Rio 2016: How Sustainable are The Olympics?

Olympic fever is upon us. With each edition of the Games, we see cities attempting to raise the bar on sustainability and energy efficiency. Here we take a look at the two most recent editions (London and Beijing) and what we can expect from Rio.

The Energy of the Olympics

It’s that time again…

International lycra-wearing, torch-bearing superhumans get together in one city. Pushing physical and psychological limits. Launching themselves and medieval objects around in the name of sport, competition and national pride.

Olympic fever is upon us!

The Olympics is all about ENERGY. From the symbol of the the Games – the Olympic flame – to the incredible energy of the athletes driving themselves to break personal records. The energy of the spectators, willing on their fellow countrymen and women. Years of energy in planning and preparing for one of the biggest sporting events in the world. And with an event of such scale comes a big impact on our planet.

The Olympics needs a huge supply of energy. Rio 2016 is expected use 29.5 GWh of energy, 5.6 million litres of fuel and will generate 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 (over 1.5 times Rio de Janeiro’s normal monthly CO2 emissions)1. From lighting and powering each venue, to the opening ceremony, broadcasting, backup systems…Not to mention all the transport from people travelling to the Games. 

In 1994 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) established a Sport and Environment Commission, and the environment became the third dimension of Olympism alongside sport and culture. The environment is one of the criteria for evaluating the bids from host cities.

With each edition of the Games, we see cities attempting to raise the bar on sustainability. Here we take a look at the two most recent editions: London and Beijing, highlighting some key achievements and challenges in terms of energy and sustainability, and what we can expect from Rio, surrounding a lot of controversy on its environmental impact.

London 2012: “Greenest Games Ever”

The London 2012 Games were regarded to be the greenest games ever, succeeding in reducing the carbon footprint of the event, and cutting energy consumption by 20%. Although it fell short in other aspects, such as not meeting renewable energy targets.

An Olympic Energy Management System: For London’s Games, the official energy supplier, EDF teamed up with Applied Works to create a live dashboard of energy use (called ‘Visi’), which was accessible to the public. It showed energy consumption for all the main venues, drawing data from monitoring equipment installed in the buildings. It contained features to show how external factors such as weather influence energy consumption and highlighted how sustainable design aspects like natural ventilation impact on consumption and costs. It’s an impressive example of converting huge amounts of data into an engaging user interface, aimed at both non-technical users as well as energy professionals.

Sustainable Olympics - London 2012 Sustainability Dashboard

Visi dashboard. Source.

The Velodrome, containing the indoor cycling track, was the most energy efficient venue at the London 2012 Games. It used innovative design features, with the designers taking inspiration from the bicycle itself – “an ingenious ergonomic object, honed to unrivalled efficiency”. By maximising on natural ventilation and natural lighting, the venue achieved an energy efficiency improvement of 31% over standard building regulations.

For an interesting overview, the London 2012 Energy film is a short film about the role of energy services and operations supporting the London Games.

Beijing 2008: “Green & Sustainable Olympics”

Beijing underwent an energy overhaul in preparation for the Games, to reduce its dependence on coal and improve energy efficiency and air quality…A big task, being one of the world’s most polluted cities. In the run up to the Games it closed factories and enforced strict emissions and traffic controls, taking half the cars off the road.

Although the Beijing Games received bad press, being touted as “the most polluted games ever”, it succeeded in achieving many environmental targets – phasing out ozone-depleting HCFCs, improving energy efficiency, and transitioning to cleaner energy and renewables (20% of total energy of the venues came from renewables).

Energy efficiency standards were implemented for all new buildings. The Olympic Village buildings use half the energy of similar buildings in Beijing, and served as a development example for the rest of the city and country. Government offices took the lead in energy conservation and a result of these measures, energy consumption in Beijing dropped significantly. The “Water Cube”, the National Aquatics Center, represents a showpiece in sustainable design. The building is covered in plastic bubbles that absorb natural sunlight to heat the pool, reducing energy needs by 30%.


Sustainable Olympics - Beijing Olympics Sustainability statsData source: UNEP Independent Environmental Assessment Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

Beijing and its environmental policies will again be the focus of attention as it hosts the Winter Olympics in 2022.

And now, let’s take a look at Rio 2016…

When Brazil won its bid in 2009 to host the 2016 Olympics, it pledged to host environmentally friendly “Green Games for a Blue Planet”. However, since then it has failed to follow through on its promises.

The preparations for Rio 2016 have been filled with controversy and setbacks. In December, the temporary power provider Aggreko pulled out, coming as a major blow to the organisers and Rio missed its deadline to find a clean energy supplier.

The Olympics acted as a catalyst to push through some of Brazil’s mega-infrastructure projects, providing a deadline to improve energy supply and transportation in the country. But in the case of Brazil improving energy supply comes with major costs to people. The construction of the Belo Monte dam, the third-largest hydroelectric dam in the world, has been surrounded by controversy for its human rights violations against indigenous communities.

In terms of pollution, Rio is set to be in second place for the most polluted Olympic host city, after Beijing, and there has been major concern over the water quality of Guanabara Bay for the swimming, sailing and rowing events.  

Sustainability was one of the themes of the opening ceremony, a low-key affair compared to other ceremonies, reflecting the current economic conditions and aiming to be “a low emission cauldron”, but with a segment dedicated entirely to climate change.

The Winners and Losers of Sustainability Medals

The Olympic Games carry a huge environmental burden, in terms of water and energy consumption, pollution and carbon emissions. Sustainability is an increasingly important focus for the event. Aside from the sporting feats, the Olympics offer an opportunity for the host country to break sustainability records. With the attention of the world focused on one city, there is pressure to show its “green credentials”. We see new innovations in green building and energy efficiency which can be applied to cities and countries the world over.

And when promises fail to be realised, it’s a stain on the environmental reputation of the city and country. When we look at Rio’s failures to meet its sustainability promises, at least it shines a light on the problems of the country.

These are not only issues for the athletes, but problems that the Brazilian citizens have to face every day. The Olympics bring international awareness to the challenges faced not only in Brazil, but around the world, and we hope that this prompts action towards improving the health of citizens, the environment and the climate.

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(1) Carbon Footprint Management Report Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games October 2014