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London 2012: The World's First One-Planet Olympics
Alex Steffen, 1 Dec 06
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The Olympic Games have had from the first a worldchanging mission. They spring from the desire of many in the late 1800s to see young men devote their energy to the pursuit of excellence rather than war. And for all the plastic patriotism which attends them today, they remain a cosmopolitan affair, in the true sense of that word. The Olympic ideal is, at its very core, an acknowledgment that we all live on the same planet.

In six years, the 2012 London Olympics will broaden that cosmopolitan perspective to include a deeper sense of planetary responsibility, for London has committed itself to holding the first "one planet" games.

Like tourism, major events are both big business and high-impact. Visitors spend tens of billions of dollars a year (estimates vary widely) at conventions, sporting matches and cultural events. Luring those big-spending crowds involves massive ecological impacts: land use changes to prepare the sites, greatly increased energy use, food and souvenir vending (with attendant resource use and waste creation), accommodations, and air travel. One study, of the Football Association cup game at Cardiff's Millennium stadium, found that the ecological footprint of the event meant that an area equal to about one fifth of the area of Cardiff would be needed every year to produce the ecological goods and services to hold a single day's game on a sustainable basis. And the number of big events is growing. In 2001, the US alone had 1,800 major conventions attended by 12.5 people.

London made the idea of a "One Planet Olympics" a centerpiece of its successful Olympic bid

"We want our One Planet Olympics to be the most complete and sophisticated expression of sustainable development ever delivered on a city-wide scale. We want it to benefit not just London and the UK, but to be a credit to the Olympic Movement as a whole.“ --Lord Coe

Now many worldchangers are watching, wondering if it can indeed follow through on such a lofty goal.

I was in London in September, poking around, and I had the chance to talk with a number of people both then and afterwards about the upcoming 2012 "Green Games." The jury, as you might expect, is still hung on whether the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) can actually, well, deliver on its promises.

Here's some of what's going on so far:

The ODA has partnered with some impressive groups, including WWF, BioRegional and London Sustainability Exchange.

Planners are working on reducing CO2 emissions by using green building techniques and renewable energy sources -- indeed, almost all the new facilities will be high-performance green architecture.

As the athletes and officials travel to the Games, London will offset all of the greenhouse gasses they emit. New investments are being made in public transit and travel to the games by private automobile will be severely restricted.

The entire Olympic Park, planners hope, will both restore some biological function to the area (in other words, provide for wildlife habitat and more natural water flow) and help improve the surrounding communities after the Games are over. The Lea Valley will become one of the largest urban parks created in Europe in over a century.

The Olympic Park will be powered by a giant, "iconic" wind turbine

They are even plans to regenerate London's East End

The difficulty comes in the implementation. Transport is a challenge. Provision of food (100 mile Olympics, anyone?) is a bigger task Even more daunting is the waste generated by the construction of massive single-use facilities, and the energy embodied in many structures and objects which will be used once and then tossed or remodeled. Since so much of the impact of the Games is manifest in these temporary constructions (in a life cycle analysis sense), a great deal of effort will have to be made elsewhere to mitigate that impact.

But many Londoners seem eager to take on that challenge. Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone said,

"I am determined that the Olympic and Paralympic Games helps to make London a more sustainable city. Future London: Footprints of a Generation offers an inspiring insight into how we can 'green' our lifestyles and our city. By making informed choices about how we live our lives now we can help avert catastrophic climate change. London is already establishing itself as a leading 'green' city - we all need to build on this success to build a better future for us all."

As London is already embarked on the beginning stages of what could become one of the most ambitious efforts anywhere to retrofit a city for sustainability -- from encouraging pedestrians to building eco-estates to charging congestion taxes -- it would seem well poised to really deliver on a One Planet Olympics, indeed, to turn such an effort into a tool for reducing its citywide ecological footprint.

According to those I spoke with, the biggest need, at the moment, is information. The documents publicly available are slim in particulars, and a few of the Brits I spoke with said the ODA is far from transparent in its workings. It's difficult to tell if the Games will truly be sustainable, in large part because it's not entirely clear what the ODA has planned. In addition, others point out, ecological footprinting is still a rough and inexact science, and much work remains to be done on evaluating the merits and harms of various products, materials and practices.

The best thing in the world the ODA can do is to throw the whole process open to the sunshine of international public scrutiny and, in the process, harness the energy of people everywhere who are working on figuring this stuff out. If it is brave enough to put its commitments to the test in public, the Games will improve -- and the learning curve it meets in trying to reach its goals might well prove more valuable than the actual ecological savings themselves. The 2012 Games can become a massive classroom for learning how to live well within the limits a finite planet places upon us.

In 2012, the eyes of the world will be on London. Let's hope that part of what we see is a sustainable future emerging.

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Wow. that sounds awesome. I'll need to stop by there in... oh... 6 years or so. I just hope this doesn't make already expensive London totally unreasonable.

Posted by: Andrew on 2 Dec 06

Alex well knows my scepticism on this front - and events since we chatted here in Sept aren't raising my optimism.

Procurement of the Olympics is going down a 'design and build' route which means that the contractors, not the client, will be making the final decisions about design and cutting any corners necessary to bring the Games in on time and with their healthy profit intact. And one wind turbine does not power an entire Olympic Park, unfortunately.

With the cost increases becoming increasingly controversial here (up from £2.4bn to around £5bn at the last count) and a deadline for completion that can't be moved, I feel the Olympics has other priorities that being green. They will do what they can with offsetting, but I think we all know that isn't adequate compared to building in carbon reductions through design, for the long-term.

Don't believe the greenwash hype, just yet.

Posted by: Hana Loftus on 3 Dec 06

I posted a comment yesterday which seems to have been removed. Whilst critical it wasnt insulting.

Posted by: Gus Abraham on 7 Dec 06

Ad hominem and insulting comments are removed.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 7 Dec 06

It seems odd that if you want to have a critical debate you remove such a comment. My remark was just that there is a great deal of evidence that the Olympics in general just can't be ecological events.

For example they will be building huge stadia that have no real life-span. There is no need for an athletics stadium that seats 80,000 in London, so it wil have to be built then knocked down. Meanwhile the spiralling cost of the Olympics and Wembley stadium (£1 billion and over a year late) has to be considered.

I'm all for the regeneration of the E End of London but many commentators are now thinking that the Olympics will be a costly and grandiose mistake.

Posted by: Gus Abraham on 8 Dec 06

"In 2001, the US alone had 1,800 major conventions attended by 12.5 people."

Um, what? The article you link to says 11,800 conventions attended by 12.5 million people.

Posted by: Peter on 11 Dec 06

Apologies for being a bore, but this seems to rather back up my concerns...

"It would be far better to invest in one shining regeneration project, even if modest, than to attempt to cure all London's ills by chucking money about like some wildly generous drunk. Imagine, for example, if the Olympic team were able to build just one happily confined new London district. Handsome, compact, flood-proof homes, sheltered from the bitter winds scything through the Lea valley, connected to arcades of shops and useful services, served by public transport and within walking distance of schools and worthwhile jobs." More at:,,1970891,00.html

Posted by: Gus Abraham on 13 Dec 06



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