How green are the Tokyo Olympic Games?

Organisers of the Tokyo Games say it will be the “greenest-ever Olympics”, but experts warn some sustainability measures are insufficient

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Tokyo, this year’s host for the Olympics, is aiming to be the greenest-ever Games. Even the slogan – “Be better, together —For the planet and the people” – is climate-friendly.

Organisers have said they will use sustainable materials where possible, from stadiums to accommodation and even the medals, which will be made from raw materials harvested from “urban mines”, such as mobile phones, and the podiums will be fabricated from recycled plastic, according to the sustainability plan for the Games. Athletes will sleep on cardboard beds, which will be recycled after the event. The mattresses are also fully recyclable.

Hydrogen, which emits no carbon dioxide when burned, will be used as fuel for the Olympics torches and cauldrons.

But researchers and campaigners have warned that some of the pledges may amount to greenwashing and that certain sustainability measures are insufficient.

“While the attempts of organisers are laudable, unfortunately more work needs to be done in order to ensure that the words and deeds are more in line,” Sven Daniel Wolfe, a lecturer in urban geography at the University of Lausanne, told The Independent.

Wolfe is one of the authors of the first long-term analysis of the sustainability of the Olympics, which concluded that sustainability ratings, measured by economic efficiency, ecological impact and social justice, have decreased since 1992.

He said that most mega events start out with big sustainability pledges, but these are often overshadowed by the overwhelming pressure to deliver an impressive spectacle.

Organisers of the Tokyo Games should be given credit for their focus on sustainability and prioritising supply chain transparency, he said.

Stadium wood linked to deforestation

Campaigners, however, say there are major issues surrounding the procurement of sustainable materials for the Games.

One of the Games’ main timber suppliers, Korindo, has cut down tropical rainforests in Indonesia and allegedly illegally stolen land from local communities, according to the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). 117,000 sheets of Korindo timber were used to build the new Olympic stadium in Tokyo.

“The stadium comes with the terrible cost of habitat loss for orangutans and other critically endangered species, along with massive human and workers’ rights abuses,” according to RAN’s campaign which calls for a deforestation-free Olympic Games.

“Much of the Korindo wood supplied to the Olympics was linked to rainforest clearance, and included the clearing of critically endangered orangutan habitat and as well as peatlands”, Emma Rae Lierley, forest manager at RAN, told The Independent. “Korindo also has an extensive record of illegal practices.”

RAN has submitted six complaints to the organisers, local government and Japan sports council about the environmental concerns surrounding Korindo wood, but these were all rejected, said Lierley.

Major sponsors of the Games, including instant noodle giant Nissin and Japanese megabank SMBC, are also fueling deforestation and the climate crisis, according to RAN.

Zero-emissions Olympics

Organisers have pledged that the Games will be net-zero carbon emissions.

“As a major global event, the Olympic Games have a responsibility to reduce emissions and be a catalyst for sustainable development,” Yuki Arata, senior director of sustainability for the Tokyo Olympics, said in a statement.

Organisers say carbon emissions generated at the Tokyo Games will be significantly lower than the carbon footprint of both the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The Tokyo Games will emit no more than 2.73 million tonnes of CO2, compared to London’s 3.3 million tonnes of CO2 and Rio’s 4.5 million tonnes of CO2. This was calculated before overseas spectators were banned from the Games due to the pandemic and therefore the final carbon footprint is expected to be even lower.

Zero-emissions transport will be used throughout the Games, including fuel cell electric buses, battery shuttles and hydrogen-powered trucks.

“It is the first zero carbon Olympic, they are saving energy as much as they can using energy efficient measures, and using 100% renewable energy for operating the Olympics, and using carbon offsets with strict environmental guidelines set by the committee,” said Masako Konishi, climate project leader at WWF Japan and a member of the Tokyo Games sustainability committee.

When renewable energy isn’t used, carbon emissions will be offset via a specially devised programme. Offsets allow companies to compensate for their emissions by financing carbon-cutting projects, such as tree-planting and energy efficiency measures. But campaigners say that in many cases offsetting doesn’t lead to a reduction in overall emissions and doesn’t lock carbon away for thousands of years.

Konishi told The Independent that the Olympics’ carbon offsetting scheme is set within strict environmental guidelines, is validated by an independent audit agency and avoids double counting. 150% of carbon credits have already been collected, making it the first-ever zero carbon Olympics, she said.

A new Olympics model

The lack of overseas spectators at this year’s Games will greatly reduce the event’s carbon footprint, said Wolfe, adding that it could pave the way for a new model. “If we drop the stadium numbers, perhaps that can be a way to help ecological sustainability moving forward,” he said.

62% of people in Japan are against the Tokyo Olympics taking place this summer, according to a poll from June.

“If the hosts don’t want to have the party, why are the guests all insisting on coming?” Wolfe said.

“No one wants to say goodbye to the Olympics. But what we’d like to see is Games that are less injurious and fun for everyone, for the hosts, cities, residents and the environment,” Wolfe said.

“Until we address the underlying business model of these events, real sustainability will remain a dream,” he said.

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