Several people have asked me if the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics will be the greenest games yet. The answer may be yes — if we're talking about the abundance of greenery and lack of snow brought on by record high temperatures during one of the earliest spring seasons the city has experienced.
With respect to environmental impact, all Olympic Games leave a very large footprint. Thousands of people flying in from all over the world, along with local transportation and the infrastructure that must be created, mean a lot of carbon emissions get spewed into the atmosphere.
What many people may not realize is that, along with sports, the Olympic movement has two other official "pillars": culture and the environment. People in Vancouver have seen evidence of the cultural pillar, with an amazing line-up of music, theatre, and other cultural events for the Cultural Olympiad.
Vancouver Olympic organizers have also tried to reduce the environmental impact of the 2010 Games. For example, venues and infrastructure have been built using energy-efficient technologies, clean-energy sources will be used for many aspects of the Games, and carbon offsets will balance out a significant portion of the emissions from the Games. As a result of these and other initiatives, the 2010 Olympics are expected to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than previous Winter Olympics.
But that doesn't mean the Vancouver Olympics are as green as they could be. In fact, we may eventually have to rethink our approach to such global mega-events if we are serious about reducing the impacts of climate change, particularly as the very future of winter Olympics depends on having winters cold enough to sustain snow and ice.
We hope that future host cities, and the IOC itself, will learn from the lessons of the 2010 Olympics. For example, despite an emphasis on public-transit use during the Games, the Vancouver Olympics will leave the region with few long-term improvements in sustainable transportation. Instead, the highway up to Whistler was widened at a cost of $600 million. And so far, 2010 Olympic organizers haven't made the most of opportunities to tell the story of their climate initiatives to Canadians and the world. Because so many people will be focused on the host city, and because climate change is a defining issue of our time, the winter Olympics offer an unparalleled opportunity to inspire billions of people around the world with solutions to global warming.
The IOC itself must also play a stronger role to ensure that Olympic organizers take the environment seriously. A look back at previous Olympics shows remarkably varied performances regarding the environment, with the Athens 2004 Games standing out in particular for their weak environmental record. The IOC should set minimum environmental benchmarks so that every organizing committee has clear targets to meet — or exceed. Such benchmarks would also allow successive Olympic Games to be assessed and compared and opportunities for improvement to be identified.
The IOC should also put in a place an external monitoring body for each host city to ensure that standards for addressing climate impacts are upheld. For example, the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 was created to increase accountability of the London Olympic organizers with respect to their sustainability commitments.
And because not all host countries have the same financial means, the IOC could create an environmental fund, with financing from media-rights revenues or other sources. The fund could help less wealthy countries to incorporate environmental considerations into their games, and to invest in long-term environmental and social initiatives in their regions.
Of course, environmental initiatives around Olympic Games are a shared responsibility. For the Vancouver Games, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, the organizing committee, and other organizations are all accountable when it comes to ensuring that the Games themselves are green and that they leave a lasting legacy for the region.
The Vancouver Olympics have demonstrated that climate change initiatives, such as green venues and clean energy, are not only doable but affordable and can leave lasting legacies for host cities. Future Olympics can and should raise the bar even higher by finding ways to reduce their climate impact and inspiring their worldwide audiences with climate solutions.