

Credit: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

By Paul Lingl

Last night, while watching the Rio 2016 Olympics, I was reminded that the David Suzuki Foundation's work can sometimes have unexpected ripple effects. A case in point: DSF's 2010 Olympics campaign, and how it's influenced subsequent Olympics, large companies and even governments.

Our goal in 2010 was to not only make the Vancouver Winter Olympics carbon-neutral (i.e., no net climate impact), but to use the unparalleled platform of the games to inspire Canadians — as well as a global audience numbering in the billions — with climate solutions.

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We started our campaign by conducting a detailed forecast of the greenhouse gas emissions from the Vancouver Olympics. Based on this information, we made a number of recommendations to the Olympic organizing committee, VANOC, about why they should make the event carbon-neutral.

We also published research showing that winter sporting events may not even be feasible if we don't do something about climate change. The report appeared prescient in light of an unusually mild winter that left the ski slopes bare during the games, requiring snow to be brought in by truck.

One of the highlights for us in the lead up to 2010 was launching the Play It Cool partnership with more than 70 Olympic athletes, all of whom voluntarily reduced their own climate impact. These athletes added a strong voice to our campaign and together we called on VANOC to up its game around climate change.

As a direct result of these efforts, the 2010 Winter Olympics set several important precedents with respect to measuring, reducing and mitigating climate impacts. For example, instead of just tracking emissions during the few weeks around the actual games (as Salt Lake City and Turin did), VANOC looked at the entire seven years of its operations after winning the bid. They also included emissions sources that are typically ignored, such as from the construction of venues and spectator air travel (usually the largest source by far). Vancouver was also the first Olympics to select an official carbon offset sponsor, and to make its torch relay and all athlete travel carbon-neutral. VANOC also made some effort to engage its sponsors and the public around climate solutions.

In the end, we awarded the 2010 Olympics a bronze medal for its environmental performance, as we believed VANOC could have done more to raise the profile of climate change. Our news release was covered by media outlets from around the world, demonstrating a growing public expectation that large organizations and events should take responsibility for their climate impacts.

Although our campaign focused on the 2010 Winter Games, it's had a much broader influence. Several major 2010 Olympic sponsors became carbon-neutral. The Olympic host province of British Columbia also used the games' example to become the first jurisdiction in North America to make all of its operations carbon-neutral, and now the Government of Canada is considering following suit. Our Play It Cool program helped inspire more than 500 NHL hockey players to reduce their climate impact. And, many of the sustainability initiatives we called for in Vancouver have since been implemented at subsequent Olympics, including Rio.

Rio 2016 has itself raised the bar further by looking at the emissions associated with producing souvenirs, food and other games-related products. Significantly, the opening ceremony put climate change front and centre. As the Rio organizers noted, "Vancouver 2010 showed the importance of engaging people to adopt more sustainable behaviour in their daily lives."

The Olympics has made a lot of progress in reducing its environmental footprint. It still has a long way to go. But all of us at DSF are proud of the role we played in raising the environmental bar for the Olympics staged in Vancouver, and that our work has lived on elsewhere.

August 16, 2016

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