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How to make Olympic climate dreams a reality

In the race against accelerating global warming, the 2024 Paris Olympics will not get the games past the finish line, our analysis finds. The only solution is to rethink and reform the mega event

The world’s greatest athletes assemble in Paris this summer to compete in the Olympic Games. However, this coincides with a race against time in which we all are running. As the climate continues to heat up, we must take into account business as usual practices, even the things that unite us, including the Olympics.

Our report: ‘Going for green: assessing the climate strategy and communication of the 2024 Paris Olympics’ doesn’t intend to spoil the party. Our aim was to scrutinise the strategy and highlight the necessity of rethinking the concept – for the sake of a sustainable continuation of the Olympics.

In 2015, Paris also played host to the landmark climate agreement to reduce emissions enough to ensure that the 1.5°C temperature barrier would not be hurdled. 

Unfortunately, with record temperatures being broken routinely, humanity stands perilously close to smashing through this barrier into uncharted territory. The warming planet has worrying implications for everyone, including the Olympics itself. Forecasts suggest that athletes and spectators may well experience a pounding heatwave during the event, a warm up for what is to come.

Paris Olympics v Paris Agreement

Organisers have placed climate considerations front and centre of their agenda for the games. But how do the climate aspirations of the Paris Olympics measure up against the climate goals of the Paris Agreement? 

A carbon budget was set of 1.5 million tonnes CO2 equivalent, a figure that is about half that of the estimated footprint of the 2012 games in London (3.3 million tonnes) and the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro (3.6 million tonnes). However, whilst this appears at first glance to be a bold and commendable target, it has not been substantiated as to whether or not it is compliant with the 1.5°C parameter, nor whether this is calculated by slashing emissions or via offsetting.

Although the sustainability strategy is well intentioned – and many of its actions are welcome – it fails to kick out of the starting blocks effectively by failing to tackle the most problematic aspects of the current model. 

The fact that the vast majority of competitors and spectators fly in to attend the games (over 40% of the Paris 2024 carbon budget are indirect emissions from transport and other sources) outweighs the impact of strong Paris 2024 policies that apply reuse, repurpose and recycle principles to construction (which accounts for around 30% of the carbon budget), and the planned high availability of plant-based food (around 1% of the carbon budget).

Likewise, allowing polluting companies with strong links to fossil fuels, such as Aeroports de Paris, ArcelorMittal, AirFrance and AccorHotels to stand atop the Olympic podium, despite less than stellar climate records is conveying the wrong message. Future editions must step away from the smoke pillowing messaging of these businesses, to grandstand those that promote positive climate and social responsibility. 

That being said, it is far from all being bad news. The games deserve praise for their more honest approach to climate communications. Unlike FIFA’s greenwashing of the 2022 World Cup, the Paris Olympics took a step back from its initial grandiose expression of a climate neutral, or even climate positive, event to a watered-down slogan of “in tune with society and its realities.” 

A sprint, not a marathon

Making the games compatible with 1.5°C clearly requires a courageous change of course and the principled sustainability pledges made by Paris 2024 are a leap in the right direction. 

In our report, we have opened a conversation on what is essential for a remodelled event. One that doesn’t require all athletes to travel to one city, that doesn’t stretch transport networks to their limit and generates new, short-term and purpose-built infrastructure. For example, why not assign different sporting disciplines to different countries while restricting physical access to attendees who can reach the games over land?

Imagine the exciting prospect of athletics events held in Mexico City, aquatic sports in Buenos Aires, team sports in Nairobi, combat sports in Seoul, racquet sports in Warsaw, cycling sports in Ankara, gymnastics in Jakarta, and so on. 

Such a model would drastically reduce the environmental impact of the games, it could also substantially increase the number of people who get to experience the Olympics in-person, boosting the reach of fabled Olympic values.

Conversations must happen hastily. Otherwise the flame of the Olympic torch we pass on to future generations will burn their fingers rather than their path.

This article first featured in BusinessGreen on 17 April 2024

Author

  • Gavin Mair

    Gavin is a member of the communications team. He formerly supported the work of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, and held responsibility for media output and office management for two MEPs prior to Brexit. He is an experienced campaigner, relishing the challenge of communicating for causes that have a social and environmental impact and is motivated by CMW’s mission of holding businesses and governments to account as they move towards essential environmental ambitions and transitions. When not fighting the good fight Gavin can typically be found enjoying live music or attending to his houseplants.

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