I get asked this several times a week, and there isn’t an easy answer. Colleagues on London Assembly committees and the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 have both spent years scrutinising the organisers’ delivery on the green promises.
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. This summer might not be all that different. Spectators could be confronted with a smog alert similar to those one issued during the weekend of the Royal Wedding, caused by an air pollution episode that tipped London over its annual limit for bad air days a third of the way through the year. The Assembly found that the Olympic Route Network, designed to speed sponsors and athletes around the capital, is predicted to make the problem worse and could land us with a hefty fine.
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 a 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. But they have refused to commit to free range poultry, so despite my efforts to persuade them and a recommendation from the Assembly’s environment committee visitors might end up eating factory farmed chicken burgers. After all those TV chef campaigns you would think we could manage this basic protection of animal welfare?
Visitors will make their own minds up. 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. 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.
With a more active government and mayor transforming the city, London 2028 really could be the first green Games ever.
Jenny Jones represents the Green party on the London Assembly