Missile launchers on a council tower block, a 1,500 seat McDonalds and security conscious staff handing out plastic bags to any visitor who has a liquid, are not the kind of things I associate with being green.
However, the Games are such a mix of environmental upsides and downsides that I can’t claim to have any easy answer.
Can the world’s biggest sporting jamboree really go green in a city like London?
It all depends on how you interpret the question.
Compared to previous events, you could say that London 2012 will definitely be the greenest yet.
Sydney’s Games twelve years ago still hold the record with solar panels for 2,000 homes, wetlands for natural water recycling and recycling of 60-90% of the construction waste. Athens and Beijing never really overtook those achievements.
London 2012 almost certainly surpasses their achievements, though many of London’s most green features are a bit geeky. Our Olympic Park might not have its wind turbine, but organisers achieved much more to reduce the climate change impact of the Games by building clever, lightweight stadia with reused and recycling materials.
Just by measuring their carbon footprint and working sustainability into every decision, they leapfrogged Sydney and created a new international standard – ISO 20121 – that all major events should follow. The Commission praised this work as groundbreaking.
Another way of thinking about this “greenest games ever” tagline is from the point of view of international visitors. What will green minded sports fans from Berlin and Sydney make of London when they visit the Games?
When people travelled to Beijing the big story was the filthy air pollution, turned into thick visible smog by their unforgiving climate. The record breaking deluge of rain has so far saved us from breaching European legal limits this year, but if we do enjoy a glorious spell of summer sun, then spectators could be confronted with a smog alert similar to the one issued during the weekend of the Royal Wedding.
It caused an air pollution episode that tipped London over its annual limit for bad air days a third of the way through the year. The Olympic Route Network, designed to speed sponsors and athletes around the capital, is predicted by Transport for London (TfL) to make little difference to the problem, but much depends on whether Londoners heed the Mayor’s advice and reduce their travel during peak times.
Sports fans from the continent will hopefully arrive by train, buying Eurostar tickets when they buy their event tickets and travelling around London by public transport. But I’ve discovered that visitors stepping off the tube, Overground or DLR may well come out onto a sunny platform only to see all the lights on full blast, for want of a light switch.
At least spectators will then walk into a lovely new park, replete with 300,000 wetland plants, 2,000 native trees and, we are promised, the best possible recycling facilities. Oh yes, and the 1,500 seat McDonald’s restaurant. The organisers have done a lot to promote Fairtrade products and sustainably sourced fish, and I am assured that McDonald’s have signed up to all sorts of improved standards. They even changed their minds and responded positively to the pressure from myself and others to have free range poultry.
Of course, any fast food chain is the wrong sort of sponsor for a sporting event which aims to promote healthy lifestyles, especially amongst young people. If Disney can ban fast foods from advertising on its channel, then surely the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will follow suit by excluding them and Coca-Cola from future sponsorship contracts.
The IOC controls much of the sponsorship for the Games and the arguments over the presence of Dow & other controversial companies shows the need for a more rigorous set of ethical criteria. An approach endorsed by the London Assembly.
Most Brits will probably see a much greener park and sporting event than they’re used to, but visitors from much more environmentally conscious cities might not be so impressed.
The recycling bins on the Olympic Park raise a third question: have these games greened London? The idea was that we would get brand new waste and renewable energy facilities in east London to take all that recycling and power the Games. Sadly, the organisers have depended on firm action from the Mayor and the Government in order to deliver their promises. That action has been lacklustre at best.
The Mayor’s aspiration for a plastic bag free London by the time of the Olympics, has come to nothing. Plastic bags will be handed out at Olympic gift shops and from other vendors, which can’t be recycled in any of the Olympic Park waste facilities. Most of the waste will go to Bedfordshire for recycling, and in place of a renewable energy revolution we have 9% of the electricity from renewables and some low energy lighting rigged up to Tower Bridge.
One final thought. Are the Games essentially un-green? Even if they meet their carbon footprint reduction targets, staging the Games will still have a greater footprint than the entire population of any of the boroughs bordering the park. It works out as equivalent to a year’s carbon dioxide emissions from 320,000 Londoners.
Obvious causes spring to mind: blame spectators flying in from the other side of the world, and stadium floodlights blazing away through the night. But half the emissions actually came from building all the venues, not to mention the resource consumption. So if we wanted to keep hosting these extravagant Games every four years, the greenest option would be to tour around four or five cities that already have everything in place.
Looking to the future, a combination of IOC reform, along with a more active government and mayor transforming the city, London 2028 really could be the first green Games ever.